How To Manage Frustration

Photo: music2work2

It’s an uncomfortable paradox that the people closest to us often frustrate us the most.  My theory about this is that we all have a certain level of tolerance for frustration that diminishes with repeated exposure to a situation or a person we find frustrating.  Thus we more easily manage our frustration at the beginning of a frustrating experience and with people we’ve only just met, but as time passes and our frustration continues, our ability to manage it steadily decreases.  Certainly becoming more comfortable with someone who frustrates us also plays an important role in our feeling less constrained about expressing our feelings (in both positive and negative ways).  And further our closest family members populate the most intimate areas of our lives and often limit our ability to find privacy or refuge in which to rest and thereby temporarily regain an ability to tolerate things that (and people who) frustrate us.

Yet poorly managed frustration is toxic to relationships.  It causes a build-up of resentment that—even when over only small things—can ultimately overwhelm any desire to relate in a positive fashion.  And no one likes living in a perpetual state of annoyance or anger (no matter how much it may seem like they do).

But frustration often takes on a life of its own in relationships.  We all possess triggers that outside influences (i.e., people) can pull without our being able to stop them, bringing to life parts of ourselves from whom we’d rather not hear, but who we often have no apparent power to silence.

At least, not with a direct application of willpower.  Trying to suppress or ignore frustration seems only to make it worse, often causing us to magnify the import of whatever complaint we have against whoever frustrated us.  We then often find ourselves typecasting the offending person into a black-and-white caricature of themselves:  they become entirely self-centered, entirely insensitive, and entirely over-entitled.  In one fell swoop we lose sight of everything good within them.  And from this perspective arises a significantly increased risk for voicing hurtful words or taking dramatic action which we later bitterly regret.

Instead of willpower, then, the best antidote upon which I’ve stumbled involves the use of gratitude.  Now when I become frustrated, I strive to immediately remind myself of all the things I appreciate about the person who’s frustrated me.  Undoubtedly, appreciating people we see in our day-to-day lives is the most difficult, as they’re the very people not only most likely to frustrate us but also with whom we’re most likely unable to control our frustration—but such people wouldn’t likely be in our lives so consistently in the first place if they didn’t have important qualities that we valued.  Reminding ourselves of those qualities shouldn’t, therefore, be too difficult.

Feeling grateful in response to such self-prompting while in the midst of feeling frustration, however, often is.  Yet it’s precisely at those times that gratitude becomes most valuable—as a distraction.  For just as distracting ourselves from a tempting piece of pie will more likely enable us to avoid eating it than trying to suppress our urge to do so, so too distracting ourselves from our frustration by focusing our attention instead on something we appreciate about the person who’s frustrated us will work better than trying to outright suppress or ignore it.

How to best summon up a feeling of gratitude for someone?  By vividly imagining the ultimate consequence of expressing our greatest frustration in the most negative way:  having the person vacate our lives entirely.  If we can really wrap our minds around this possibility, fully imagining then freeing ourselves not just from the “bad” but from the “good” as well, we just may be able to generate a strong enough feeling of appreciation to override our feelings of frustration.

Of course, getting control over our frustrated outbursts is often far harder than the above would imply.  Yet if we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude in general, reminding ourselves on a daily basis of different things for which we’re grateful about the people who populate the most intimate parts of our lives, we may find ourselves better prepared to call upon that gratitude to help us control our frustration at crucial moments.  And even more importantly, enjoy not just our relationships more, but also ourselves.

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28 comments to How To Manage Frustration

  • Emma

    Interesting article. Here is what I am wondering, though: how do I find gratitude for a person that I am forced to deal with by circumstance, whom I really would prefer to disappear from my life completely? I can think of several people in my life that I have had to deal with over the years that were quite frustrating, that if I were given the chance to COMPLETELY remove them from my life, I would jump at the chance! Sometimes there really is such a thing as a person who offers nothing positive to your life but you are stuck with them because you had a child with them or they are a relative of your spouse, etc. How do we find gratitude for these people? Right now the only thing I can think of to be “grateful” for in terms of some of these people is that I am getting better at ignoring frustrating and obnoxious people—but that’s not something that you can really attribute to them, it’s my reaction to them. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Emma: Excellent question. Hard to use the technique of gratitude distraction if you can’t find anything to feel grateful for about a person. But my response is that you aren’t looking hard enough. In Buddhism, everyone is considered to possess a Buddha nature, just like everyone is known to possess an angry nature. Everyone has good qualities. We just have to perceive them. Don’t fall into the trap of believing a person represents the sum of only what you can see about them. Learn what they’re like with others, if you can. Actively seek out their good qualities in moments you don’t feel frustrated or annoyed by them. You might find yourself surprised. It takes work, but if you’re successful, you’ll only benefit yourself.

    Alex

  • Anne Tyler

    I think I do agree with you if I understand you correctly. All I need to do to (I think) “get” where you are in this is recall the few times I said the heck with it and unloaded on someone I really care about. I ALWAYS REGRET IT.

    It represents a lack of self-control, an inability to sacrifice the temporary purging our vexations for the greater good.

    Words cannot be undone, pictures cannot be unseen. It’s best to take a deep breath and think long and hard before acting. Think, if you can, how devastated you would feel if the relationship was severed forever, or that forever after there would be this invisible hovering dark cloud that no one mentions but obviously is there and felt by all.

    So, for myself, if I had to I would be best off to sit on my hands, put tape over my mouth, whatever it takes IF I TRULY VALUE that person.

    If it’s someone who is not important to me I wouldn’t hate myself so badly afterward if it means the end of or a serious change to a connection with someone else.

    Which is not to say that unless you care for someone you should just “let it roll,” you know. It pays to keep in mind that not all will tolerate my/your free expression of frustration without resorting to something beyond the results you hoped for. Road rage, for example comes to mind.

    Maybe that guy had it right, whoever he was, about speaking softly but carrying a big stick.

    Thanks for the suggestion because though I agree and it makes sense I never actually thought about it—considered it—and so I might be more likely to make a serious slip in the future because I had never reasoned out the thoughts you’ve expressed.

  • tom f`

    So true, this really works. When frustrated with my partner I try to find all the good in him and also think of the times when we are apart for a few days and how I miss him. Putting gratitude in my attitude works!! A thank you to our creator for all my experiences each day when I wake and before I go to sleep is also a big help in keeping the frustration level low. Also a good look in the mirror! Thanks for this topic.

    Tom

  • Clytie Siddall

    Distraction and gratitude help navigate the little niggles of everyday life. However, if something is really bothering us, it’s better for our relationships if we confront the issue, patiently but with determination.

    Myself, I tend to put up with too much, so I’ve had to learn to confront. 😉

  • Lisa

    If I can recognize that my buttons are being pushed, I can get above the situation and smile at the clumsy machinations, knowing that I will not allow them to touch me. Rational thought it the only hope for salvaging a bad situation—a direct approach, questioning in order to understand the offending behavior.

    Hopefully, one’s offender will be receptive to requests to be heard, thereby facilitating a mutually-agreeable solution.

  • John Slomski

    “By vividly imagining … the person vacate our lives entirely.”

    Who among us has such an imagination? I didn’t. My late wife died of a very rapidly progressing cancer less than two years ago. Yes, we have all been told that the death of a loved one is bad, but some things cannot truly be known without being experienced. It would be like trying to explain sexual desire to a toddler. I think all we can do is to listen to those who have already traveled this road and try to understand.

  • This is very valuable and I can confirm that it works. I also practice to remind myself not to get frustrated and upset over small things—because of the harm it does to relationships and the way one feels about oneself. I have now far more control over my emotions and do not get frustrated so often.

  • Preity

    Thank you for such a wonderful post and also for its timing.

    Its always easier to get frustrated and irritated by the people in our inner circle—because we know them so much, hence can predict their words and actions and get frustrated in advance on mere anticipation. I can say this as I am guilty of this—more than often and shall certainly be using the attitude of gratitude the next time……………..keeping fingers crossed.

    Alex, can you please write a post on how to avoid getting irritated, too. Thanks.

  • One needs to think twice before explicitly venting one’s frustration even at one’s near and dear ones even if there is little chance of their leaving one. This being so, it would only amount to foolhardiness, expressing one’s frustration vehemently at someone, whose possibility of deserting one can not be ruled out. You have lost all that you have or will have, cause to feel grateful in respect of the relationship. Make sure ever to express your gratitude, but think twice or more, before venting your frustration.

    Thanks for the insightful post.

  • Diana

    Yes, thanks for the post and its timing. I attended a study meeting yesterday morning during which gratitude can substitute for complaints and criticisms. A relative who has been extremely supportive financially and otherwise during my illness called. She was giving advice about something I’d recently told her, but as is her style, she kept talking and talking and talking. I was beginning to see that she was just trying to help. Then I read your post. I smiled. It also has helped me in handling a situation with neighbor, looking for the positive in the neighbor.

  • Diana

    I just read your answer to Emma’s question. I basically have the same question. Thanks for your answer.

  • […] How To Manage Frustration « Happiness in this World. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • Stephanie

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned that sometimes what one finds frustrating in someone else is some quality or behavior that one finds frustratingly present in oneself. This is, of course, not always the case. But I’ve found it valuable to pause and question myself about the source of such frustrations, if not immediately obvious. Once I know whether it’s external or internal, I can act appropriately.

    Stephanie: A fantastically Nichiren Buddhist perspective!

    Alex

  • Yes, feelings of gratitude for the person whose behavior sometimes frustrates us is a wonderful, helpful technique. Along with that gratitude, an objective analysis of why we feel such frustration is helpful. Often, the reason we feel the frustration is because of our own mindset rather than the behaviors of the “frustrater.” Aksing oneself why one is feeling frustrated and honestly acknowledging one’s feelings are good ways to get beyond the frustration.

  • Diana

    I’ve had a chronic illness for 10 years, essentially disabled. When I do too many things, I can get irritable, as I did today. I’ve learned to catch myself. However, until last June, when I read about non-violent communication in an SGI publication and found 5 library books on the subject, I wasn’t able to handle situations where the other person was angry for no reason or rude. Such a situation occurred today at the cactus club, when a member indignant with me for trying to save a seat for a brand new member who wasn’t aware of the agenda until I explained it to him. He of course didn’t know he should leave something in the seat to save it when he went to look at the plants for sale during the break. I tried to save it for him. We were in a smaller auditorium than we usually are and a long-time leader kept telling us not to put things in seats to save them. Since I did not feel well, I came home as soon as the speaker finished. I’m the newsletter editor and will put something in the next issue about members being kind to other members, brand new or longtime. It’s only taken me several decades to learn how to do so.

  • Joan

    Thank you so much for this post, Alex. The timing is amazingly apt, too, because there are some issues my partner and I need to discuss that are likely to spark frustration for me and I could easily see reacting in a hurtful, nonproductive way. I will try what you suggest and see how it goes.

    Joan: Best of luck.

    Alex

  • Lisa

    Diana says, “Such a situation occurred today at the cactus club” —

    A prickly situation 😉

  • Leticia

    I find myself getting frustrated daily with my sister and this is affecting my relationship with fiance as we are planning our wedding. My sister is unhappy with herself even though she lives a great life. She is jealous of my happiness and is constantly fighting with me & throwing negative comments about my life and choices. She has always been this way but I’m at my last phase of trying and being the bigger person and would like to remove her completely from my life. My parents are also a problem as they side with her and controls them. This has affected me in many ways and I know I cannot change them. Not sure what to do??

  • […] or months, I begin waking up with no tolerance for it at all.  I posted recently about using the strategy of gratitude to manage the frustration that others often cause us, but even that strategy’s effectiveness […]

  • MistyTodd

    What if this in your workplace? I am a nurse and frequently become frustrated with my coworkers. Often I am running my a** off and no one offers to help…they are reading their books!? Tonight I became upset by a snide comment that was made. I tried to keep my mouth shut…but when I left for break I said that I was now going to read my book!

    I know playing into these emotions is not helpful.

    Help!

    MistyTodd: Impossible for me to give useful advice in this forum without knowing more detail about your situation, but I can only think to ask if you’ve made a habit of asking for help from your co-workers rather than a habit of expecting them to offer it. A genuine plea for help often touches people, makes them feel needed, and launches them into action.

    Alex

  • […] actions)—prevents you from seeing them in a positive light. And that prevents you from feeling gratitude for them as well as from seeing them as full-fledged human beings with their own hopes, dreams, […]

  • […] consciously direct our attention to the good, a strategy I discussed at length in a previous post, How To Manage Frustration. That is, we should implement a simple “if-then” rule (meaning, turn it into a habit): […]

  • The Professor

    AMAZING! I’ve been expressing this theory to my wife exactly for the past few months. Glad to know I’m not the only person that believes in this theory.

  • Giant Comfort » The Real Reason Couples Decide They’re Incompatible

    […] consciously direct our attention to the good, a strategy I discussed at length in a previous post, How To Manage Frustration. That is, we should implement a simple “if-then” rule (meaning, turn it into a habit): […]

  • Liz

    Unless you would really like if they would just completely go away and that’s not a possibility… If only they would disappear…

  • Ireland

    What if my frustrations are based on ideas? If I am frustrated with the way bureaucracy works. If my skills have their limits. If driving frustrates me because others just can’t follow rules. If it frustrates me that I am 40 years of age, but do not have a career, even though I am above average of intelligence and skill.

  • WilliamTing

    Thanks so much for the forum. Really, thank you! Much obliged.

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