Accessing Your Calm

There is a choice in every situation, even the most difficult ones.

Posted Mar 05, 2021

 Dingzeyu Li/Unsplash
Staying Calm.
Source: Dingzeyu Li/Unsplash

Have you ever encountered two people who were experiencing the exact same thing, and one person was happy while the other person was distressed? In college, I had two friends in the same class. At the end of the semester, they both received B’s. One of my friends was distraught over this grade, while my other friend was thrilled. How is that possible? You may have a similar example to this one, where two people we know experience the same thing but have very different feelings and reactions. Today we’ll explore why this happens, and how we can access our positivity and remain calm in situations that historically have upset us. 

A common scenario that elicits a wide range of reactions is divorce. One person may get divorced and struggle at first, but then bounces back fairly quickly and may even welcome this change into their life. While another person may feel depressed for months, sometimes years. Another common scenario is losing a job. To some people, this loss is horrible, and it may take months to regain the energy to look for a job again. To other people, losing a job is never enjoyable, but they may also be able to access feelings of hope and perhaps even excitement at the idea of embarking on a new adventure.

Another common scenario you have probably found yourself in is waiting in line. In this situation, you will most likely see two different kinds of people—one person who is angry or upset at the inconvenience, and another person who uses this time to do something else. They might get on their phone and answer some emails or strike up a conversation with the stranger next to them. There may have been instances where you were the impatient, angry person, while other times you were the patient person who used this time to do something else.

Why is it the case that sometimes we can accept the situation we’re in and other times we get upset and frustrated?

Sometimes, the anger we feel can seem beyond our control. But to lead a happier life, it’s important to understand how to remain calm in situations that can evoke strong negative emotions. We know it’s possible because we have seen other people remain calm and unbothered in situations that typically make other people angry. Or perhaps we know from personal experience that sometimes we are capable of keeping our cool while other times it’s more difficult, or after the fact, we realize that we shouldn’t have lost our temper. Oftentimes we land on this conclusion, even though our anger felt necessary and justified at the time. So how do we learn how to be calm and not let our own reactions dictate our feelings?

In the play Hamlet, William Shakespeare writes, “Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison. Well, then, it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself. It’s all what the person thinks about it.” In other words, our thoughts, or the way that we evaluate what is happening, are the cause of our suffering, or the lack thereof. 

Let’s revisit the example of my two friends from college. The one friend who was upset by her B grade was expecting an A. She was in the process of applying to graduate school and it was important to her that she had straight A’s on her transcript. My other friend did not place the same pressure on herself. Her only goal was to simply graduate and her expectation was to receive a C or above in each class. So when she got a B, she was content, even delighted, because this grade exceeded her expectations.

Our thoughts and expectations around a certain event or outcome cause us to become upset and react, not the situation itself. This concept can seem confusing, so let’s break this down a bit more. 

I’ve spent decades of my career working with people who are close to dying. Whether they are young, middle age, or older, everyone chooses to approach their death in different ways. For many people, their distress and suffering take away from the possibility of living well, no matter how much longer that is. While other people are more accepting of their death and choose to live life to the fullest, even though it might end quicker than they had planned.

There is a choice in every situation, even the most difficult ones. We can choose tranquility and acceptance, or pain and upsetness. Our negative emotions aren’t solely caused by the situation, but rather our own thoughts shape how we feel. Once we understand this, we have the opportunity to gain control over our suffering. 

Let’s talk about how we implement not getting upset in our daily lives.

When you first begin to feel upset, it’s important to ask yourself, "What am I thinking that is causing me to be upset?" This helps separate your emotional reaction from the current situation. This may seem counterintuitive at first because most of us blame our feelings and reactions on the situation that caused them. However, our thoughts have a lot of power over us! Just like William Shakespeare says in Hamlet, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We are in control of assigning a feeling or thought to a situation, meaning we have the opportunity to re-assign a positive, or neutral, feeling to a situation that has historically caused us to feel pain.

After we examine our thoughts, the next step is to explore if these thoughts are serving or helping us. Our thoughts might be helpful in the sense that they could protect us from experiencing something painful. But, they could also cause unnecessary suffering. For example, losing your job is a universally unfortunate and scary thing. Most people would be very upset by this news, which is understandable. In these instances where our thoughts and feelings are justified, it’s important to recognize that our feelings are preceded by our thoughts. So in this case, we have the opportunity of making a bad situation worse by worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. For example, you might begin to worry about all of the what-ifs—what if I don’t find another job? What if I can’t put food on the table? What if I can’t pay my rent in a few months? These thoughts are valid, but they could also contribute to your distress. Another way to think and react in this situation is to look at the facts—I lost my job today, the only thing I can do right now is pack up my things and drive home. Once I’m home and I’ve sat with this news, I’ll come up with a plan. We are not worrying about things that have not happened yet, we are solely focusing on the here and now.

None of us have control over the external world, but we do have control over our internal worlds. Meaning, we can’t control everything that happens to us, but we do have a say in how we react to things. If you’re feeling upset, you have the power to examine your own thoughts and ask if they’re helping or harming you. Once we realize that accessing positive or neutral thoughts is a choice, we begin to gain control of our internal lives and can lead ourselves down a path of peace and happiness.