An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
As I have stated before at various times in this extremely long-running series, surviving in the modern world is quite different from any other period in human history for one big reason: it’s a lot more about deciding what should be done or who can do something for you than it is about actually doing things yourself.
Whether it’s picking a mechanic (rather than fixing your own car), dealing with a huge range of taxes (rather than fixing our own roads or financing your own personal tank), trying to figure out insurance plans (rather than rebuilding your house from your savings account), picking a doctor (rather than trying to treat yourself), or maneuvering around Susan’s backstabbing at the office (rather than throwing her into a volcano as a human sacrifice), we all have to make very intricate decisions on a daily basis, and that’s just life.
Now, there’s a thing about decision-making: when your emotions turn on, your brain turns off.
Whether it’s looking for a new insurance provider because yours denied your claim, trying to parse a mechanic’s explanation of why you need to pay $3,000 for a new alternator, understanding which of seven different specialists you have to go to first to get a cancer treatment, or finding a new way to tell Susan to read your last email for the love of GOD, no decision is made better by emotion. We are very likely to make the wrong choice in these instances if, for example, we are too mad to watch our language, or too frustrated to consider all the available options.
Keeping a level head is absolutely necessary in these situations, because it keeps you from making rash choices. I have never sent an angry email that I didn’t later regret, and I have absolutely regretted making quick choices about doctors and insurance providers. Just because it feels good to tell someone to fuck off in the morning does not mean that I won’t still have to deal with them in the afternoon. Most of our relationships do not live or die according to our whims, and most of our business and financial arrangements bear consequences months or years after a decision has been made. Staying calm and rational in these instances is essential to living well.
Ok, so how does one keep a level head?
Everyone is different. My ways won’t work all work for you, your ways won’t all work for me. Nonetheless, here’s a quick pick list of tactics you can use to stay calm in the face of elation, frustration, fear, love, and rage when making big decisions.
- Stay healthy — Get sleep, eat good food, take recreation, exercise, treat pain. You’ll have a much easier time staying calm if you’re not already stressed due to physical conditions.
- Know what you want — In any situation where you know ahead of time that you will have to make a complicated choice, start by figuring out what your preferred outcome actually is. Doing this in advance will help you make a snap decision in the moment, even in the face of strong emotion, by giving you an anchor point. For example, if you are angry with a coworker, think about what you actually want before you complain about that coworker to your boss. Do you want them fired or disciplined, or do you just want an apology?
- Count to ten and breathe — This is another good starting point for most people. Practice counting to ten and taking three deep breaths before you make decisions under stress. There’s nothing magical about this, it’s just an attempt to interrupt your brain’s stress reactions by forcing it to focus on something mentally taxing (math) and triggering a relaxation response (by deep breathing). Ideally this cuts down some of the fight-or-flight response and gives you some clarity.
- Be assertive, not aggressive — Try to state clear intentions, state your feelings, and/or indicate desires without inflecting your voice or words with strong emotion. Practice makes perfect with this one, and friends and family (if appropriately warned) can and usually will help you get this right.
- Take time — If you have the option to get out of an immediate decision when under pressure, take it. Then do something else for half an hour or so and come back to the topic. The idea here is to let your body calm down, let your adrenaline and stress hormones fade, give yourself time to think, and then come back to things with a more steady disposition and ordered thoughts.
- Make a list — In any circumstance where you have the time to do so, it is worthwhile to make a written list of pros and cons, or preferred options, for any big decision. Writing lists tends to calm people down by itself, and seeing your preferences all laid out on paper can help to put decisions in perspective. This is practically the only way to make good decisions about insurance, for example. If you can’t make a written list, try to make a list in your head.
- Avoid interpretation — When we are stressed, we sometimes hear or read too much into someone else’s statements. This is rarely a good thing. Try to intentionally take statements at face value, or politely ask for clarification if you think someone is being vague. It’s also worthwhile to assume innocence (or in some cases assume someone has made an honest error) rather than malice, until proven otherwise. The is particularly important with emails and texts; very few people are good at writing, it’s hard to emote via words, and it’s easy to take things the wrong way.
- Avoid toxic people — Friends or family who are always negative, are maliciously optimistic, or love to create stressful situations will not help you make good decisions and will actively suggest bad ones. Try to cut these people out of your life.
- Never send the angry email — But always write it. Again, writing things down is usually worthwhile because it forces your brain to think things through. Never send an angry email or text, but always write it and re-write it until you figure out what you’re actually upset about. Then address that topic only once you’ve calmed down.
- Stop shouting, stop cursing, and don’t punch walls (or people)— Research on this is somewhat mixed, but I have found in my own life that giving expression to anger trains the body to respond to situations with anger. You get an endorphin rush from shouting, cursing, and physical violence. It’s how we’re built. But this is a really bad habit to get into, because most of the time shouting, cursing, and hitting things do not actually solve problems in the modern world; usually quite the opposite. Practice interrupting that pattern before it gets started.
- Beware the honey trap — Always remember that if something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Avoid making any decision based on a snap rush of elation or other strong positive feeling. E.g., no stripper actually loves you, there is no stock that only goes up, and being in love is not sufficient reason to get married.
- Talk to someone who isn’t involved — Therapists exist for a reason, but talking to any neutral party (a friend who isn’t involved in the situation, your bartender, etc.) can help you process emotions and elicit advice from someone who isn’t in the trenches. You don’t have to take their advice, but it’s always useful to see other possibilities before you make a stressful decision.
- Talk through the issue — Simply remaining engaged in any stressful conversation can, over time and assuming no one is being insulting, help to calm the situation by increasing familiarity with the topic. Another way of saying that is, talk until it’s boring, then make a decision. Most strong emotions come with timers, and waiting out the clock is an option.
- If nothing else, be polite — Politeness costs nothing and can buy you as much as your life. Especially in confrontations around other people, the person who stays polite usually wins, and focusing on being polite keeps your brain from focusing on being mad, which is almost always useful.
- When in doubt, say nothing— If you are feeling particularly infuriated or otherwise stressed in a decision, and conversation isn’t helping, talking to the person who is generating those feelings is rarely going to produce good results. Politely disengage from the situation (e.g., “I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this right now, can we come back to this later?”), and only come back once you’ve calmed down.
- Remember that revenge is a dish best served cold — Sometimes you really do need to go to war, but don’t start a fight on a snap decision. Try to treat those occasions with the respect they deserve. If you realize that you have to be in conflict with someone, disengage from the initial confrontation, then figure out your strategy, marshal any allies you have, establish strong points and fallback positions, and re-engage on your own terms. Do not start fights you’re not prepared to finish, and finish any fight you start. In the immortal words of Sun Tzu, win first, then go to war.
The objective in all of these points is to think. Get as far away from emotional content as you can when making decision, because all choices require you to consider multiple variables and possibilities. If you’re not thinking, you’re almost certainly playing to someone else’s tune, and that’s not always good for you. Slow down, think it through, then decide what you’re going to do. And life will be a little easier.