We all have our thing — that thing that unhinges our mind and sets the rest of our day onto a bad path.
For me, for you, for all of us, the thing that’s driving us crazy is never an actual thing, it’s another person. Think about it. Has a tree ever pissed you off?
Okay, well…maybe this tree could if you tripped over it enough times, but usually, it’s a person pissing other people off. You’re not mad at a car, you’re mad at the driver of the car. And those annoying trash cans of your neighbors that stay on the curb for an infuriating three extra days? You’re not mad at the poor little trash cans, you’re mad at your neighbor. The over-quoted Sartre was right, “hell is other people.”
And, if you have ever worked in food service, hell specifically is a customer telling you to smile more. Extra hell points if the customer is a white man and you’re a woman, regardless of race. When a black customer or one of my fellow gays tells me to smile, it’s deeply different. It’s a recognition of the hell that we’re BOTH stuck in, a way to tell me to keep my chin up and not to let the fuckers or the fuckery get me down, a gesture of solidarity, a “honey, you’ve got this.” But the white guy? Hah, nope. The instruction to smile is a reminder to remember my place, to be glad that I am gifted with the privilege of serving him and, more generally, a welcoming smile is what women are supposed to do, so what the fuck is wrong with me that I’m not beaming with joy at the jackass in front of me? I must be a dyke (true), who probably doesn’t even like children (also true), and definitely must hate men (not all men, but the list is growing, sir). You know what else I am? I’m the employee that remembers your favorite product, tells you right when you came in if it’s been moved to a new spot in the store, and gives the owner a heads up to order your favorite thing if we’re running low. I’m the waitress that leaves the floor to go tap a keg if the bartender says that your favorite beer has just kicked. I’m the waitress that won’t let your medium rare steak go to your table if it’s well done, with me, you never send food back, you never see bad food, I stop it from even happening. But yeah, I guess when you ask me why I’m not smiling and I’m mentally juggling all of the other customer’s needs in my head and you are acting like you’re entitled to all of my time, in the way that you act entitled to everything, then yes, white sir, I may not be the most pleasing of servants, but I work my ass off and I absolutely cannot say the same for you. *End of Rant*
So, sometimes I want to punch the customer and when I do, I repeat the “keep my job” mantra silently, and my frontal lobes grip onto my reptilian angry brain like a saddle to a wild horse and … I don’t punch the customer.
Small victories like that compose the whole of my work day when I’m in a mood. On days like that, I usually woke up kind of angry or anxious and ready for some outside influence to reinforce that mood. Hell isn’t solely just other people, hell comes from ourselves as well. (This is not to excuse the assholery of the smile-demanding, usually white guy, customers. They ARE assholes. But how we let their assholery impact us determines whether we can smile when they’re not around demanding it.)
Your body is always a greater source of calm than your mind until your anxious little brain succeeds in ramping up the blood pressure and gets your lungs freaking out too. If you listen to your body, if you pay attention to your breathing, you can calm yourself, you can accept the thing that drives you crazy, and — you can avoid punching the customer.
Besides repeating, “keep my job” to myself when I’m really stressed at work, there’s a simple breathing exercise that I employ until I forget about whatever got me angry in the first place.
Take a deep breath in through your nose and hold it for a slow count of three (one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.) Exhale very slowly through pursed lips. Feel the muscles in your neck and shoulders relax. Now, do it again. Focus on those breaths and let them become your whole world, your whole sensory experience, your immersive water that cleanses the schmuck stains from your soul.
As simple as it is, taking control of your breathing is taking control of your life. Not everything is as complicated as us anxious geniuses make it out to be. Start with the basics: food, water, loving yourself, and no punching. The world outside won’t get better, but you certainly will.