At that moment I had a choice: do I continue to be irritated with the red light situation or do I allow myself to be happy because my son is awesome? I chose the latter.
This situation caused me to think about the amount of time we spend recognizing that we allow others to influence our emotions. Someone could have easily reminded me that I am allowing the red lights to produce emotions of irritation when thinking thoughts like “I have the worst luck.” A new perspective like “these things happen” or even laughing at the red light situation would alleviate distress.
When people engage in cognitive therapy for a while, they often gain clarity about exactly how intensely their thoughts impact their feelings and behaviors. Sometimes they get to a point where they perceive a sense of control over these experiences. I have heard a number of clients express thoughts like the following:
“I went to the store and the cashier was talking on his cell phone. What a crappy employee! The unemployment rate is so high, how do people like this even have jobs. He made me so mad – wait, hmmm. I guess I let him make me so mad. He could have just found out someone was in the hospital and couldn’t take a break to answer the phone. Or maybe it was just a stupid phone call. Where did I really have to be right then and there anyhow? I could have just embraced the wait and taken a deep breath, practiced little mindfulness or something. I can’t believe I was mad at that cashier for about 2 hours! I allowed him to make me that mad by thinking the way I did!”
What about the times we allow others to make us feel happy?
Consider the following story. A man returns from a bike-ride to discover his wife had gone to the beach without him. She locked the doors and he had no keys. He wanted to join his wife at the beach, but she did not think to check if he had keys. She also did not leave his bathing suit available so that he could spend time at the beach comfortably, swim, surf, etc. “How inconsiderate!” he thinks. He feels angry. He rides his bike toward the beach. He passes a puppy rolling around in the grass and thinks, “at least the puppy gets to have fun!” A brother and sister laugh while running through sprinklers. The man thinks, “Their family cares enough to put them in bathing suits!” The sky is cloudless. The temperature runs at about 75 degrees. Acknowledging the beautiful weather, the man becomes even angrier and thinks “this is the only day I get to go to the beach and I don’t even get to wear a bathing suit.” When he arrives, his wife greets him with a kiss, asks about his ride, and hands him his bathing suit. The man continues to feel angry because he would have liked to change his clothes at the house. He also believes she should have checked with him about going to the beach so he could be part of the plans. Eventually, he calms down, but he allows the day to be a bit spoiled by the belief his wife acted inconsiderately and the morning had not gone as he planned.
You can probably see the thoughts perpetuating his anger: “she’s inconsiderate” or those that clearly have “the-day-is-ruined” undertones. How many times did the man in the story above ignore opportunities to allow others to make him happy? I count the puppy, the playing children, the weather, the fact he can ride his bike to the beach at all, the kiss from his wife, and the fact she ended up bringing his bathing suit to the beach. If you get creative, I am certain you can find others.
For one reason or another, people resist opportunities to be happy. Sometimes they know their emotions are valid, and they want to experience the “rightness” of their anger. Other times, unpleasant emotions force a needed response from others. For instance, a crying person in a rush will often get quicker reactions from others than a jovial and calm person with the same deadline. Can you think of other reasons people might knowingly or unintentionally ignore openings where happiness can enter?
Can you accept this challenge: allow others to make you happy? Can you look for opportunities where you can open a window in the wall of emotions you have created so that you can make room for a little sunshine?