- At work, your co-worker sniffles and clears his throat constantly throughout the day, and after a few hours of that, you feel like you’re back in middle school, trying desperately to ignore your classmate’s tapping pencil during a math test. Your anger and annoyance steadily builds as you wonder—why he can’t just STOP making so much noise?!
- At home, your spouse forgets to thank you for making dinner, and you find yourself seething, wondering if this is the beginning of him dismissing your efforts … the same way your dad dismissed your mom’s. You feel angry and want to shame him for not noticing all that you do.
- Over the weekend, your teenager doesn’t clean up her room (despite promising that she would), leaving you feeling oddly betrayed and ignored, like you felt when your friends broke their promises to you as a teenager. You snap and yell at her, warning her that you won’t be ignored.
- Like a sudden push of a button, our irritability springs up seemingly out of nowhere and wreaks havoc in our relationships.
Why do we get annoyed at the drop of a hat sometimes or overreact in ways that don’t really make sense? Maybe you’re hungry, tired or need to exercise. Or maybe something pushed your buttons earlier, and you’re still irritated now. It’s hard to change our reactions when we’re not always sure what is going on.
The good news is that we can figure it out and change our thinking, so we can enjoy more satisfying relationships. Here’s how:
1. Recognize your buttons.
The first step to curbing this behavior is paying attention to what happens in your body right before you lash out. Maybe you feel yourself getting tense, breathing deeply to curb tension or sighing.
When you notice these physical sensations, take that next step of noticing something is off, and think about why that is. Actively taking note of where your irritation stems from activates more of your brain, coping mechanisms of curiosity, problem solving and reaction choice.
2. Understand the origin.
The things that push your buttons have likely pushed your buttons for a long time. Once you’ve put your thinking cap on, you’ll probably notice certain triggers are predictable for you, like being interrupted while doing focused work, people arriving late or irritating sounds.
If you reflect back, you’ll likely find an incident where the button was first activated. Or physiological issues might cause your irritability. You may suffer from low blood sugar, chronic sleep deprivation or hormone shifts related to your menstrual cycle or menopause.
Still, understanding your triggers is half the battle and can help you predict better coping strategies.
3. Remember that this is YOUR problem, not theirs.
When we’re irritated, we tend to believe the other person triggered us “on purpose,” when in reality, their actions seldom have anything to do with us. Chances are, they didn’t even know there was a land mine to step on.
Your noisy, symptomatic co-worker is probably unaware of his impact on your concentration, your hungry spouse probably just forgot his manners, and your mercurial teen was just trying to put off doing something she doesn’t want to do (just like we all do). Not only does your knee-jerk reaction not help, it’s often not even fair.
So, if you do snap before you catch yourself, remember to circle back and say a sincere sorry afterward. We are part of the problem, too; knowing our own vulnerabilities and regulating our expectations goes a long way to taking responsibility for our irritability.
4. Have patience with others … and yourself.
Wanting to change this behavior is great! But actually doing so takes time. Simply identifying your buttons is a huge first step. From there, start practicing taking a breath and making a new, calmer choice when you feel agitation building.
It WILL get easier as you mindfully keep at it. And as you improve with mastering your own impatience, perhaps you’ll find yourself being a bit more understanding and forgiving of it in others.
If you want to feel less irritable, you can! Like with all change, the first place to start is in recognizing what’s driving your irritability. By rewiring thoughts, recognizing buttons and changing unrealistic expectations, we can mobilize more adaptive and creative coping strategies to handle irritability.