The red pick-up cuts you off with no signal at all. The blue SUV is following you so close- it appears you are attached. Your right turn is approaching and you need to change lanes. So you put your signal on in plenty of time- yet you find yourself blocked. The driver in the silver sedan just won’t let you over. “COME ON!” you yell- or worse. We have all been there. Frustration on the highway.
Believe it or not, working in a psychiatric hospital helped me to better manage my highway frustrations. Yes- you heard me correctly. Working as a therapist in an acute inpatient psychiatric hospital helped me with interstate anger. My lesson helped my husband, too. Perhaps it can help you.
It was right after breakfast, and I was on my way to the group room thinking about the topic that I had picked to discuss for that day. The topics often varied depending on the needs of the group. Our hospital had a rather diverse population. We treated children, adolescents, and adults. We treated individuals who were chemically dependent, people who had experienced emotional trauma, and people who were suffering from extreme depression, anxiety and/or psychosis.
That particular day, I was preparing to facilitate a group on healthy ways to cope with distress. As I made my way to the group room, a patient (I will call Shelia) stopped me in the hall. She was angry. She pointed her finger at me and said in a thundering tone, “You! You’re the one! You are the one who snuck into my room in the middle of the night and shaved my head!”
Yes, I was caught off guard. Now let me inform you that she still had all of her hair, and I did not work evening hours. In a soft calm voice, I told Shelia that I was sorry that she was so upset. And I was. Wouldn’t you be upset if you thought someone had snuck into your room in the middle of the night and cut off all of your hair? And then I informed Shelia that there must be some kind of mistake because I had not been at the hospital the night before.
Shelia continued to insist that she was sure it was me. Her voice grew louder. She wanted to argue. She wanted me to engage. A nurse approached Shelia, hoping to calm her down. I simply excused myself, it was time for group to start. After Shelia calmed down, she would be welcome to join our group.
Should I have gotten upset and all bent out of shape from Shelia’s accusation? Should I have engaged in an argument determined to defend my position? What good would that do? I knew that I had not come into her room the night before. The hospital knew that I had not cut Shelia’s hair. She and I were simply not experiencing the same reality.
Since that time, I have applied a similar way of thinking to other areas in my life. Recently, my husband began to get upset because another driver cut him off. There was no accident- no one got hurt. Why? I thought. Why get yourself all worked up when someone else may not even be in the same reality as you? You see, when someone angers you on the interstate and you yell, “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?” you are assuming that they are in your reality and are reasoning the same way that you reason. Understanding that their reality may be different from yours and that you are getting upset over an issue that belongs to them, may help. You do not have to make it your issue.
The next time someone frustrates you on the interstate, do you think that you can tell yourself the following? They may not be in the same reality as me. I don’t know anything about this person. There may be no way to logically reason with this individual. THIS IS THEIR ISSUE, I DON’T NEED TO MAKE IT MINE! I DON’T HAVE TO LET THIS RUIN MY DAY.
View their problem as a sticky note. It has been stuck to them a long time. They are more than willing to throw their sticky note your way. Are you going to let it stick to you?
As a mental health worker, it is my job to help people with their sticky note. But I do not have to allow their sticky note to stick to me. I am there to help with a problem, not to become part of the problem.
Remember this- When someone else is acting irrational, their reality is different from yours. Expecting them to see the situation as you do, may not work. You can try to help them or you can walk away, but you do not have to engage and become part of the problem. Sometimes you just need to refuse the sticky note. Don’t let it stick. Don’t let their problem ruin your day.
The hospital experience is based on a true story, however, certain events were changed to protect the confidentiality of the individual involved.