Frustration can be a very challenging emotion. Chances are it’s a feeling that you’re all too familiar with. After all, it’s been a part of your repertoire since the moment you were born: we enter the world kicking and screaming, longing for some semblance of 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 had in this very moment.
A lot of people seek to address their experiences of frustration with a counsellor. They might feel like they have a low threshold for getting frustrated, or they may be unhappy with some of the things they do when they feel that way.
In this post I outline the practical reasons we experience frustration, and 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. Because it is inherently tense and unsettling, many people take issue with feeling frustrated.
As I stated in my post Your Emotions Aren’t a Problem, we experience feelings for very important and specific reasons. They tell us stuff 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.
Could you imagine your life without the ability to identify things that need to change? Like a weather vane, frustration points to important things that need our attention, but which also require some effort to change.
What Determines Your Level Of Frustration?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling.
In this case, the more you care about the object of your frustration, the more frustrated you’re likely to feel.
For example, someone might feel mildly annoyed if they misplaced something of little consequence and couldn’t track it down. That same person is likely to feel far more frustrated if they misplaced their keys and couldn’t find them anywhere – and they had to leave for work 10 minutes ago! In the latter scenario, the magnitude of that frustration would reflect the fact that having one’s keys and being able to get to work on time is particularly important to the person experiencing it. 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.
If you have loads of time to work through a problem, it’s less likely that you’ll feel all that frustrated if things don’t come together easily. However, if you’re striving to complete something that is time-sensitive, it’s far more likely that frustration might enter into the picture. Generally speaking, the tighter the deadline and the heavier the consequences, the likelier it is that you’ll experience frustration.
When (if ever) is Frustration a Problem?
When people come to me to talk about frustration, it’s almost automatically assumed that it’s a problem for them. I mean, isn’t that generally why people seek out professional help from a counsellor?
I tend to approach these conversations with some curiosity around just how it is that frustration is a problem. After some carefully posed questions, it’s usually revealed that the feeling of frustration, although uncomfortable and stressful, is totally understandable when looked at in context. However, that’s isn’t to say that the actions some people take when they’re feeling frustrated aren’t challenging or problematic.
Problematic Feelings or Problematic Actions?
In past posts I’ve acknowledged that some emotions have bad reputations because of how people behave when they’re feeling certain ways. Anger is a good example of this: it’s common for folks to think that it’s bad to feel angry because they associate it with violence and other problematic kinds of behaviours.
Frustration is not exempt from that list of blacklisted emotions, as people are generally less relaxed and easy to be around when they’re feeling frustrated. Some people also do and say unkind things, which only adds to the negative reputation frustration carries in some circles. Although these kinds of behaviours are not all that uncommon, I caution folks against equating them to frustration (or any other feeling), as they are the actions of people, not of emotions.
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. The particular contexts in which we experience frustration can tell us:
- What kinds of situations we feel challenged in
- What really matters to us when it comes to the objectives we strive toward
- Factors that may or may not be working for us in the different aspects of our lives
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 counselling 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 kinds of actions are often what people take issue with when they say they have a problem with frustration.
Responding to Frustration in Preferable Ways
Many of the people I’ve witnessed 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 equated their felt sense of frustration with problematic actions they’ve taken themselves, or which they’ve seen others take (such as aggression or violence), and they wanted to avoid behaving in those ways.
- 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.
These folks generally saw a self-identified improvement when:
- They realized there have been/can be exceptions to the problematic responses they identified.
- They express themselves more evenly, closer to the time they first felt frustrated.
- They accept that frustration is an understandable response in the contexts they experience it, and feel okay with feeling frustrated from time to time.
Just like creating change in other contexts, it often requires accountability and focused 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 often bodes well for those seeking to make a change.
Frustration rarely feels “good”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of your emotional repertoire. It can tell you when there are factors in your 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 actions when they feel frustrated.
By acknowledging the validity of frustration and expressing it more consistently in preferred ways, its useful attributes can shine through more clearly.
What are some preferably ways you express frustration?
When has it been helpful to recognize the source of your frustration?
How did you form the strategies that you have for expressing frustration ethically?
If you or your loved ones have concerns about how you express frustration