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What Annoying Situations Teach Us about Ourselves

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.” ~Carl Jung

He was shorter than me with a mustache, and he was positioning himself in front of me, but just off to the side of the line. He was traveling with a young teen, probably his son. I knew that when the line moved, he would take one assertive step and insert himself and his kid into the line ahead of me.

I sneaked a look at his boarding pass and it read B53. I was holding A51. It was my first time being in the A boarding group on Southwest, where your position in line is determined by when you check in online.

I checked in exactly 24 hours before the flight, specifically so I could be in the A group. I deserved this. This guy didn’t.

Not only was he butting, he wasn’t even an A. He was a B. He should have been sitting down waiting for his group to be called.

He smiled at me. Trying to make friends? Mocking me? He knew I had seen his boarding pass. His son fidgeted nervously with an iPod.

I was flying home to Oakland from Denver, and on the ride over something similar had happened. My number was B4, but there were at least seven people ahead of me. Three people were butting!

On that flight, it wasn’t clear who was a butter and who wasn’t, so I didn’t say anything. I ended up feeling taken advantage of.

Here was the choice again, and a lousy choice it was, say nothing and feel like a chump, or say something and feel like an uptight agro-jerk.

I went for choice B.

“Excuse me sir, what number do you have?” He gave me a stare.

I started to waiver and began explaining, “I, ah, just want to see where I should….” I trailed off. I was trying to make nice, but there was no hiding my aggressive intent.

He relented his stare and showed me his boarding pass with the look of a man beaten in a poker hand. “Go ahead of me,” he said. He let out a long sigh of annoyance. I avoided eye contact.

The line moved forward. I gave my boarding pass to the agent. As I entered the corridor that connects the airport to the plane, I looked back. I was hoping the agent would bust the man for boarding with the wrong group.

Instead, I saw the young teenager enter the corridor without the man. The teenager was flying alone and his father, I am guessing, was just anxious to make sure his kid got on the plane with a decent seat and enough space for his bags.

I felt embarrassed. All that drama to make sure one kid didn’t butt me line.

I realized it was time for a little reflection. What could I, like the Jung quote says, learn about myself here? 

The first thing I realized is that someone butting in line triggers me. My first reaction was an emotion: anger. But when I looked deeper I saw that beneath the anger, fueling it was a fear of being powerless.

There was also the thought that I was being taken advantage of. In fact, I remembered a little voice in my head at the moment the mustached guy butt in line: “He thinks he can butt in line, and you won’t say anything. He thinks you’re weak.”

In essence, I was playing out a story line in my head that didn’t have much to do with the reality of the situation.

The truth was the guy was probably worried about his son. Or maybe he butts in line all the time. Either way, his action wasn’t a statement about me.

I am not saying I did the wrong thing by speaking up. In fact, I got the last exit row seat, and I might not have if I didn’t say anything.

What I am saying is that because I got triggered, my range of action was limited (in my own mind) to an unsavory choice between being wimpy or overly aggressive. There was no option that would leave me feeling good about my decision.

Everyone has trigger points, places where they are vulnerable. When these places get touched they cause us to lose our sense of perspective and can cause us to act in a way that is out of touch with our values.

For me, the series of events (inner and outer) looked like this:

  • Situation: man cuts in line
  • Feeling: anger, fear of being powerless
  • Thought: “I am being taken advantage of”
  • Action in response to thought: Call him out for butting
  • Feeling in response to situation: Guilt (feel like a jerk)

Now that I am aware of this trigger point, I can watch for it in the future and employ a simple strategy to diffuse this internal reaction. Here is the plan the next time someone butts me in line or for when you get triggered in general:

  1. Notice you are triggered. This is the most crucial step. It gets easier with practice.
  2. Take three slow breaths. This defuses the emotional reaction and helps you find your balance.
  3. Let the old storyline—in my case, “I am being taken advantage of”—fall away.
  4. Try to see the situation from a less personal place. Ask yourself, what is really going on here?
  5. Check in with your values and assess how to deal with the situation. In my case, the next time someone cuts me in line I want to think about whether it is a time where I need to stand up for myself, or whether I can let the line butting roll off my back

My hope is that I can get to a place where if I decide I need to say speak up, I can approach the person from a calm but firm place, minus the indignation and aggression. If I decide not to speak up, I hope I can let the incident go, and move on.

In this case, the action I take is less important than the emotional place I am coming from. Either way, I want to remain calm and centered.

Through this process of breathing, seeing what is happening in myself, and letting old storylines drop, I am allowing a triggering situation to be an opportunity for growth.

This is not easy work. Places where we are vulnerable usually don’t heal overnight. It takes practice, patience, and a sense of humor to keep cool when someone or something pushes your personal buttons.

But the benefits are great: by practicing when someone butts me in line, I am learning one of life’s master skills: staying calm in the hurricane of my own emotions.

Photo by tanya_little

Avatar of Noah Bruce

About Noah Bruce

Noah Bruce is a psychologist in private practice in Oakland, CA. He blogs about therapy and growth-related stuff at www.heartheadgut.blogspot.com.

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  • http://big-zen.blogspot.com/ Big Zen

    I think many people can relate to these kinds of experiences. Just yesterday I saw a person on the street way in the distance and immediately made several negative assumptions about them before reining myself in and remembering they were just another human being like me with all the same struggles and triumphs. As they got closer they approached and asked for directions and I spent ten minutes with them trying to figure out where they needed to be. Needles to say, that slight shift of perspective changed the entire tone of my morning for the better. 

  • Anonymous

    This was a really interesting and thought provoking article, I loved it! I will definitely be applying these useful principles in my daily life from now on. Thank you so much for a great read!!

  • PositivePolly

    Great post. The butting in line example has happened to me many times before and I’ve experienced all sorts of outcomes — not saying anything and kicking myself for it; not saying anything and later being glad after realizing the butting wasn’t actually butting; and so on.  I like your methodology on how to handle in a more conscientious way and will apply it to similar situations I’m currently facing, such as when a friend or acquaintance makes a verbal “dig” during conversation.  You know, one of those seeminly offensive comments where you stop and think “what the heck did they mean by that? — is this person taking advantage of my politeness?  Do I say something back to put him/her in their place?” I usually do not say anything back in these instances because I know these verbal digs come from their own internal issues that have nothing to do with me (insecurity, fear, etc) but continuously ignoring them has seemed to indirectly condone the behavior, or worse – make me look like a pushover.  Maybe I’ll add the “three strikes” rule to you method when dealing with specific people.

  • Laurie M.

    Loved this … That darn “fear of being powerless” is something I struggle with as it gets triggered often in me. Breathing and responding instead of reacting is the way to go. It takes practice, lots and lots of practice!

  • Sarah N.

    This is what I struggle with the most. I want to stay positive about others around me, but I often struggle with feeling annoyed. I do so well with myself and my few close friends, but put me in public/work surronding and I become easily annoyed by others. For example a seperate unit from my unit sit on the otherside of the divider from us. This unit’s discussions are so annoying to me, I make statements to myself, “they like hearing themselves talk, they are so predjudice, they are so closed-minded, they have no idea what they are talking about, all they do is complain.” I don’t like having all these negative thoughts for I feel like an ugly/unhealthy person. I just had an epiphany, because I want to remain positive about my surrondings, I assume others should act and feel the same way. Since I hold this expectation, people are often failling me. I am setting others up for failure, thus setting myself up for negative thoughts. So while I do want everyone in this world to feel peace, speak positive, remain open-minded etc., how can I continue to feel this way with out being annoyed and let down???

  • noahbruce

    Your comment makes me think about how it is sometimes hard to distinguish between a gut instinct about someone that we should listen to and a negative personal biases that get in the way of seeing other people. I’d be interested to hear how you make this distinction.

    Thanks,

    Noah

  • Drnoahbruce

    Thanks for your comment Sarah Luise. Glad you liked the post.

    -Noah

  • Noah Bruce

    I can relate Polly. There is that fine line between letting things go and feeling like a pushover. I think it is worth paying attention to that voice that tells us we are being wronged. Not necessarily acting on this voice every time it pops up, but being curious about it, so we can act in a way where we take care of ourselves but don’t have to constantly defend ourselves. A fine line. I like your three strikes rule in these situations.

    Thanks,

    Noah

  • Noah Bruce

    True that. The powerless feeling can be powerful and can cause me to be more aggro than I want. Lots of practice needed!

    Thanks,

    Noah

  • Merry Ms Berry

    everyone with road rage or the knick-pickers in the world need to read this!!!!

  • Noah Bruce

    I have to say Sarah, it is difficult to listen for a long time to other people say things that are prejudiced, close-minded, and complaining. You are being exposed to a lot of negativity. While you can’t expect everyone to remain positive around you, I think you can expect that others maintain a professional environment in a work situation. It’s hard for me to say without context, but it might be appropriate for you to say something to them if their conversations are truly unprofessional. Otherwise maybe headphones or a change of desk is in order.  

  • Noah Bruce

    I have to say Sarah, it is difficult to listen for a long time to other people say things that are prejudiced, close-minded, and complaining. You are being exposed to a lot of negativity. While you can’t expect everyone to remain positive around you, I think you can expect that others maintain a professional environment in a work situation. It’s hard for me to say without context, but it might be appropriate for you to say something to them if their conversations are truly unprofessional. Otherwise maybe headphones or a change of desk is in order.. 

  • Noah Bruce

    Too bad the road ragers tend not to read tinybuddha. :)

  • linnaeab

    Hi Noah,

    There are some other options, too. Here’s one.

    Start a friendly (and sincere) conversation with the person who appears to be butting in. One human being connecting with another … total strangers. Without any goal or trying to teach him anything, just talk. With gentle words.

    See what happens.

    Maybe he will share with you why he is standing next to you. You may encourage him to go first, out of empathy for what is going on in his life.

    You may find that you have been in a similar situation, and remember that someone offered you help.

    Starting a conversation is natural. It is a great example for his son to see two adult men talking instead of competing for a chance to get a better seat.

    You could actually enjoy talking with him and decide to sit together with the son.

    You could ask the person behind you if it bothered him to let the son go first, and engage another stranger in a conversation.

    And, if you feel more, you could ask both the son and the father to pay it forward.

    These are actions that would make me feel more at ease, comfortable, connected to a stranger, wanting happiness for both the stranger and myself. Each of us may have other ways to feel calm and connected in an experience that has the seeds of confrontation.

    enjoy,
    linnaea

  • javalovin

    Beautifully put. It’s not a simple process to be present with your triggers, with yourself- it takes courage! I think the magic is found when we are willing to be there for ourselves and go to the root. This was lovely, thank you!

  • Noah Bruce

    Thank you Javalovin. I agree that is where the magic is found, but not easy to get there.

    thanks,

    Noah

  • Noah Bruce

    Linnaea,

    Now that would have been a really skillful response.

    Thanks,

    Noah

  • Haniwow

    Thank you so much. I am going through a very similar plight in the work place. I can’t keep my mouth shut and react to people’s, what in my opinion is, atrocious behavior in a very emotional way. I’m actually going to see someone since I need to talk. Have all the info in my head, but can’t execute it. Your writing goes right to the heart of the matter. Our reactions to situations is what becomes our experience of life. Righteous anger is a demon! 

  • Joshua

    At least one of us does.

  • Joshua

    At least one of us does.

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  • Kruzty

    Greetings! and nice post Noha ;D

    Well I learned something on this time, and i guss i will try to apply it, cause here is very common that we get triggered by things like this and even could end on a fight, all for ideas and stories that are just in our minds.

    Is very nice the breathing specially cause is a manner of respect for yourself to have the patient and give you the chance to see and think better on the next choice.

    I`ll try to follow the steps, even if taes time XD

    See you.

  • Murphy

    Like many posted before me, I also often struggle with being annoyed quite easily, whether it be at work or in my personal life. After my reaction, I usually ask myself “Why did I just say (or do) that?” An example: I was on a cruise ship for the first time with my boyfriend. We were standing in line waiting to get food from the buffet. All the food is clearly marked with labels. I proceed to get some pork w/ rice and he says to me… “oh, you do know that’s pork right?” My immediate reaction was “um, duh!” In turn he looked annoyed and later he told me he was just trying to help. In my mind I know he was trying to help but I often talk before I think. I just wish I knew how to brush things off like that in the future. I’ve talked to him about it, and I always feel like I’m being difficult in the end. Maybe I need to stop, do the breathing steps, think about what just happened, and go from there.

  • bob898

    this post doesn’t really make sense because the last time i checked, you couldn’t get past security unless you had a boarding pass

  • http://www.onemanswonder.com Jeffrey Willius

    Noah — Your post is one of the most helpful, best written I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe because it rings to true, so fresh for me — having just been struggling with a very similar encounter last week. I’ve not been able to think it through as wisely as you have, but do realize I need to at least examine my assumptions before letting emotions hijack my actions. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/mizbankrupt chrome molly #4130

    I’ll second Linnaea’s suggestion. I once found myself in similar straits to you, Noah, when traveling. I stood waiting patiently to board a flight only to find myself nearly accosted by a small group of boisterous travelers. At first I felt extremely annoyed, because who were these brutes to take up my place in line just because they were loud and in greater numbers? 

    Then it was announced that our flight was delayed. The raucous passengers-to-be got a little more animated. One looked my way, and for whatever reason I asked if they were all traveling together. That started one of the most fun, and informative, conversations ever to pass the time during a flight delay. Since then, I’ve found myself going a little more out of my way to engage my fellow travelers, if for no other reason than to have some solidarity while traveling. It also taught me to relax my first impressions a bit.

  • http://twitter.com/drnels Nels P. Highberg

    Unless you are accompanying your child who will be flying alone. You are allowed to go with your child to the gate.

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    My usual reaction to a situation like this (which happens to me daily) is to feel that there is a lack of respect from the people butting in.  I know even that is jumping to a conclusion that might not be accurate, but I always feel that if it were an “emergency” or something, the person would likely say, “excuse me, I have to hurry, can I get in front of you?” or SOMETHING.  There never has been anything like that in my experience though.  I usually let it go but I tend to get angry that I am always the one relenting in those situations.  I almost always figure it’s not worth getting into a confrontation about (because I haven’t had much luck with using gentle language and asking why they’re butting in–it seems to automatically cause a negative reaction in the other person), but it tends to bother me when it happens.

    I know that in the scheme of things it isn’t a big deal (unless I lose a seat or don’t get into the event or whatever), but for me it’s sometimes hard to find the line between being accepting/letting things go and not getting taken advantage of or never standing up for myself.

  • Noah Bruce

    That settles it. I am going to try to strike up a conversation next time and see who the person (or people) really is/are.

  • Noah Bruce

    Seems like the line butters hit the same spot in you as in me – my head saying, “it’s not a big deal” but some other part saying “I am being disrespected.” Line butters are not respectful, but I am trying to be curious about the part of me that personalizes this experience, and feels personally slighted.

  • Noah Bruce

    And thank you Jeffrey for the high praise. Much appreciated!

  • Noah Bruce

    On Southwest you have a boarding pass, but it does not give you a specific seat, only a number in which to line up for boarding. After you board you can choose whatever seat you want.

  • Noah Bruce

    :)

  • Noah Bruce

    Good luck with the work situation. As I said in an earlier post, some workplace behavior really is inappropriate and it is a good idea to say something. In any case, it is always good to work on the places we get triggered. I like your statement, “our reactions to situations is what becomes our experience of life.” Very true.

  • Noah Bruce

    It is so hard to see where another person is coming from, especially when it is your partner/bf/gf/spouse. They always seem to have the ability to trigger us. I find that when I can see that the annoying comment is coming from a truly good place (and this is not always the case) it does help me to be, at least, less annoyed.

  • Noah Bruce

    Thank you Kruzty and good luck breathing in difficult situations!

  • ChildLight Yoga

    This quote especially struck me: “I was playing out a story line in my head that didn’t have much to do with the reality of the situation.”  Yes!  It’s a misperception as so much of our experience is!  Keeping that fact alone in mind helps me so much as I go through my day – to breathe, be present and understand that my emotions and misperceptions are the cause of any suffering I might endure.  It’s my choice to have those misguided emotions or not.

  • Queenofracine2

    I can relate to your feelings. I know longer fly southwest, ever! Since switching to United I’m able to book my seat 24hrs in advance. I’ve since had the most relaxing flights of my life. I’ve even forfeited my seat twice, receiving free ticket vouchers in return. This way I’m letting someone BUTT in line and receiving karmic reward instantly.

  • http://big-zen.blogspot.com/ Big Zen

    That’s an
    interesting question. I think our gut instincts are a product of the influences we’ve opened ourselves up to (either knowingly or unknowingly) such as family,
    friends, the media…, as well as the habits we’ve cultivated through deliberate
    practice such as mindfulness, compassion etc. Particularly at a time of
    transition, the two can be competing with each other. In my experience, that’s
    when we need to check in consciously to see if the gut feeling is aligned with
    our true values.

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  • http://www.artofliving.org Winston

    Knowledge put in a very nice manner. Jai Gurudev!

  • http://www.liveliferightnow.com Sarah

    This is such a great post. I find the hardest thing to remember in these kinds of situations is that you have to take responsibility for how you respond to annoying situations – anger is not an inevitable outcome, it is a choice that you make. Thanks for writing this!

  • Anonymous

    thank you

  • Oceanrefuge1

    Good food for thought…change is slow though….I will remember this.

  • http://lifeisnotamovie.net Robin

    I get so aggravated when people do that. I get so upset to the point of anxiety sometimes. I have this issue with fairness, I always think “why do you get to cut in line? it’s not your turn and that’s not fair.” I try to calm myself down more lately and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

  • crab

    I think we’ve all done this. The difficulty is knowing the intentions of the other person.

    One day, a man pushed in front of me in a queue, and I said “excuse me, the queue starts behind me.” I said it pleasantly and he apologized. As the seconds went by, and I assessed the situation, it turned out he just wanted to buy a pint of milk for his kid. I felt guilty.

    The next day, someone else pushed in front of me in a queue, and based on what happened the day before, I let it go, scared of feeling that guilt again. It turned out he was a rude thug that ended up hurling abuse at everyone in the store. I felt like he didn’t deserve to go in front of me and that I should of spoke up.

    I think on both situations I got it wrong. The million dollar question seems to be, what are the persons intentions? That is something we will never know until it is too late.

    I used to dread these situations arising because of these uncertainty’s, but after reading your article I’ve change my mind. It seems like, using your 5 step plan, we can use these situations to learn things about ourselves.

    Brilliant, thanks.

  • http://the-nail-biter.blogspot.com/ Melaniereno

    Totally different subject, but this reminds me of a time I was eating in a Thai restaurant, and the manager switched the A rating in the window to a B.  Anyway, I agree with trying to keep a sense of humor…it’s a process to recover…I have to stay patient.

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  • London8nyc

    This is fascinating. I think I have a slightly different take than what others have expressed here, because I actually think there’s nothing wrong, and in fact something good, about speaking up when someone cuts the line. It all depends on how its done and there’s a big difference between getting angry and behaving with kindness and understanding.
    We have lines for things like boarding a plane because it’s orderly and calm and helps people treat each other nicely and fairly. Try flying RyanAir in Europe and you’ll see what I mean – it’s total chaos and people behave like animals. It seems to me the person who butts into the queue is showing disrespect to everyone else by putting their personal needs ahead of everyone elses’ by exempting themselves from the principle of waiting in a line. I guess this is where the feeling of being personally slighted comes from.
    The question is: is that exemption justified? It may be, but the point is, the person who wants to get ahead in the line should, in order to show respect to everyone else, ask persmission and explain why they need to make an exception of themselves. So when someone cuts the line in front of you, you can suggest to them, very kindly and politely, that they ought to consider take their place in the line. This creates the opportunity for them to explain themselves and gently reminds them to be more mindful of their behavior, and also leaves room for the option that they’ve made a mistake (mixed up their boarding group) or just didn’t see the line. It happens.

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