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The majority of anger and frustration in life, no matter what the situation, has at its basis one simple thought….It shouldn’t be this way. We all go through life with our own personal set of ideas about how we think things should work out, how we think people should treat us, how other people should behave etc.  I like to refer to this personal sense we all of have of how the world should operate, as our personal rulebook. This personal rulebook incorporates our beliefs, perspectives, likes, ideals, and values. It is something that we acquire through life from our experiences, what we learn, the other people around us, and the preferences we have developed.

We tend to surround ourselves with other people who have similar rule books because it is more comfortable to be around others who view the world in a similar way, and it reinforces our beliefs that our own set of rules are correct. For example, in general, Democrats like to spend time with other Democrats and Republicans like to spend time with other Republicans.  When the rules we personally play by differ considerably from the people around us it can be very uncomfortable.

Our rulebooks are so much a part of who we are and how we live our life that we aren’t aware that we are using it to guide our view of the world, our decisions and how we process events and circumstances in our life, until we encounter a situation where someone isn’t playing by our rules and behaving the way we think they should. If you are trying to play baseball with someone who is playing by the rules of soccer, you are likely to end up frustrated very quickly.

The majority of anger and frustration we experience in life occurs when we encounter someone who is not playing by our rules. We tend to believe that our rules are right and that the other person should do it our way. At the basis of all conflict is the idea that one person believes another person should change. Stating that your rules are right, forces someone else’s rules to be wrong. Personal rulebooks however, aren’t right or wrong, they simply reflect the unique perspective and preferences of every individual.  Many people find this a challenging notion to accept, but we live in a world of great diversity and there are no universal concepts that apply to every religion, race, or culture.

It feels good to know you have the freedom to live your life according to whatever set of values and rules you choose for yourself. We tend to feel happy and at peace when we feel we can live life in accordance with our own ideals for how the world should work. But when things aren’t going our way, we can start to feel we are losing our sense of control. 

So when what others are doing starts to cause distress, what can you do to regain that feeling of well-being?

1) Start by recognizing that if you are feeling upset or frustrated by a situation it is likely because something isn’t going the way you think it should and identify what it is you believe shouldn’t be happening.  If someone is behaving in a way you don’t like, realize it isn’t personal when someone doesn’t play by your rules; they are simply exercising the right to play by their own rules. Nor does someone else choosing a different way of doing something invalidate your own preference or choice in any way.  2) Then identify what it is you would prefer to be different. Thinking about what you want instead of what is bothering you puts you in the place to 3) move from reacting to generating a solution that will reduce your anger and improve how your feel. To get to an effective solution you always need to remember what you control and what you don’t. You have the ability to control your thoughts and actions but you don’t control the rules other people live by or how they choose to express their own thoughts and actions. Therefore, when you are trying to assess what you can do to improve a situation your goal is to come up with things you can do differently, not focus on what you think the other person should be doing differently.

When you start to feel angry or frustrated with how a situation is going fill in the blanks below.

Step1:  I am angry because _________ _______shouldn’t be__________________.

Step2:  I would prefer if __________________________________________ _____.

Step 3:  Here’s what I can do about it  ____________________________________.

Here are a few examples:

Your spouse speaks to you in a way you don’t like.

Step 1: I am angry because my spouse shouldn’t raise his voice when he speaks to me.

Step 2: I would prefer if he would speak to me with more respect.

Step 3: What I can do is ask him to speak to me in a softer voice, if he doesn’t choose to comply with my request I can leave the room.  I can also set an example by keeping my own voice calm.

You didn’t get a raise at work.

Step 1: I am angry because my co-worker got a raise and I didn’t, she shouldn’t have gotten the raise because I have been there longer than she has.

Step 2: I would prefer if raises were given out fairly.

Step 3: I can ask for a performance review and find out what I need to do to get a raise.  If I really feel the way I am being treated unfairly, I can start to look for other opportunities.

There is nothing wrong with wanting things to go your way in life. But when they don’t, empower yourself to make the situation better by focusing on what you have the control to improve instead of making yourself miserable by insisting that everyone else play by your rules. 

Jennice Vilhauer, PhD is the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind's Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life. For more information on go to www.FutureDirectedTherapy.com

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