Stuck in traffic. Constant interruptions. Held up at slow supermarket checkouts. Our days can be full of minor frustrations that only seem to increase stress. Understanding why frustration occurs, and what our personal triggers might be can be useful in helping us to move through it.
Frustration occurs at that point where we don’t get what we want, or where we are denied the possibility of doing something we want – or need – to do. Learning to manage frustration is important so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. This is all too evident when we see an overtired or hungry toddler show their frustration by losing the plot. The feelings are the same, the only difference is that we have learnt to recognise and regulate them better. Memorable frustrations for me as an adult include a first iPhone, when my fingers skittered over the screen autocorrecting and misspelling every word and I felt as frustrated as a young child trying to do a jigsaw puzzle for the first time.
The good news is that frustration is not always a bad thing and can even be a spur to motivation, providing a nudge toward making changes and an opportunity to take a closer look at what, exactly, is making us feel this way. Are we resisting something that might be key to our wellbeing? What is my frustration telling me? What am I struggling with?
We may even hit an ‘aha’ moment. And if we can just press pause at this point, and engage with the feeling of frustration, it might reveal its root cause and provide helpful answers. For example, if you feel frustrated that you’re not making progress at work, maybe the answer is to gain more experience or, more radically, maybe it’s time to change your job. Here, frustration can spur us to take the steps that might result in a positive change.
Some things, however, we just can’t change. Then we have to be open minded enough to accept that a difference of opinion, or even the way we stack the dishwasher, isn’t personal. And sometimes people are just thoughtless or distracted rather than mean, and we can choose not to engage with that rather than be frustrated by it. One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me was to ask myself the question, ‘Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy?’ because insisting on being right can sometimes be very frustrating, and I’ve learnt to bite my tongue and let the small stuff pass me by.
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Sometimes, too, there is no immediate solution and some frustrations take time to resolve. The consequences of breaking a leg on a walking holiday some years ago – non-weight bearing for six weeks, unable to drive, needing to rely on others for help to do those things I usually did for myself without a second thought – were so frustrating that I could hardly bear it. But because I knew it was time-limited, I could begin to adjust my expectations about what I could do and how I could best support my recovery. I also got much better at asking my children to do more for themselves!
Frustration can also be exacerbated by other feelings of irritation, annoyance or disappointment – anger, even – which makes it a whole lot worse, particularly when feeling physically tired, hungry or generally stressed. Then we hit that point of frustration much sooner than if we are in a calm, collected state of mind.
It’s always useful then to try and take a step back when feeling frustrated, to count to 10 and just take a moment to assess with a little more detachment, almost as an outsider, what exactly it is that is frustrating us. This can also allow us the space to distinguish between those things we want and those we need and help us to accept what we can change and what we can’t, by taking a moment to appreciate the difference between the two.
Illustration by Rosanna Tasker.