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A Simple Trick For Becoming A Calmer Person

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In his one of his many excellent columns, Oliver Burkeman offers a counter-intuitive strategy for those who have trouble sleeping: tell yourself it’s not a big deal. You’ll fall asleep when you fall asleep.

The point is that telling ourselves we must get to sleep right away—and that grave problems will arise if we don’t—is probably the number one reason we can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean sleep isn’t important, or that sleep problems are never serious, only that the more vehemently we insist we must already be sleeping, the less sleep we will ultimately get.

This strategy acknowledges a subtle but important reality about the problem: we can’t directly control when we fall asleep. We really want that control, however, and we can make the problem much worse by grasping too stridently at it. And whether we do that is something we can control.

With practice, anyway.

We can make use of a similarly counter-intuitive approach for becoming generally calmer people in waking life.

We all want to be more calm. We want to spend more time feeling peace and ease, and less time feeling anger or agitation. Naturally, we try to experience more of the thing we like, and less of what we don’t like.

So, when calm is present, we try to keep it around, and when emotions like anger and agitation appear, we reflexively try to get rid of them. We try to fight them and push them away.

This pushing-away impulse is another instance of nature’s crude approach-avoid programming leading us astray. As you know by now if you read this blog, many of our reflexive responses to pain and adversity are tuned for survival rather than happiness, and lawless savannahs rather than modern life. By trying to steamroll our tough emotions rather than let them naturally arise and dissipate, we’re actually ensuring that they cause us more distress and stick around longer.

This habitual pushing-away tends to take the form of rumination. We try to neutralize the uncomfortable emotion with a firehose-blast of reactive thinking—mentally reliving the inciting event, rehearsing indignant speeches we’d like to make to certain parties, or otherwise trying to argue our way back to peace and calm.

But this habit only fuels the fire. Just like a self-flagellating insomniac, we’re trying to assume a kind of direct control over our experience that simply isn’t available, and that makes us feel even more out of control. The emotion snowballs. The mental scenarios proliferate.

There’s a counterintuitive approach that works much better, as taught by some therapists, and every single meditation teacher:

When you feel an unpleasant emotion, like anger or agitation, instead of trying to get rid of it, try becoming aware of it.

But aren’t we already aware of it? I wouldn’t be upset if I was unaware of my anger, right?

Well, no. When something sets us off, we might become briefly aware of the anger, for a second or so. But anger is unpleasant, and we don’t want to experience it. So our attention rebounds off it like a bullet into our thoughts, where we feel we have some control over what’s happening.

Once we’re preoccupied by the situation around the emotion, we’re no longer directly aware of the emotion. In an effort to immediately resolve the trouble, we madly rehearse imagined confrontations, fantasize about the cavalry coming, or explain to ourselves—or perhaps to some unfortunate person nearby—why we shouldn’t have to experience this.

But what if, once we recognized that anger (or any other strong emotion) is present, we refrained from engaging with those fantasies and narratives, at least for a few minutes, and instead just observed the emotional experience itself, in as matter-of-fact a way as possible?

By “the emotional experience itself” I’m referring to the embodied, physical part: the actual pit-in-stomach feeling, the heat, the raised heartrate, the various clenching and contracting that tends to happen. Although we often conflate them, the rumination and argumentation around the emotion are not the emotion. They’re reactions to the emotion. But they can fuel the emotion indefinitely, sustaining and deepening it.

If you simply did your best to observe and allow* the emotional experience itself, returning to it each time you got caught up in the surrounding story, how long do you think that emotional intensity would last?

The answer is: the least possible amount of time.

You’d think that refraining from fighting the emotion would lead to it ballooning uncontrollably until it took us over. But the opposite happens. The initial heat and noise is intense, but without the fuel source of rumination and rehearsal, the peak comes—and goes—relatively quickly.

Rumination, on the other hand, does tend to billow out until it consumes our entire experience. The inner arguing and rehashing provide a limitless fuel supply for the fire.

Don’t take my word for it, but doing this practice can help a person recognize that most emotional sensations themselves aren’t nearly as painful, or as long-lived, as the struggle to avoid feeling them. Once you take up that struggle, then you’re caught in a form of the insomniac’s paradox: inadvertently keeping the emotion wide awake by insisting that it must “sleep” immediately.

At its heart this is a simple trick, arising from a simple insight. Knowing that you can’t force unpleasant emotions away, try being aware of them instead of fighting with them. That’s it. Try it and see how the outcomes differ.

This practice, if you take it seriously, will make you a calmer person over time, guaranteed. That doesn’t mean you’ll never experience anger, or shame, or sadness, or any fewer than every single one of the emotions that make us human. But you’ll get caught in them for hours or days much less often. Rumination will still happen, of course, but you can come to see it as reminder that there’s an alternative.

Like many simple tricks—shuffling cards, poaching an egg—you can learn this to an effective level just by trying it a few times, while mastery might remain a lifetime away. Years into my mindfulness practice I keep discovering new layers to my reactivity and emotional habit chains, and as time goes on I can observe increasingly intense emotions in this way. (Of course I still get overwhelmed sometimes.)

It’s not an instant magic bullet, of course, it’s just the most sensible thing to do. It can be learned, and there will be as many chances to practice as you could ever ask for.


*I feel the need to point out that accepting the presence of anger (or any other reactive emotion) is not the same as accepting the situation that triggered the emotion. You still may want to take some sort of sensible action, which invariably does not require anger, nor is anger any help in deciding what’s sensible. In fact, in my experience, most emotional reactions are simply reactions to the possibility that there is a problem. Only a minority of the time is there a real problem that requires intervention.

A New Thing I’m Doing

Hey Raptitude readers.

I’ve made something new.

As you know I’m a huge mindfulness geek. My goal is to make it at least as popular as physical exercise. And it should be – it’s at least as beneficial, it takes less time from your day, and it’s less work.

In 2019 almost everyone wants to learn it anyway, and there are tons of ways to learn. But we’re a very distractible culture, and many people tend to bounce off their first attempts at mindfulness. They get the apps and the books, and try them for a while, but get derailed before they really get going.

So, with the idea of knocking the barrier to entry waaaay down, as low as possible, I created a tiny mindfulness course for anyone who wants it.  

It’s completely free, barely takes any time, and is meant to be easy and fun enough that people might actually do it.

It’s called 3-Minute Mindfulness. (3MM for short.) It comes through your email: five quick lessons in five days.

Your homework is literally one minute a day.

It will teach you:

  • What mindfulness actually is
  • Three ways you can practice it anytime, anywhere
  • Why you might want to do that

After the course ends, I’ll encourage you to develop your mindfulness further, either through Camp Calm (my 30-day meditation course) or by any other means that appeals to you, along with some tips and insights that have helped me.

(If you just want to do the mini-course and leave it at that—no worries, and no hard feelings.)

It’s available to everyone: Raptitude readers, total strangers, beginners, veterans, Camp Calm alumni, friends, family, pets.

Sign up and it will come straight to your inbox. You don’t need to do anything else.

Go here to sign up


Photo by Faye Cornish

Ashley Kung February 21, 2019 at 5:32 am

THANK YOU. This is just the advice I needed, it’s perfect timing. Just a week ago I realized I was regularly getting myself worked up over things, and it is something I wanted to get under control. I specifically made the goal of becoming a calmer person. Even the sleep tip is helpful – I’ve got a four month old baby! The extra sleep I could get just from falling asleep faster would be a godsend.

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 8:59 am

Oh good! Each emotion has its own signature, it’s actually pretty interesting when you allow yourself to explore it. At first it feels like hanging out in a room you used to not be allowed in, if that makes sense.

Ashley Kung February 21, 2019 at 11:23 am

Cool! I look forward to experiencing that.

Leah February 21, 2019 at 5:38 am

Great post, David. When I went through a period of depression several years ago, I found that allowing myself to feel the weight, and let it carry me as it wished, ultimate gave the depression less power over me with time. Only once I stopped fighting it, did it run it’s course and finally leave me. The emotion spent to fight it was counterproductive – the depression only dug in. Each person’s circumstance will vary, of course, but in my case, just letting myself feel the emotion and not resist or feel guilt or shame about it, was what ultimately took it’s power away from me. I have tried to explain this to others before and told that it was wrong to not fight, that I was giving up if I didn’t fight, but I don’t think that is always true. Anyways, I love this alternative and counterintuitive look at managing emotions. Thanks, as always, for sharing your insights through your blog. I’m looking forward to the 3MM!

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 9:00 am

Right… because what do we use to fight emotion we don’t like? More emotional energy. It makes it snowball. We’re very conditioned to do this, but we can start to condition ourselves not to see our emotions as enemies to be defeated but as condition that arise to draw our attention to certain concerns for a limited time.

Valerio February 22, 2019 at 9:29 am

I believe it was Richard Carlson who said “listen to your feelings, because they’re trying to tell you something”.

Randy Hendrix February 21, 2019 at 7:28 am

Another excellent post David…looking forward to 3MM!

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 9:01 am

Thanks Randy. I hope you enjoy.

Rose Pearson February 21, 2019 at 11:50 am

Thanks for the reminder! I just started living alone and I notice that not having anyone to complain or vent to really helps me stay present with the emotion itself. If I need to vent I write it out. It’s a fine line! Sharing authentically verses exacerbating a transient storyline that likely isn’t true.

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 3:28 pm

Ah that is really interesting… I remember especially in the 1990s, “venting” was always presented as a necessarily healthy behavior. I think in most cases it just perpetuates the reactivity. There is such thing as repressing emotion, but awareness is the opposite.

Diane I. Young February 21, 2019 at 12:47 pm

Thank you. I have reached the age when I can finally look at my emotions without letting them derail my life (but not all the time). It’s great to have this reminder

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 3:29 pm

That’s wonderful… Wisdom!

Marina February 21, 2019 at 2:24 pm

Thanks David for this post, it validates what I have experienced when I let go of resistance. We’re taught to remove, avoid, and suppress anything that feels the slightest discomfort, yet we wonder why the same things we avoid keep showing up in our lives.

Being with the emotion has been a challenge, yet when I practice it, it’s the most effective for feeling at peace. Perhaps I could change the framework for when uncomfortable emotions come up – welcome and experience them, instead of running away from them.

David Cain February 21, 2019 at 3:33 pm

Yes! We demonize unpleasant experiences, but they are natural. And ironically, that resistance tends to make it worse. I think “challenging” is a good way to describe these emotions, because we can be with them. They aren’t bad or wrong.

Ginzo February 21, 2019 at 6:50 pm

Great intro to mindfulness. Rumination, also known as the ‘Story-teller’, can keep us spinning out of control. We are no longer dealing with the original problem; we react to the drama that we created in our mind. But there’s also the ‘good’ times that we pursue and want to repeat. So, its constantly push away the unpleasant and pull in the pleasant. Is that all there is? Of course not. When a cloud passes in the sky, it just ‘is’.

David Cain February 22, 2019 at 9:46 am

Yes. Our attention quickly loses track of the original problem and gets lost in possibilities and rehearsals. In this article I’m pointing to awareness of body emotion, but it is also possible to be directly aware of the surrounding mental talk (and mental image) associated with the emotion as well, and when we do that we can dis-identify with it. It really changes your relationship to the ‘storyteller.’

Prakash February 22, 2019 at 5:14 am

Greatly expressed. Recently I attended Vipassana camp and was taught the same thing 10 hours per day. This is great wisdom! a discovery that the more we judge, push, resist, identify the more it lingers and consumes our attention and energy. It multiplies in unconsciousness and vanishes in awareness. I wonder why these bits were not taught in schools! Anyway, now we have and make the best use to irradicate negativity from inside and others to best possible dimension.

David Cain February 22, 2019 at 9:49 am

This can become much more clear on retreat. As you know, when you have lots and lots of time to simply observe, the reactivity level goes waaay down, for most people lower than it has ever been in their lives, and a person can see these processes much more clearly. But just a little awareness can do a lot.

liza February 22, 2019 at 6:00 am

I love your blog and have been reading it for years. I hope you’ll forgive this tiny criticism, and it would be just as well if you didnt necessarily post it with other comments… but i was admittedly deflated by the phrase “a simple trick,” because it made the title appear as does so much endless clickbait. Internet culture has done its work to destroy that phrase. Also, what you describe is not a trick, really, is it? Rather a technique. A trick, in the traditional definition, is something designed to deceive, is it not? Perhaps people are so accustomed to this oft-employed phrase generated by marketers, and the inappropriateness of its meaning has become so diluted, that it passes unnoticed by readers and writers alike. But when i saw it, it really bothered me. Please don’t mind my saying so, but i hope you’d consider exchanging “trick” for “technique” or something more appropos to your lovely writing and your always profound and much appreciared insights. Thank you so much for all the work you do.

David Cain February 22, 2019 at 9:56 am

I get what you’re saying. I struggled with the wording of this headline. Trick isn’t great but nothing else worked. I wanted to emphasize the simplicity of what is happening here. It is a very straightforward move of the attention from the circumstance of the emotion to the emotion itself. “Skill” or “technique” sound too heavy, as though some learning is necessary before applying it. “Way” is too vague. I see this trick/technique/approach as analogous to Oliver Burkeman’s trick for defeating the self-created insomnia snowball.

Headlines are vital for blog posts. The wrong one can kill a good article, and that has happened to me many times. If I err on the side of sensationalism, and a few people are annoyed by it, I can live with that. But if I err the other way, it often means a few thousand people won’t read it who otherwise would, and that is a big deal. The substance is in the text of the article, and I want a lot of people to get to that part. It’s a very tricky dilemma and I’m trying not to get as bogged down by it like I used to.

Valerio February 22, 2019 at 7:16 am

It’s amazing how many great, different people mention mindfulness as something that has improved their lives. Oliver Burkeman and Celeste Headlee come to mind. It could be argued that Eckhart Tolle is actually talking about mindfulness when explaining the ‘Power of Now’. Richard Carlson praises Kabat-Zinn’s work in his book ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’.
It’s interesting to see how many people point to the same concept, coming from different backgrounds.
For me mindfulness has opened a whole can of worms. There are days when it’s hard to bear the weight of my own thoughts yet I’m happy that I took the first step.
Btw, excellent post as always. ;-)

David Cain February 22, 2019 at 10:03 am

Richard Carlson’s book was a vital turning point in my life. It’s where I learned about Jon-Kabat Zinn, and that’s where my mindfulness journey started.

Eckhart Tolle is such an interesting case. He emphasizes a direct investment in present-moment experience, and downplays the need to practice meditation or mindfulness techniques. His approach is to keep looking directly into the present, and see it as the entirety of reality. It is, as far as I’m concerned, but I believe most people need to practice mindfulness meditation or other techniques in order to get over the evolutionary and cultural conditioning that make us preoccupied with past and future. He describes his enlightenment as happening in a flash, at a moment of peak stress and despair. I believe his account, but I do not believe most people can expect that to happen to them.

Tonya February 22, 2019 at 7:57 am

LOL I’m the queen of having imagined conversations where I try to control the outcome of a situation involving another person. The con of having a very vivid imagination! I’m going to give this a shot. I have been feeling way to agitated and irritable lately to let this keep going!

David Cain February 22, 2019 at 10:06 am

Great. Just keep it simple. When you notice there’s a strong emotion present, consciously decide to explore the bodily side of it — what it feels like in the body.

You’ll notice there is a strong temptation to dive into the mental talk around it. Promise yourself you can get back to that later if you still want to. But just see what happens if you observe the bodily sensations themselves.

دانلود فیلم ایرانی February 22, 2019 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the reminder! I just started living alone and I notice that not having anyone to complain or vent to really helps me stay present with the emotion itself. very goood

David Cain February 23, 2019 at 2:31 pm

I hadn’t really thought of this before Rose’s comment, but comet to think of it I’ve often found myself much angrier about a situation after having the opportunity to share that anger with another person. I’ve even noticed that I created a whole new level to the indignation than I initially felt. Much is still made of “venting” as a healthy behavior, but I don’t think it is.

Rose February 24, 2019 at 6:38 pm

I find mindfulness to be so so. Sometimes it’s helpful other time it’s annoying. In the throes of intense emotions like anger, indignation or sadness, venting works best for me. It helps me to calm down, be less reactive and gain some perspective.

Anastasia February 28, 2019 at 2:37 am

Great post! Thank you. I just experienced what you have brought up in your post. I got angry because of something and the more I tried to put aside my emotions and calm down, the more I struggled. Usually what works is to do something else and keep my mind busy doing some useful activity until the restlessness subsides by itself. Or some relaxation session, but it would take time. I guess it takes practice to balance our response, doesn’t it.

Peggy@PeggysProjects March 6, 2019 at 5:32 pm

I am just starting to learn mindfulness, so I really appreciated this clear description of it to help me better understand and enact it in my own life. Thank you!

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