In the heat of the moment, one of the worst things to do is what people normally do–immerse themselves in their emotions and focus on their hurt. This response is like putting gasoline on a fire. It fuels the flame by keeping angry and aggressive thoughts front and center, making it more likely you will say something you later regret.
Psychological research offers a simple strategy to cool these hot emotions. When someone upsets you, try to pretend you are a fly on the wall and viewing the situation from a distance. This is known as “self-distancing.” The process of mentally stepping back from an experience and viewing it as separate from the self and through the eyes of an outside observer can help you stay in control.
In one study, college students were paired with a partner who, as part of the experiment, intentionally provoked and berated them for not following directions with comments like “Look this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions?” in an impatient and obnoxious tone. The students who had been told to adopt a self-distanced perspective were less quick to anger and responded less aggressively than those who immersed themselves in their feelings.
When you are psychologically distanced from a situation, you gain perspective. The long line at the grocery store might feel a little less personal. You are more likely to consider the possibility that the driver who cut you off is late to pick up her child from daycare and not just a jerk or that a disagreeable colleague is having a tough time at home and not just lazy. Potentially explosive interactions with, friends, family, partners, and even strangers are less likely to explode when you picture the moment from afar. Channeling a fly provides greater distance and as a result, less drama.