Coming: Do a Grouch a Favor Day

(MARTY LEDERHANDLER / Associated Press)
(MARTY LEDERHANDLER / Associated Press)

Why sweet treatment is right for a sourpuss

Posted: February 15, 2012

My friend Susan, having just relocated from New York, joined the school dance committee in order to meet new parents at her daughter's school. Eager to help, she made a suggestion about decorations at a meeting. What she got back from the parent sitting across from her was a roll of the eyes and a surly: "Um, aren't you new here?"

"It felt like junior high all over again," Susan told me later. "I felt humiliated and angry, and yet it was over nothing. Part of me wanted to say: 'Are you kidding me?' Another part was thinking: 'Well, you've got bad hair!' "

Susan's story of the committee grouch sprang to mind when I noticed that Thursday is National Do a Grouch a Favor Day. We all encounter grouches in life; it's not our fault that they are miserable, and they may not even intend to be cruel. But the last thing we usually want to do is a favor for someone who hurts us.

It's time to upend our thinking on how to handle prickly, snarky, or even downright mean people.

Not only will keeping our cool help the culprit, but there's something in it for us too.

Our first reaction to an abrasive person is usually to personalize the attack and scratch right back. The problem then: One grumpy person multiplies into two. Researchers at Emory University have a different suggestion: Intentionally summon feelings of empathy and compassion for that person. This is a kind of compassion meditation, according to psychiatrist Charles Raison and coauthor Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi. Compassion meditation differs from traditional meditation, where the goal is to let your mind be free without agenda. With compassion meditation, we have a job. We are asked to go outside of our comfort zone and think positively about people we love (easy), people we ignore (a little harder), people we don't like (bingo).

To practice with grouches, surmount your inner resistance, unclench your teeth, and soften to them. Imagine the many reasons why they act the way they do. Stretch to understand their predicament, their suffering and pain and realize, importantly, that it has nothing to do with you. Rather than protest or retaliate, pause and develop a sense of connection. Send those people goodness and appreciation. Researchers found that students went away from the study more automatically altruistic, more flexible in their thinking, and with more self-compassion. They even showed physical benefits, such as a reduction in physical inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress.

Exactly how do we control the retaliate button and proactively prevent injury by the stray fast-balls of social interaction? Practice. If you want to set a new pattern in motion, the next time you get hit between the eyes by someone's snarkiness, think: This a chance to strengthen that compassion muscle.

Every day, take the challenge to spend a few minutes putting yourself in another's shoes. If you approached them with acceptance rather than judgment, what would it sound like in your head? Ease yourself in with the mild remark made by someone you do like.

There are many benefits: As we learn how to bend rather than break when we get too close to the bristles of a prickly person, we are less likely to perpetuate the unpleasantness on the next innocent bystander. We save ourselves anguish by not taking in and personalizing other people's bad moods. Finally: Being kind feels good, immediately.

Susan later told me, "I could have tried to one-up her at the next meeting, but instead I thought, 'yes, I am new here, so I don't know the backstory on that woman's unhappiness, but likely there is one.' I decided to turn things around and seek out her expertise as a seasoned parent. She looked surprised to be asked. I think it felt good for both of us."

With all of us sending goodwill, we increase the chances that we will be granted compassion when we are the ones having a bad day. In the end, the favor of compassion comes back to us in spades.


Tamar Chansky is a licensed psychologist and the author of "Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: Four Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want." Contact her at tamarchansky.com or @freeingyourmind on Twitter.

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