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A recent 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 all frequently approach such "obstacles" with defeatism instead of assertiveness.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Two thousand Brits completed the survey and reported spending an average of 79 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 10. The top spots were dominated by various customer service issues and other societal horrors such as Dog Mess and Public Displays of Affection.

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

Samuel, a senior financial executive I worked with some years ago, once spent an entire therapy session describing the "preparations" he underwent to make himself feel 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 finally, more than an hour on the call itself.

Samuel is not really 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, 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, 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 20 minutes on hold with our cellphone 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. 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 that add up to years of frustrations over our lifetime.

It is not that difficult to acquire the skills and tools to tackle complaints in ways that get results and spare us runarounds and frustrations. We can 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 endless argument. (We can even contact our local municipalities and demand they put up signs warning pet owners to curb their dogs or face fines.)

Every annoyance we face presents an opportunity to practice 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 this—if we complained effectively about the "small stuff"—there would be much less small stuff to sweat.

Practice Assertiveness

The great thing about assertiveness is that it reinforces itself. Demonstrating it by taking on our complaints and voicing them effectively will spread 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 a person empowered to give you what you want. If you're dissatisfied with service in a restaurant, speak to the manager, not the cashier.
  2. State your complaint without anger or attitude; those only distract the recipient from the content of your complaint. Be brief but specific and give relevant detail.
  3. Be clear about what you want. Especially when complaining to loved ones, we typically neglect to state what the other person can do to make us feel better about the situation. It's much easier for others to respond to a complaint when they know what would satisfy us.
  4. Use the Complaint Sandwich. (See a video demo here.)

Practicing assertiveness by complaining effectively is easier than we might think. And with all the anger-free time you'll add 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.

Watch my TED talk for quick tips to improve your quality of life.

To learn how to improve your emotional health in other ways, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume 2014).

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Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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