I have wasted many hours being angry -- at a rolling boil and a low, persistent simmer. I've spent just as many being indignant, defensive, and annoyed. But wasted is, perhaps, too harsh a word. Because in many instances, those emotions fueled action: I penned a pointed letter, stood up for myself, joked about it and moved on.
But plenty of other times, it was clear that the other party had gotten my goat -- and good. I once taught a course teaching freelance writers how to manage their relationships with editors, and I got great feedback... save for one person who clearly hated me. Her instructor evaluation was ruthless and cruel, claiming she spent most of the class making our her shopping list. It took my breath away -- and my day ground to a halt. I talked to anyone who would listen about how shocked I was, how could she, and then I went in for the attack, assuming she was a miserable, failed writer who didn't like taking advice from someone 10 years younger than her.
But then I was as quickly aware that I was talking about it a lot. One salty review had derailed me, and the other 10 positive evals meant nothing? I remembered an interview I'd read about Madonna once, where she said if there were 100 people in the room and one of them didn't like her, she wanted to know why. Then I was kind of embarrassed: Why did I think everyone had to like me or agree with me -- or else? Because that seemed like a lot to ask.
Emotions, whether they feel good or bad, have a purpose, so long as they guide decision making or make you more aware. But when they don't, you end up on your own torturous mental treadmill, pounding out mile after angry mile and getting nowhere fast.
In her insightful column in the New York Times ("In Praise of Disregard"), Princeton professor Christy Wampole says we need to find a new way to cope with the frenzy of information, opinions, and anonymous vitriol that come at us full speed every day, online and off. And the answer is to disregard. But not in the negative sense of the word, which, in our cultural context, implies disrespect or blatant ignoring of a thing. True disregard, she says, should erode the influence of violent ideas.
Wampole confesses to being waylaid one too many times by any number of political and social issues, with one opinion piece able to set her emotionally afire. And she says this is how she has learned to cope. And she doesn't mean plugging your ears or putting blinders on -- because this feeds ignorance, not peace:
"While it is unwise to shut your ears to opinions that differ from yours, it is equally unwise to let these opinions (particularly in their sensationalized iterations) carry you to total despair. I argue, rather, for a careful selection of what is injurious to you and an excision of it from your life and thought," she writes.
If negative emotions fuel you to take action, then they have done their job. However, says Wampole, when we rehash and obsess and argue, going around and around on the same fights, we distract ourselves from the issues at hand.
In the past, it was easier to disregard stuff you didn't care about or that bothered you. But not anymore. Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you choose to do your reading and/or arguing, is a hall of mirrors, reflecting back in increasingly distorted ways our own biases, fears, judgments. Those 140-character whiplash responses hardly do much to get to something authentic -- we're too busy slapping each other in the head.
And while I believe public engagement and discussion of ideas is critical, I know darn well when I've gone down the rabbit hole. Sometimes it's fun and insightful and spirited; often it's not. I recognize that more often than not, I'm defending my own ego more than I am furthering a cause.
What if, as Wampole suggests, we identify the ideas and arguments that trouble us, and let them go? I know I'd be a lot calmer, and less riled, and probably, so would you. To my mind, it seems that her approach is akin to the very essence of mindfulness meditation: Pay attention, acknowledge, and let go.
Trap the Thought
But there's another step to being able to truly disregard, to erode the influence of angry, troubling emotions spurred on by stuff we read and hear: Catch that emotion in the act.
Jan Bruce, CEO of meQuilibrium, calls it the "trap it, map it, zap it" approach to troubling thoughts: Identify the moment you start getting hot under the collar; map it back to what idea or thought triggered it; and zap it -- question what's really going on there, and how worth your time is it? If it is worth your time, then what action will you take? And if it's not, disregard.
Ultimately, I was grateful for the harsh evaluation from that student, because it taught me that I could learn from all feedback, if i stripped away the reactive coating. And I did -- and went on to write a piece for the magazine where I worked about how to cope with negative criticism. And I actually didn't even think of that whole incident until, well, just now.
Stewing and reacting never made anyone a better, happier, smarter, or more respected person. I aim to be all of these things. And we'd do well to disregard, early and often.
Wampole closes her piece with this gentle nudge, which we could all use, daily:
"So redirect time and efforts wasted on adversaries toward friends. Accrue your energies for better things. Dismiss what damages you."
(Read: How to drop your anger habit.)
(Read: Why mindfulness is more than a fad.)
(Read: How to keep Facebook in perspective.)