Frustration can be a very challenging emotion for many of us. Chances are, it’s a feeling that you’re all too familiar with (because you are human). It’s been a part of our emotional repertoire since the moment we were born: we enter the world kicking and screaming and seeking something even close to the comfort we grew so accustomed to in the womb. For many people, this is the essence of frustration… to have a want, need, or longing for something that cannot be attained in that very moment. A lot of people seek counseling in order to address their experiences of frustration. They might feel like they have a low threshold for getting frustrated, or they may not like some of the things they do when they feel that way.
In this post I want to outline the practical reasons we experience frustration, and some strategies for keeping it under control.
-Why We Feel Frustration
As far as our range of emotions is concerned, frustration generally does not feel all that great, since it is inherently tense and unsettling. We experience feelings for very important and specific reasons. Emotions tell us about the world around us, and vary depending on the meaning we attribute to different experiences we have. Frustration is no exception to this. Although it may not feel comfortable in the way more pleasurable feelings do, it alerts us to the reality that things are not how we would like them to be. It can point us in the direction of what is important in our lives. Frustration points to important things that need our attention, but which also require some effort to change.
-What Determines Your Level Of Frustration?
The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling. The more we care about the object of our frustration, the more frustrated we’re likely to feel. For example, we might feel only slightly annoyed if we misplaced something of little significance and couldn’t track it down. We are likely to feel far more frustrated if we misplaced our car keys and couldn’t find them anywhere, increasing if we need to be leaving the house in a couple minutes to get to work on time. The intensity of that frustration would reflect the level of importance to each person to be able to get to work on time. Again, frustration points to a longing for an outcome that just isn’t happening.
That last example also illustrates another factor that can have a whole lot to do with how you experience frustration: how urgent something feels.
-Is Frustration a Problem?
Something only becomes a problem when it interferes in our lives intrusively or stops us from achieving something that we want to achieve, so it is based on the individual. The feeling of frustration, although uncomfortable and stressful, it is often totally understandable when looked at in context. Frustration, as with any emotion is the price of admission we pay for being human and living rich and meaningful lives. What we choose to do with our frustration (externalizing and taking it out on others, internalizing with negative self-talk) is often the determining factor in how much frustration poses a barrier to our lives (interpersonally or intrapersonally).
-Problematic Feelings or Problematic Actions?
Some emotions have a bad reputation because of how people behave when they’re feeling certain ways. Anger is a good example... it’s very common for us to think that it’s bad to feel angry because we associate it with violence and other problematic kinds of behavior. This leads to classifying emotions as bad or good, positive or negative… then leading us to want to resist any kind of discomfort and emotion that brings it on. Frustration is not exempt from that list of blacklisted emotions. Some people do and say unkind things, which only adds to the negative reputation frustration carries. Contrary to popular belief, I think that all emotions can be helpful. While it may not feel great to be frustrated, the emotional experience of frustration can tell us a whole lot about ourselves in relation to the world around us. In particular, the context in which we experience frustration can tell us:
What kinds of situations we feel challenged in
What really matters to us
Different aspects of our lives that may or may not be working for us
Not unlike other emotions, frustration can say a whole lot about our position on things in our lives. From my perspective, this makes it a helpful thing to pay attention to, just like the sensations we experience when we’re hungry or thirsty. The dark side of frustration hinges on how people respond when they feel that way. In my therapy practice, people share stories of punching walls, destroying property, throwing and breaking things, putting others down and being aggressive, and even hitting other people. These are the kinds of actions that people take issue with when they say they have a problem with frustration.
-Responding to Frustration in Preferable Ways
In my practice, many of the people I’ve seen turn things around when it comes to their expression of frustration have had a few things in common when they first set out to make that change:
They wanted to avoid behaving in those ways. This may seem obvious, yet not all of us recognize the impact of our actions on others.
They realized they’ve been “bottling up” their frustration and not expressing it closer to when they first felt it.
They believed that the fact that they sometimes felt frustrated was evidence of a serious character flaw. Often taught from their upbringing, being told that they are a problem or something is ‘wrong’ with them for feeling (frustration or any emotion).
They generally saw a meaningful improvement when:
They realized there are alternatives to the responses they have used to achieve short term relief from frustration.
They express themselves more calmly and closer to the time they first felt frustrated.
They accept that frustration is an understandable response in the contexts they experience it, and they can accept frustration as a part of being human (as are all emotions).
As with any change away from a repetitive (and reinforced) behavior, it requires accountability and intentional effort from the person striving to do things differently when they feel frustrated. However, acceptance of the emotion and commitment to respond in preferable ways allows the change to be made (we become more powerful than the automatic program we have grown into).
Frustration can tell us when there are factors in our life to be concerned about, which puts you in a better position to address those things. If left unaddressed, some people find their sense of frustration to grow and become increasingly distressing. This is partially why frustration has developed a bad reputation, along with the fact that some people take up problematic behaviors when they feel frustrated. By acknowledging frustration as valid and expressing it in more preferred ways, it can really become a spotlight directed on those aspects of ourselves and our lives that are important to us.
What are some preferable ways you express frustration?
When has it been helpful to recognize the source of your frustration?
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with frustration and want help in working through the process described above, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / firstname.lastname@example.org and schedule an appointment today.