Peeved Off

We dive into the hidden meaning behind what drives us nuts and how we can try to overcome all the subtle little annoyances that can make or break a day.
Text by Dena Roché | May 26, 2018 | Lifestyle

It never fails — you’re at work completely immersed in a project when you hear an explosive sound from the cube next door. Your coworker is snapping her gum again, each pop sounding like a shot from a BB gun. Your concentration is blown and your irritability is skyrocketing. You can’t focus on anything but your pet peeve.
Let’s face it, pet peeves are a part of life. From the irritating coworker, to the bad driver, to the spouse who knows how to push your buttons, we’re forced to deal with irritations constantly. While pet peeves seem minor, cumulatively they can cause a significant amount of stress in our lives that is detrimental to our health and relationships. “It’s absolutely normal to have a few pet peeves,” says South Florida-based Therapist Nakya Reeves.
While it may be normal, it can make life challenging if we don’t learn how to master our reactions to things that bother us. Pet peeves have power because when we become annoyed our brains are shocked into focus mode and we become hyper-aware of our environment and the offending stimulus.
So why do certain things bug us in the first place? “There might be a more hidden reason for your peeve,” says Counselor Karen Carnabucci. “Peeves are personal triggers that may be about an unconscious worry or fear that needs to be addressed. Your peeve has become a habit.” For example, if you’re annoyed when someone borrows something of yours without asking, it may be because you were the youngest of a bunch of siblings and everything you got as a child was a hand-me-down, explains Reeves.
Or sometimes your peeve is rooted in a strong trait you have that you find lacking in the offending person. Case in point: A person who gets upset over gum-snapping probably has a belief in strong boundaries…including one not to irritate others. Your frustration stems from the fact that your expectations have been violated.
While nearly everyone has a few things that bother them, certain personality types are more susceptible to having lots of pet peeves. These include Type A personalities, anxious people and those who have a strong need for control. “The peeve is an immediate reminder that you are not in control, that there are limits to your control — and that irritates,” explains Carnabucci.
The problem with peeves is that once they’re triggered, it can be nearly impossible to focus on anything but the offending thing. “Once the seed is planted, you’re caught in a loop you can’t get out of,” explains Thomas Boyce, President of the Center For Behavioral Safety in San Francisco. “You can’t tell yourself to ignore it because that just makes you focus on it more.”
So what can one do? First, admit that you’re bothered. You can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge that you have one. If possible, remove yourself entirely from the situation. If you can’t, you have to focus on something else to distract your mind…but that can sometimes be a challenge because you’ve already assigned overblown meaning to your annoyances. Instead, the key to maintaining your sanity is to develop coping skills ahead of time.
One way to do that is through meditation. “This can help a person realize their thoughts are fleeting and that they can choose where to focus their attention,” says Carnabucci. Focusing on breathing can also help center a person and calm them enough to realize they can choose to focus their attention on something else.
While those strategies can be good for dealing with fleeting peeves like a bad driver or the person clipping their nails on the subway, peeves become more insidious when it’s an ongoing situation.
Think of a pet peeve as an allergen. At first, it causes mild discomfort, but continued exposure makes your reaction stronger and stronger until you eventually blow up. Not what you want in the workplace or the homefront. If you’re at work and dealing with a gum-snapper or a coworker who insists on having canned tuna for lunch everyday, you might talk to a few co-workers to see if the behavior is universally despised or if it’s just you. In either case, the best way to get relief is to talk to the offender, which can be challenging for many. Often, the person is clueless as to how their behavior is affecting others. “Recognize there’s no malicious intent behind it and have a gentle yet direct conversation about it,” advises Boyce.
Telling this person how the behavior affects you will often lead them to stop. In our significant relationships, pet peeves can be a barometer of the health of the relationship. “Pet peeves tend to show up in the midst of larger problems,” advises Carnabucci. “If there wasn’t an underlying issue, the pet peeve wouldn’t be quite so big. We often start to create a story in our mind about the peeve that may or may not even be true.”
For example, your husband leaves his socks on the breakfast table while he’s getting dressed and you think that it’s disgusting and have mentioned it to him, yet he persists in doing it. You tell yourself that if he loved you he wouldn’t do this, but the real story might be that throughout his childhood he did this and it’s simply a habit, not something designed to needle you. “Over half of the things couples fight about are little hassles,” says Life Coach Caroline Miller. “In any relationship, there are going to be little things you have to accept, it’s part of the package. You have to decide whether or not that little thing is a deal-breaker.”
Besides working with your spouse by telling them how their behavior affects you and what changes you would like them to make, you can also make changes in your own perspective. You can try and re-frame the peeve as a cute quirk in your mind. It’s not easy, but it can definitely be done. If your love likes telling dumb jokes and it bugs you, try and appreciate how joyful they are. If someone doesn’t load the dishwasher right, have gratitude that they’re healthy and you have this day together.
Life’s little irritations aren’t going to go away, but the way we cope with them can help us be less annoyed, have less stress and experience more joy with the people in our lives. And that’s something much more powerful than the sonic boom of gum-snapping.