Advice for Firefighters: Upset? Let’s Break it Down!


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

You’re upset. Your day was proceeding as planned—all daily duties taken care of, a couple of calls, all of which turned out as best you could hope, and you even had time for a quick lunch with your crew. But then, something happens to throw you into disorder. Maybe it’s a call from your mom with bad news about a family member. Maybe a constituent you’ve been mentoring suddenly does something really stupid. Maybe you almost hit a small child who darted across the apparatus bay when you were moving the rig.

Whatever it is, your previous “life is good” feeling is replaced with anger, worry or distress. And no matter what you tell yourself, you can’t shake the feeling.

We all get stuck feeling upset from time to time. Fortunately, understanding what’s going on inside our brains can help us self-extricate from the situation.

Author and lecturer Werner Erhard identifies three components to an upset:

  1. Undelivered communication
  2. A thwarted intention
  3. An unfulfilled expectation

Let’s break down all three and see how most of our upsets can easily be dismantled!

Undelivered communication means you wish you would have said something or spoke up but didn’t. Or perhaps you said something you wish you hadn’t. Regardless, the remedy is the same. Like spilt milk, clean it up: Politely say what you want to say, or apologize for the words that offended someone. Remember, how you say it matters.

A thwarted intention occurs when you intended to do something with a desired result in mind and it didn’t go the way you wanted. The key here is to remind yourself that not everything we do has the desired outcome or goes the way we want it to. It’s okay to feel disappointed. In fact, acknowledging that you’re upset can go a long way toward helping you let it go. It can also help to talk to someone else about it. “That didn’t go as I planned and it bothers me” or “I feel like I really messed up and missed an opportunity” — sometimes statements like these can start a valuable conversation or just help you put things in perspective.

The unfulfilled expectation. As the saying goes, “no expectation, no disappointment.” People and life will let us down. Conversely, we will let others down — and that’s okay. Things don’t always go our way. Think of all the things in your life that have gone your way. They far outweigh things that don’t!

Identifying what’s upsetting you is the first step to freeing you from the upset. So the next time you find yourself in a funk, analyze whether it’s coming from undelivered communication, a thwarted intention or an unfilled expectation. Try to be grateful and appreciate what you have. Learn to let things go, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is full of ups and downs.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it’s a great time to reflect on what causes us emotional discomfort and how we can learn to pull out of an upset. Understanding what contributes to our own emotions can also help when our friends and colleagues are upset. When you know where they’re coming from, and that you’ve been there before, you can provide them with a little grace. And don’t we all need that?

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.