I’ve always been a worrier, someone who lets the little things really get to her. Sometimes, you could call it being a perfectionist. Other times, you could just say I need to chill out.

Unfortunately, I seem to have passed this trait to at least one of my children. My oldest daughter suffers from low self-esteem (like many other teen girls her age) and can be extra hard on herself, which can lead to meltdowns and even, on a really bad day, attempts to self-harm.

I remember being a teenager with ‘perfectionist’ desires and an inability to meet the demands I set for myself. And then I remember being the wife and mother who would get angry with myself when things didn’t go as planned. And there are days when I’m still that person because no one is perfect, but I think I’ve found a way to help myself and maybe others to learn to let go of some of that self-directed anger and anxiety.

And I have toast to thank for it.

I can’t remember when the idea planted itself in my head, but it was probably a typical morning in my busy household. I was trying to get everyone fed, all the pets fed and watered, and my mile-long to-do list started. I managed to get everyone else sorted out, then realized that something was burning. It was a horrible, acrid smell that made me suddenly furious and tearful with anger. I’d burned my toast.

I usually keep my toaster on the exact same setting every single day. If I happen to want to cook something that takes longer, I’ll always reset the setting to the middle, so I can get the perfect toast the next time I want it. On this occasion, my husband had set the toaster on high to toast crumpets (because they MUST be crunchy to be delicious) and he’d forgotten to move the setting back.

It was a harmless mistake — I hadn’t checked that the setting was where I wanted it before I put the bread in. But I was furious at my own stupidity, at my husband for changing the setting, at the entire household for distracting me to the point of total toast destruction. The smoke coming out of the toaster wasn’t the only smoke in the room just then — I’m pretty sure it was coming out of my ears at that point.

And then I looked at my kids, who were wondering why Mom was screaming about burned toast when there was an entire loaf of bread sitting on the counter. How hard was it to simply throw out the burned stuff and try again?

I wanted to hold on to that anger, and that realization scared me. I don’t want to be the high strung, angry lady who flips her lid over burned toast. I mean, it’s just toast. It’s not worth stressing myself out and upsetting the kids. I can — and did — simply throw out the burned toast and made another batch that wasn’t burned.

It may seem trivial, but something as simple as burnt toast can send you into a downward spiral. One negative reaction seems to trigger another, and this can particularly be true if you’re prone to depression, like me. I would lose my temper about something so small, then spend the rest of the morning or even the rest of the day snapping at myself and others about other trivial matters. But if I gave myself permission to just acknowledge the damaged toast, then dismiss it, I could keep my mental space in better shape.

I know what you’re thinking — it’s just toast, right? Why on earth would anyone get upset over something so little? Well, why do we get upset over anything, really? Human emotions are unpredictable and hard to control. We get mad about stupid stuff all the time. But if we give ourselves permission to just toss out that anger and move on, well, it changes everything.

I can’t unburn the toast. But, I can take a deep breath, toss out that frustration, and think about what I can do. I could make more toast, or I could eat something different. Or I could not eat at all, if I choose. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get toast — that’s just a symbol of the source of my frustration — but it matters that I can take control of my emotions and the situation by choosing to mentally toss out the negative thing that just happened to me.

I explained this analogy to my daughter. She laughed at me, and then she realized what I was really saying. When she gets upset about something, I just remind her — it’s just toast, kid. It’s not worth getting worked up about, and even if it is, you can acknowledge the pain, toss it aside, and do something productive.

I overheard her telling her little sister that losing a game on her Nintendo DS was ‘just toast.’ They laughed about the saying, but it worked. It stopped a mini tantrum and gave both of my girls the realization that they have more control over their emotions than they realized before.

So, the next time you get angry or upset over something, try to remember, it’s just toast. Toss those burned-up, negative feelings away and go make something more productive, like fresh toast.

JB Woods is still trying to figure out who she is, but when she does, she’ll definitely let you know. She’s a writer, a mother, and a friend to humans.

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