The ability to work with frustration is one of those skills that often distinguishes the very best in any field. Frustration is a unique emotional experience that can fracture into other emotions like anger, sadness, despair, rage or sometimes psychotic laughter. In this article I’ll discuss the benefits of working with frustration and outline a simple process for you to do it in your life and work. I truly believe that if you’re up against a major challenge, learning and practicing this skill will help to move your forward.
As I mentioned above, the experience of frustration is like entering an atrium of many emotional corridors pointing off in different directions. The outcome of the experience is determined by which corridor we take. The problem is that frustration is uncomfortable and creates angst. Our natural tendency is to avoid discomfort and to alleviate angst which by definition is a type of constriction or strangulation. When we feel the discomfort, pressure or tension of frustration, our knee-jerk reaction is to release the tension, often through the expression of another strong emotion or by taking hasty action.
Frustration, like discomfort, is a motivator for action, and we often rush into the atrium and take the corridor of least resistance, the one that we are most used to taking. In this way we reinforce these habitual reactions that often create more suffering for ourselves and those around us. I would like to propose a different way of working with frustration here.
2. Experience without resistance
4. Focus on basics / first principles
First, when you notice you are experiencing frustration and if the situation allows it (most of them do) just pause for a moment. Realize you are on the precipice of another emotional experience, one that could undermine your efforts. In that moment you may not be able to choose the right way to respond, but you can exercise your freedom to do nothing yet. This brief, intentional pause will set you up for the next step.
Second, don’t resist or attempt to change the feeling. Just take a few breaths and let yourself feel. Be present with the feeling. Frustration doesn’t feel good, but hey nobody ever died of frustration that I’m aware of. As a kid I felt that I would literally die of boredom, which is a kind of frustration. Alas here am I still kicking despite being a victim of so much lethal boredom. This second step, non-resistance, can be a real liberator for many people. As an athlete and soldier I have become comfortable with certain kinds of pain and discomfort. It took me a while though to learn how to be ok with the particular flavor of pain associated with frustration. Once I did, I was able to see my way through what seemed like insurmountable obstacles with more clarity and confidence.
Third, redefine the experience. I have learned from my interests in cognitive neuroscience that frustration is a huge part of learning (See Ride the Redline). The sensation of frustration is often the very feeling of learning and of upgrading our skillset or understanding. When we are frustrated we are often dealing with unknown factors or with things that are outside of our control. Either way we are shifting into the right hemisphere of the brain which is responsible for creativity and problem solving for factors and rules that are unknown to us. This means that as cliche’ as it sounds, frustration is actually a very potent learning opportunity.
So, to redefine it you can say, “I’m feeling discomfort because I’m interacting with the unknown and learning something new.” or “This feeling is me becoming better.” This reframe has been helpful for me and many of my clients in working through challenges and making breakthroughs. The reason is that we often unintentionally avoid frustration as an unnecessary and unhelpful emotion. In fact, it’s possible that frustration can actually be the very thing you need to feel in order to move forward. Isn’t it often the case that the very thing we really need is also the feeling we are trying to avoid? Maybe we can change this tendency?
Lastly, focus on basics and first principles. When we are frustrated, this is an opportunity to double down on the basics, to increase our mastery of first principles. In these situations we can see how powerful and flexible first principles can be. They are like stem cells in our body that have the potential to create any other kind of cell in our body. I’m sure this sounds a bit obscure so let me give a few examples.
1. You’re having difficulty with a game or solving a problem. Break that problem down to its core principles or smallest actions. Let go of fancy and elegant. Put the focus on achieving success with the basics. Doing this will put you in a beginner’s mind and you may get a new perspective that allows you to overcome or at least learn something important.
2. You’re feeling frustrated with your spouse or partner. After 1) pausing, 2) experiencing the feeling without resistance, and 3) redefining the situation, you can focus on a first principle of relationships, connection. Say or do something that reinforces connection like “I know this isn’t your fault,” or “you may be right, I’m sorry.” These concessions aren’t an admission of defeat. They are a way to reinforce connection. When connection is established then creative problem solving can follow. Without connection there is little chance of a type of resolution that moves you forward.
3. Here’s a counter-example of using first principles that I have often seen in healthcare. A healthcare provider gets frustrated that the cocktail of medications he prescribed is not having the intended effect. There is a first principle in medicine called differential diagnosis. This allows a physician to question their assumptions and start from scratch. Instead of starting over and identifying differential diagnoses, the physician in the above example doubles down on the medications and increases the dosage, causing their patient to suffer even more. To question and methodically test assumptions are core principles and practices in medicine. I’m saddened that physicians don’t use them more regularly.
The reason we begin with 1) pausing, 2) experiencing without resistance and 3) redefining the situation, is because we first need to calm the nervous system. If we are stressed and make stressful decisions we will be unskillful in our actions and the results will often be the exact opposite of how we want them to be. Then, focusing on the basics or first principles gives us something to sink our teeth into and elicits forward momentum. In addition, it’s important to recognize these small victories, regardless of how insignificant they may seem, are necessary steps in the process. This whole process will diffuse whatever fear or resistance we have about feeling frustrated and will help us move through it more effectively the next time. And the cycle continues…
By learning to work with frustration we develop a meta-level skill that will help us in so many aspects of our life from problem solving to new skill acquisition. Try this out and let me know what you think in the comments below.
Btw, if you’re up against some challenges or simply want to perform at higher levels in your health, art or business consider my health and performance coaching programs. You can learn more here.
If you’re not a subscriber and would like more articles like these delivered to you, consider subscribing to the blog by filling out the form in the side bar or by going to www.joshg.blog (for those who are reading this on Medium or other syndicated services).
Personal Health and Performance Consultant