Are you pissed off a lot?
Are you the kind of person who gets pissed off in traffic? Or at the line at the motor vehicle department? I used to be that kind of person too. I didn’t realize just how pissed off I was, or how often I was pissed off — until I wasn’t anymore. I’m going to tell you the story of how I went from being angry and frustrated much of time, to being calm and accepting.
I thought traffic was the cause of my frustration.
I used to be pissed off in traffic all the time. When others would comment about how upset I was, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. How could anyone be stuck in traffic and not be pissed off??
In my mind, traffic caused my anger. It was that simple. 12 step recovery taught me that was not the problem. It was that I had subconscious thoughts that there shouldn’t be traffic. Because I thought that there shouldn’t be traffic and there was, I was frustrated and angry. This realization caused a cascade of events to occur that got rid of my anger and frustration. I learned to change my expectations and become accepting of whatever was happening. Not only in traffic, but in every area of my life. Today, I live happy, joyous and free almost all the time.
Lots of things pissed me off.
I used to get pissed off about a lot of things. Not just traffic, but the cap on the toothpaste not snapping shut. The fact that my boss was unreliable. The educational system not educating kids equitably. The corrupt political system. This is a (very) short list of examples.
I felt completely justified in my anger. I thought the problem was with the traffic, the toothpaste cap, my boss, education and politics. It turns out the root of the problem was my ideas about how these things should go. It wasn’t the actual circumstances around me. Because of these thoughts, I was fighting against reality. That fighting, that resistance to reality was the true source of my anger, frustration and resentment.
I had no idea what was going on in my subconscious mind.
The really insidious part here is that I didn’t think I had any “shoulds.” When I read that having ideas of how things “should” go leads to anger, etc., I didn’t think they were talking about me! I didn’t realize I had all these ideas about how things should be. That’s how subconscious my thoughts were. And maybe that’s true for you too. If so, reading this may help you recognize the subconscious thoughts you have. If you’re pissed off a lot like I was, you probably have them!
Here’s how drastic this change was for me.
This is how profound this shift has been in my life: In the fall of 2018, I took a 6-week solo road trip out west. It was a dream vacation. The van I rented broke down many times within the first 2 ½ weeks. It got so bad that I ditched it in Arizona. I got a different vehicle for the remaining 3 ½ weeks of the trip. I maintained equanimity throughout the trip. I accepted what was happening, even though it was not (at all) what I envisioned for this dream vacation.
So how did I go from “this toothpaste cap is ruining my life!!” to “my dream vacation is being spent in repair shops and that’s ok” ??? I stopped resisting what was happening. I accepted it. I’ll explain how in a moment.
Acceptance takes practice.
Acceptance is the simple act of going through what is facing you, be it pain, anger, despair or hopelessness. The more I practiced acceptance, the easier it got. I still sometimes have to say to myself, “Barb, this is what’s happening.” But I am much more open to what is happening. I’m no longer tied to the outcome of situations the way I used to be.
I had to stop condemning my problems.
I’ve heard that you cannot solve a problem by condemning it. Well, I was condemning these situations. Acceptance doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t have to like that there’s traffic. I don’t have to like the way the toothpaste cap works. But if I want peace, I have to learn to face what’s actually happening instead of resisting it.
Here’s what I did to cause this shift.
For years I’d heard things like, “expectations are premeditated resentments.” “Emotional pain often comes from non-acceptance” and “acceptance decreases suffering.” OK, got it: Don’t have expectations. Become accepting. How do I do this? How do I not have expectations? How do I become accepting of things I see as unacceptable??
I sought out the answers in all kinds of places. The only messages I kept finding were things like, “learn to be accepting.” “Change your expectations.” Nothing on how to do those things!
I eventually made up a process that led me to become accepting and not have expectations. The actual process itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the realizations I got from the process.
What I learned about acceptance in 12 step recovery.
What started me on this process was something I heard in one of my 12 step recovery programs. It was the saying, “acceptance is the answer to my problem today.” I had no idea what that meant, but I had been in recovery long enough to believe the wisdom of the program.
I’d already gotten a ton of relief, growth and change in recovery. It helped me in ways that nothing else ever did. I’d had decades of therapy, read tons of self-help books, done years of workshops and workbooks, retreats, etc. All those things combined didn’t come close to the healing, growth and change I’d gotten in recovery.
So I listened to the wisdom of recovery. I didn’t understand what the phrase “acceptance is the answer to my problem today” meant. But I decided I was going to cling to that. The way I clung to it was this: the next time I got really upset, I started repeating that phrase over and over in my head. “Acceptance is the answer to my problem today… acceptance is the answer to my problem today…”
From anger and frustration to calm.
What happened was miraculous. I became calm. This was mind-blowing to me! Here I was in the same exact situation — the circumstances had not changed, but I had. I was calm. Whoa!
How could that be?? If traffic was the source of my problem (as I believed), how could I be in traffic and not be pissed off? This taught me that it was my thoughts about traffic that were the source of my problem. More accurately, my thought that there shouldn’t be traffic was causing me to resist the fact that there was traffic. I was fighting against the reality of traffic. And I was losing.
My thoughts were the root of the problem, not the traffic.
What changed was the focus of my mind. I took my mind out of the situation and put it on that phrase “acceptance is the answer to my problem today.” The calmness that came over me showed me very clearly that the situation was not the problem. It was what was going on in my mind that was the source of the problem.
Acceptance even works after the fact.
Here’s the other neat trick about this whole process. I discovered that I could learn to be accepting of circumstances after the fact and it still worked! It’s unrealistic to expect there shouldn’t be traffic. After all, highways are for traffic! Realizing this while in traffic calmed me. This helped me accept the situation as it was.
Here’s another little tidbit about traffic while I’m at it. I heard someone in recovery say, “When I’m on time, everyone else is driving fine!” I realized that when I leave late and expect to be on time, I get pissed off! So I learned to leave on time, and expect highways to have traffic!
By repeatedly reminding myself of these things, I started accepting situations as they arose. The more I did that, the more accepting I became of things before they even happened. It was quite an awakening. I’m reminded of another saying in recovery about how to avoid being upset when things don’t go your way: don’t have “a way.”
If you think about the repetition I’m talking about here, it makes sense. I needed to repeat those phrases to myself for them to take effect. And I have to repeatedly practice acceptance. Acceptance happens slowly over time. It’s like creating a clearing in a field by walking the same path many times. Every time you walk the path it gets easier. Every time you practice acceptance toward something, it gets easier. Eventually, there’s a well-worn path in the grass with no resistance. Eventually, you come to accept things without any resistance.
Life on life’s terms.
Another slogan from recovery that I didn’t really understand when I first came into recovery was “life on life’s terms.” I understand the definitions of those words, but I didn’t really comprehend what that slogan meant. Now I do. I’ve learned to be accepting of traffic. And that if the toothpaste cap bothers me so much, get a different brand! And if my boss has never been reliable, I need to stop expecting her to be reliable! If I can’t tolerate it, it’s up to me to go elsewhere. It’s not her fault that I’m frustrated. I now live life on life’s terms, not life on Barb’s terms!
Once I understood that my thinking was what was causing me to be pissed off all the time, I changed my thinking. And that made me be able to take action. Actions like leave my house on time, buy a different brand of toothpaste, work for another boss, etc. But when I truly believed the problem was “out there,” I wasn’t going to do anything to change things.
Change your thinking to stop the struggle.
I’m not suggesting you like, want, or support whatever it is that you’re accepting. But by struggling against reality, resisting or rejecting it, you create anger, frustration and resentment. This also prevents you from changing circumstances that are under your control.
By learning what’s going on in your subconscious mind and changing those thoughts, even after the fact, you can change your experience. You can learn to accept things that you formerly thought were unacceptable. And you can have peace.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”