Controlling Emotional Responses.
Problems are a part of life. It does not matter how well you plan or how meticulous your contingencies are. Life will find a way to provide you with an unexpected surprise.
Having a good life, then, is not about only minimizing the number of problems that you have.
It is about dealing with them well.
As an aside, having a problem-free life may actually be one of the biggest problems you could ever have. Because it means that when an inevitable problem does occur, you’ll lack preparation.
Any problem has two separate parts that affect your life.
- It will create an Emotional Response.
- It will pose a Practical Challenge
You will have an emotional response to the problem. You might feel that it is unfair that this problem has happened to you. You may experience frustration, anger, or even regret. This is especially true if the problem could have been avoided with better preparation.
The problem itself will also have some type of practical challenge that you need to solve. You don’t have the right paperwork for your flight, and now you cannot take the flight. This means that you need a solution for all the downstream effects:
- Where to stay an extra night near the airport
- Rebooking flights
- Covering the extra expense
- Canceling some other plans
- Informing other people
- And 101 other small things to think about.
People think that the first part, the emotional response, is outside of their control. Of course, I am going to get angry or frustrated when x happens, who wouldn’t?
For the practical challenges, people know that this is something they can control. Some people are better at finding practical solutions to unexpected problems.
You can control the emotional response like you can overcome the practical challenges.
This is because there is a chain of events that happen when something goes wrong:
- The problem happens
- Your interpretation of the problem
- Your emotional response to the problem
- Understanding the practical problem
- Finding a solution
- Applying the solution.
- Learning a general lesson to apply for future cases.
We are not trained to believe that the second step exists. That we have control over how we can interpret the problems that occur in our life.
The reality is that we have a significant amount of control over how we interpret problems. It depends on the stories that we tell ourselves.
This is “Framing the Problem”.
You do not have much control over the problems that life will give you. But, you do have a significant amount of control over how you frame the problems that do arise.
You can frame problems well or badly.
Framing problems well means that you have a measured emotional response. You learn to apply humor and a slight degree of fatalism in life. You straightaway move into “problem-solving” mode and find practical and fast solutions. This is regardless of what life throws at you.
You don’t believe that you live in a world where problems are an anomaly. You understand that you will always have to be in problem-solving mode until the day you die.
Framing problems badly means seeing life as unfair. You believe that you received the wrong hand and that what is happening to you should not be happening to you.
Well, the universe does not owe you anything. You should be thankful to even have the experience of life and consciousness.
You dwell on problems longer than you should and have heightened emotional responses. This is especially true for predictable problems.
For instance, take the fact that in many major cities there are large traffic problems. Yet you still see people shouting and swearing at other drivers, often red in the face. They often use their car horns, as if that makes any difference to the current situation.
What kind of world are these people living in? Were they expecting to not hit traffic in their life? Did they believe that today, every driver on the road was going to drive perfectly? That’s a fantasy world, and not where we are right now as a society.
I am not saying that these drivers who are angry do not have pressure. They are late to an important work meeting or other engagement. Maybe they have a lot of other stress in their life.
But, as they cannot control their environment, their emotional response is not rational.
They could reframe the traffic problem as an opportunity. Everyone has some things in their life that they needed to think about but haven’t had the time. Well, they now have an extra 30 or 60 minutes to be alone which they didn’t have. They can listen to their favorite piece of music or a podcast, and so on.
The situation is the same, but how we frame things can radically alter the experience.
One way that I have found to have a drastic improvement in the perception of problems is to see them as challenges. See them as opportunities to stay calm and handle things in the proper manner. Keep your emotions in check, and even laugh at your problems.
That final point is very powerful. Sometimes laughing at a problem, can reframe it in an instant.
This does mean that we need to stop planning or trying to avoid problems. It is common sense that taking reasonable precautions to avoid problems is the right thing to do. And this is a skill that is worth studying and improving on. For each problem in life, you may want to ask yourself if there was a way for you to have prevented it in the first place? Then, try and tease out a general rule that you can apply in the future so you don’t run into this type of problem again.
But regardless of what you do, you will always end up with some problems in life.
You may want to read my initial thoughts on Free Will after this. It will further illuminate why it doesn’t make sense to get angry about problems. Everything that is happening could not have happened any other way.