During social distancing, some people are living alone, but many are sharing their living quarters with other people—partners, kids, parents, dogs, and/or roommates. Even at the best of times, it can be hard to avoid occasionally losing your temper with the people with whom you’re sharing close quarters. But these aren’t the best of times. You’re stressed and you’re stuck.
So, the next time your roommate drinks your last seltzer or your kid interrupts your Zoom meeting for the seventh time, try one of these science-backed strategies to respond more effectively:
It’s all about action
A big problem with trying not to be short with someone is the framing of the problem. I have written a lot about behavior change. Your motivational system engages goals to act on the world. When you are annoyed at someone in your house, that can mean being energized to take out your frustrations on that person verbally.
Once you engage that goal, the only thing standing between you and the launch of a verbal assault is a secondary system that inhibits (or stops) the action you have engaged but don’t really want to perform. This “Stop System” is fallible and can be disrupted by stress, alcohol, and exhaustion. And all of these are in large supply these days.
So, you cannot expect that your ability to stop yourself is going to save your from making a comment that you’ll later regret. Instead, focus on a productive action you can take in that moment. If you come across a dish in the sink that could have been washed, rather than getting angry at whoever left it there, you could wash it. Or, if you want to address that later, you could leave a note about the dish and then do something else.
If you’re engaged in a conversation and find your temperature rising, then ask to disengage for a few moments. Stepping away is better than stepping into a minefield.
When the motivational system engages a goal, it puts energy behind that goal. That energy is available to help you to accomplish the task. And when you engage the goal strongly, you have a lot of energy to bring to bear. When you are deeply invested in something that has gotten you upset, that energy influences the strength of your response. You get frustrated or yell because you’re energized.
That means that you’re going to have to dissipate that energy. Two safe ways to do that are to take a walk and to take a deep breath (or both, I suppose). A little exercise is good, because it actually uses up the energy you built up. Plus, some light exercise (and some sunlight, ideally) will lift your mood.
Deep breaths work, because they counteract stress responses, which tend to lead you to take short fast breaths rather than long slow ones. It is an interesting facet of human psychology that our motivational states can affect our physiological responses, but the reverse is also true. We can influence our motivational state through our actions.
Another thing about energized goal engagement is that it makes whatever you’re planning to do seem like a good idea. You focus on information that relates to the goal. If you’re angry about the dirty dish, all you can see or think about in that moment is that dish. Because the object of your anger gets magnified in your mind, you feel particularly justified in the response you’re going to make.
Before you launch into that verbal tirade, give it the headline test. Imagine the headline of the day is: News Flash: I just chewed my roommate out over a dirty dish. The object of that outburst had better be worth it. If you realize that perhaps your reaction is out of line with the reality, then perhaps it’s worth laughing off the power behind your response and taking a different approach.
In general, yelling at other people doesn’t get you the response you want. And yelling at someone you’re quarantined with can create some awkward moments afterward. But if you’re going to bust out the big verbal guns, then you should at least do it when you won’t feel deeply silly about it a few hours later.