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Frustration – Understanding and Managing It

04Jun 2007

“I’m so frustrated with . . . ” is a frequent complaint in our daily lives.  I hear it from clients, from friends, from family members, and I say it fairly frequently.

One of the challenges with understanding and managing “frustration” is that it can have more than one meaning.  So, often it is important to clarify what people mean when they say “I’m frustrated.”  Probably the more basic, historic meaning is to feel blocked or being unable to achieve a goal you are pursuing.  Thus, I get frustrated if I am trying to get a task done but the machine or computer I am using doesn’t work correctly (and I don’t know how to fix it) and I am not able to get the task done.  Or I get frustrated with you because I am trying to get xyz done and you either won’t help me or you are interfering with my accomplishing the task (the best example I can think of is a mother of young children who is trying to get things cleaned up before some visitors arrive, and the kids keep making messes.)

So in this meaning of frustration, there are four components:

  1. A goal you are trying to reach.   2.  An obstacle or challenge that arises, impeding your ability to reach the goal.  3. A current inability to overcome the obstacle (or possibly the cost financially or time-wise makes overcoming it impractical).  4. The result of “being stuck”, with the accompanying feeling of frustration.

One approach to dealing with the “feeling blocked” type of frustration involves the following steps.  First, you try the standard problem-solving method — identify the problem, attempt to diagnose specifically what the actual issue is, and attempt to resolve the situation.  However, you probably have already tried some form of this and not succeeded; hence, your frustration.  Second, it may be necessary to utilize outside resources you previously tried to avoid using (largely because of financial costs or the amount of extra time it will take to get the situation resolved).  This is the “call the plumber” option.  A third step to lowering your frustration level is to adjust your expectations — accepting that this project won’t be completed when you wanted it to be, or that you won’t be able to do it by ourselves.  A fourth, often forgotten, step is to use this experience as a “learning experience” and make a mental commitment to plan ahead more in the next similar situation, and to allow more margin for error (that is, not cut the timeline so tight). 

However, there is a second (and probably more common) meaning of “frustration”.  Often, when a person communicates that they are frustrated, it is an euphemism (that is, a polite way of saying) for being angry.  In my experience of training counselors in various parts of the country, and working with families across the world, I have found that when people say they are frustrated (in an angry way), it can range in intensity from quite mild (slightly irritated) to fairly intense (being angry).  To be honest, I found that people in the South tend to say they are frustrated with someone when they are actually downright mad.  In fact, I have jokingly said that if a polite Southern woman says she is frustrated with you, watch out!

So when we find ourselves being frustrated in this sense (that is, being angry about something), the components are:   1.  Having an expectation (“you should do x”,  or “you shouldn’t do y”, or “when I do xy,  z should happen”).   2. An event happens (another person’s action, or some thing happens or doesn’t mechanically).  3. Your expectation is not met (e.g. the person didn’t thank you when you think they should have;  the printer doesn’t work when you have a report due).  4.  You feel “frustrated” (irritated, aggravated, angry) as a result of things not going as you want. 

We can observe that both types of frustration are integrally related to our expectations.  Either expecting to be able to accomplish a task (and usually, with a certain amount of time, energy and money) or expectations of others / situations that are not being met.   In fact, most feeling responses are directly related to our expectations.  When our expectations are met (either by another person or by a situation), we tend to feel pleased.  When our expectations are not met, we can have a range of feeling responses — angry, hurt, disappointed, sad.  (One feeling category that isn’t as directly related to expectations is fear / anxiety because they have to do with future events.)

So the result is — if you find yourself to be frequently (continually?) frustrated, you may need to re-evaluate your expectations and see if they are realistic, given the facts of the situation or the reality of who the person is.  You obviously can hold on to your expectations, but unless the situation (or person) changes, you may be setting yourself up for an ongoing experience of repeated frustration.


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