Back to Journal

Getting Less Agitated by Other People

How can we increase the likelihood that we will go through a day with more calm? A day where we get agitated and frazzled is usually a day spent feeling distracted and victimized; where we don’t make time to appreciate what is good and beautiful about life. In contrast, when we can usher calm into our day, we can sail through choppy winds while keeping a straight course; we can comfort and encourage others around us, and appreciate things we would otherwise have overlooked.

One major source of agitation in life is, broadly speaking, other people. Other people are the most common disruptors of calm. Over the centuries, humans have proposed different ways of dealing with this fact, one of which is simply to run away from other people and live as a hermit. Another strategy—one which allows us to continue to participate in the world—is to understand more about psychology.

When someone gets angry with us, withdraws from us, or behaves like an asshole, we can remember a key psychological concept: the idea of a ‘complex.’ A complex is a name for an interconnected web of thoughts, emotions, and memories which most of the time lies dormant in the brain, but which can occasionally get triggered and become the center of consciousness for a time. An example of a complex being formed was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After witnessing these, many people were left with an interconnected set of emotions, memories, and thoughts, about planes hitting buildings and people dying in skyscrapers, which can be triggered and take over the mind. When someone is in the throes of this complex, they feel anxious, on edge, hyper-focused on certain imagined dangers, and self-protective. Such a time would not be ideal for a subtle conversation, or asking them for compassion, and they are more likely to snap and behave like an asshole.

So when someone is behaving badly and messing up our day, we can infer that they might be under the spell of some complex, formed initially by some painful experience in their history. A customer who comes into your coffee shop might once have been cared for by someone who didn’t really know how to care; now, when you fail to put the lid on this customer’s coffee correctly, they get surprisingly, ‘irrationally’ angry with you and your entire coffee shop. Most likely, their mind has been taken over by a complex. They feel deeply upset because they were not cared for properly. They have lost their normal mind—for perhaps half an hour. All of us get taken over sometimes by complexes of one sort or another.

Knowing that someone is under the spell of a complex can help you hold onto calm. You can imagine what they are going through, not judge them too harshly, and just patiently wait it out. It is a mental storm that will pass. Your own emotions don’t need to get caught up with it.

Image: Henry Ford, 1938, Samuel Johnson Woolf

Click here


Jack Fuller

Jack is a depth therapist and the founder of Archive. He has a doctorate in theology from Oxford University and a degree in neuroscience from Melbourne University. He is the co-author of The Imagination Machine (Harvard Business Press, 2022)