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Annoyance is an unpleasant feeling, but, like all feelings, it serves useful purposes. ("Annoy” and “irritate” have slightly different shades of meaning, but I’m going to use them interchangeably here.)

To annoy means “to rouse to impatience or anger.” Think of it as a highway rumble strip on the edge of full-blown anger. It could be a clue that you’ve gotten off course and need to steer back to your own lane.

Sometimes we’re tempted to deal with our feelings of annoyance by discounting them—“Oh, I shouldn’t feel so annoyed at such a little thing.” Sometimes a little perspective does hold annoyance, and anger, at bay. But your feelings of annoyance might be trying to tell you something important, such as one of these five things:

1. You need to set a limit. Someone is asking you a question that feels much too personal and you feel irritated. The irksome tingle of annoyance lets you know that someone may be about to violate your boundaries. So gear up for a protective response before things go too far, such as saying, “I really don’t want to talk about it," or one of these options.

2. You need to protect your time. Is someone asking you to help out at another school event? Again?! Your annoyance may be telling you that you are already overloaded and that you need to do something about that, starting with saying, “I’ve got a lot on my plate already. I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

3. You need to find a better way to do something. Annoyed at all the morning tasks you need to juggle just to get to work on time?  Annoyance can be a spur to creative problem-solving. It can even be a mother of invention. What could you do to make your situation better? Could you wake up 15 minutes earlier, do some tasks the night before, or delegate lunch-making to your kids?

4. You're feeling resentful or angry. Maybe you think you’re doing more than your share of household chores. Instead of stewing about it or letting the situation escalate into a family fight, acknowledge your annoyance, turn your complaint into a request, and see what happens. You could say, “I’d appreciate it if you could...”

5. You are suffering from perfectionism. You may become irritated when you don’t live up to your own standards, when someone else doesn’t live up to your standards, or when this cruel world betrays your ideals of how things ought to be. In that case:

  • If you are annoyed at yourself for falling short of the mark, you could choose to make a creative change, re-evaluate your high standards, or just send yourself some compassion (“You have a right to be less than perfect. You are human!”).
  • When someone else doesn’t live up to your standards, you could either speak up clearly about what you expect, try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view, or decide you need to let it go.
  • And when the world is cruel, unjust, or just plain disorganized, you can become an activist and make at least your corner of the world a bit better.

We all get annoyed by different things, so it's important to recognize that a person is not necessarily inflicting psychological warfare on you through thoughtless actions. When your neighbor has been using his beloved leaf-blower for 45 minutes, it's irritating but not something to take personally. Just buy earplugs or decide it's the right time to head out for a cup of coffee.

The next time you feel irritated at something, see if you can “sit with it" for a few moments. As you explore your feelings, you may discover a variety of "instant messages."

Or, use the 4-step approach that Toni Bernhard suggests in her book, How to Wake Up:

  • Recognize the annoyance;
  • Label it;
  • Investigate it;
  • Let it be or take action to change the situation.

Soon you may find that the presence of annoyance can be like a visit from an old friend from whom you can always learn something new.  

(c) Meg Selig, 2013

Take a look at my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For shorter tidbits on health, happiness, and habit change, follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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