The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

How Much of Your Life Do Your Spend Angry?

How to avoid wasting years of frustration.

A new survey found that citizens of the United Kingdom spend three-and-a-half years of their lives being angry. Even more remarkable, the causes of their distress were everyday frustrations such as bad customer service and automated phone systems. Unfortunately, we too frequently approach such 'obstacles' with defeatism instead of assertiveness.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Two thousand Brits completed the survey and reported spending one hour and nineteen minutes a day in a foul mood as a result of, what should be in the grand scheme of things-minor nuisances. Although work problems, money worries and family issues were mentioned in the survey, they all failed to make the top ten. The top spots were dominated by various customer service issues and other societal horrors such as Dog Mess and Public Displays of Affection.

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But do poor customer service, automated menus and the like impact our quality of life for the worse in the USA as much as they do in the UK? Unfortunately, yes. Complaining psychology tells us that people in the USA are just as affected by minor irritants as our cousins in the UK.

Samuel, a senior financial executive I worked with some years ago, once spent an entire therapy session describing the 'preparations' he went through to whip himself up into feeling sufficiently assertive to place a simple call to his bank to dispute interest fees. In addition to the therapy hour, Samuel spent numerous hours dreading the call, a good hour preparing for it (dressing in his best suit, warming up his voice, stretching, cracking his knuckles and making sure his wife and kids were out of earshot) and over an hour on the call itself.

Samuel is not an anomaly. If we added up how much time in a given week we spend irritated about our pet peeves, aggravated about poor customer service in stores or restaurants, stressed-out about dealing with endless automated menus, or frustrated by our significant others' annoying habits we would quickly realize how dramatically such things can impair our quality of life. Despite the toll they take, these are exactly the kinds of situations in which we feel most unassertive.

Ignoring the Small Stuff Doesn't Work-Fixing It Does

'Don't sweat the small stuff' is a great slogan but it is extremely difficult to put into practice in daily life. Once our anger and frustration get triggered they are not easy to extinguish. Telling ourselves we shouldn't sweat the small stuff when we've just gotten disconnected after spending twenty minutes on hold with our cell-phone provider, will do little to calm our autonomic nervous systems. And if someone else made the suggestion to us, we would just get angrier.

No matter how much we would like to, we cannot simply ignore the small irritations of life, especially once they've already caused us irritation. However, what we can do is take assertive action, fix the problems, resolve the conflicts, and bring about change. We can take it upon ourselves to learn how to complain effectively about all those minor irritations we experience in daily life that then add up to years of frustrations over our lifetimes.

It is not that difficult to acquire the skills and tools to tackle customer service complaints in ways that get us results and spare us run-arounds and frustrations. We can also learn communication techniques that would allow us to voice complaints about our significant other's annoying habits in ways that foster cooperation and dialogue, rather than arguments. We can even contact our local municipalities and demand they put up signs warning pet owners to curb their dogs or face fines.

Every minor irritation and annoyance we face presents an opportunity for us to practive our assertiveness, take action and create change. Instead of complaining about the things that frustrate us and wasting years of our lives feeling angry and irritated, we could channel our frustration into solutions. If we all did so, if we all complained effectively about the 'small stuff', there would be much less of the 'small stuff' to sweat.

How to Practice Assertiveness

The good thing about assertiveness is that it reinforces itself. Demonstrating assertiveness by taking on our complaints and voicing them effectively will then generalize to other areas of our lives and allow us to feel more assertive in those domains as well.

Here are a few quick pointers to get you started:

1. Think through what you want to achieve by complaining and then make sure to complain to the person who is empowered to give you what you want. For example, if you're dissatisfied with the service in a restaurant, speak to the manager, not the cashier or the host.

2. State your complaint without anger or attitude because those only distract the complaint recipient from the content of your complaint. Be brief but specific and give relevant detail.

3. Be clear about what you want. One of the mistakes we typically make, especially when complaining to loved ones, is that we neglect to state what the other person (or company) can do to make us feel better about the situation. It's much easier for others to respond to our complaint when they know what would make us satisfied.

4. Use the Complaint Sandwich--a link to a video demo is here:

Practicing our assertiveness by complaining effectively is easier than we might think. And with all the anger-free time you'll be adding to your life you might feel giddy enough to put on a public display of affection of your own. Just remember to watch your step.

Read about my own efforts to practice assertiveness with a burrito shop manager here:

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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