Sweat the Small Stuff: How pretending we’re less petty than we are, keeps us petty

Photo by  Kullez

Photo by Kullez

In 1996, Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff became a publishing hit, eventually spending a hundred consecutive weeks on the New York Times Best Seller’s list. 

It delivered pithy advice about how to reduce stress with section titles like “Ask Yourself the Question, ‘Will This Matter a Year from Now?’”, “Think of Your Problems as Potential Teachers” and “Don’t Interrupt Other Peoples Sentences.” With over twenty-six million copies sold, the book clearly struck a chord. 

But what if the call to “not sweat the small stuff,”actually has the opposite effect

What if consciously sweating the small stuff is exactly what we need to do to get over them?

Our Judgmental Minds

All of us have minds that are petty and judgmental. Our mind’s ability to spin endless self-serving stories and create mountains of imagined bullshit is stunning, a testament to its power of creation. 

And for many of us, one of its most powerful stories is that the small things shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t make us upset, and certainly shouldn’t be shared with others.

It’s your problem, so get over it. 

Our cultural narratives of withholding are thick: men, keep a stiff upper lip; women, don’t be a hysterical bitch. These serve to keep us quiet and in line, and most importantly, hold us back from growing.  

We tell ourselves we should be able to get over these daily micro-indignities and will ourselves to be a better, more evolved person.

But if we look closely at our lives, we realize that the small things actually do matter to us, that no matter how much we chalk them up to our conditioning or our childhood, or rationalize them away as unimportant, we make them important

And it’s not by some magic flick of the wrist or by telling ourselves not to sweat it that these things become unimportant. 

An eye roll from a lover. 

An unreturned text message from a friend. 

Dishes left in the sink. 

The tone of a conversation.

The type of clothes someone wears. 

The arrangement of pillows on a sofa.

The more we pretend that these things don’t matter to us, the more we live a pretend life, the life of an actor without a stage following a play they were never cast in.

And the more they build.

Sweat the Small Stuff Out Loud

An alternative experimental antidote to getting over the small stuff in your life is to share your pettiness and judgmental mind out loud with others

When you share your judgmental mind and clear the resentments as they arise, they build up less of a backlog. When not shared, what started as a tiny trigger increases, and eventually, you forget what the original trigger was and feel a giant bubble of unspecified anger.

If you’re triggered, the popular idea that you should wait until you have calmed down to share your pettiness may be misguided, mostly because your mind is more likely to convince you that withholding is better than sharing. 

Tell your partner you're mad at them when they folded the sheets the “wrong” way. Or your friend that didn’t text you back. Tell them you didn’t want to share this with them because you didn’t think it was right or that it seems silly and then do it anyway. 

Tell them how attached you are to the world being your way. 

Notice your body as you tell them. You’ll most likely feel an increase in sensations throughout your body and then a decrease. That’s good. That’s movement and change. When you’re body changes, your thoughts change.

Increase and decrease of sensation

Increase and decrease of sensation

Stick with them until you are actually not sweating the small stuff. 

Be specific as possible and develop your ability to notice what was actually said or done that initiated the trigger. Catching yourself early and reporting what you notice as it occurs is the essence of moment-to-moment honesty and the essence of radical honesty

The Problem With Hiding Our Sweat

Sweating is uncomfortable when we’re wearing a heavy jacket but feels good when we’re exercising. It’s the same with sharing our pettiness out loud.

In the first example, the heavy clothing is our performance, the way we pretend with others. When we’re triggered and we maintain our pretense, we sweat and it’s uncomfortable. 

But when we’re exercising, sweating keeps us cool and allows us to keep expressing the movement of our body. Sharing allows us to move on and continue living, alive to each moment.

The problem with hiding our psychological sweat is that too often our unexpressed pettiness distances us from our partners and friends, turns into gossip, text ghosting, writing someone off, or silent resentments.

When not shared, we may say to ourselves that we are taking care of the other person, not burdening them, but more often than not, we’re protecting our image and performance, continuing to judge anyway, and maintaining an internal pose of superiority. 

In attempting to pretend we don’t sweat the small stuff, our mind continues its goody two-shoes performance, and we remain isolated and trapped within imagined stories about other people’s imagined stories.

It’s Okay, We’re All Petty and Pretentious 

There is such a strong social taboo against sharing our pettiness and pretentiousness out loud that we quickly forget that we’re all petty and pretentious. We all sweat the small stuff all the time. And sharing that we care so much (and get angry about) something that we tell ourselves should be small and insignificant is embarrassing, at least at first. 

But as Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty says, “If you have never truly embarrassed yourself by what you had to say about yourself, you don’t know shit from shinola about transformation.”

Photo by  Polina F

Photo by Polina F

It Takes Courage

It takes courage to see ourselves clearly, to face our phoniness, and to share our actual experience with others. We all worry about what other people think about us; we want everyone to like us and think we’re special, smart, interesting, caring, and important. 

Perhaps the thrust for many of us in fantasizing about being famous or a celebrity is that it seems, in a certain sense, to be so much less work. People want to listen to us, want to help us when we have a problem at a restaurant, want to be around us without us having to do much of anything. We assume a little more dignity.

But real dignity and freedom come not from mystique or power over others, but by developing our capacity to attend to our own experience moment by moment and sharing it freely. In doing so, we are implicitly valuing our own life, building a foundation of self-acceptance by giving ourselves permission to share who we actually are. 

We Can’t Think Our Way Around It

We can’t think our way around our pettiness and pretension with maxims and pithy sayings. The mind is just too cunning for that. 

But sharing it out loud with other people interrupts the frenetic mind, allows us to feel our experience more deeply, often one of embarrassment or shame, so that it can come and go. It’s a kind of community service that gives us all permission to drop our guard that is only really protecting a fearful and neurotic mind. 

And this kind of uncomfortable sharing is how growth and learning happens, a learning about the sweaty small stuff that frequently opens us up to a deeper learning: that who we pretend to be, by withholding what is actually so for us, is not who we are. 

Perhaps it’s time we got curious about our pettiness and all had a good sweat together

Curiosity Enlivens the Cat

  1. When you notice petty or judgmental thoughts, share them with a friend and have a conversation about it.
  2. If you become triggered, notice if your mind shuts your feelings down by saying they are petty or unimportant. 
  3. Notice your body when you’re triggered. What is happening? Rapid heartbeat, tightness in throat, heat in face? Allow all those sensations to be there. Notice when they shift. 

Take Action

  1. If you want to explore your judgments and pettiness with others in order to get over them, join an upcoming Honesty Lab Workshop or Radical Honesty Intro Night. 
  2. Watch our Radical Honesty Intro video.
  3. Sign up for our weekly Honesty Inspiration newsletter to get more articles on how to live your life out loud. 
John Rosania