Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How to Manage Frustration

Why the secret to managing frustration may lie in distraction

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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 frustration (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.

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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 whomever 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.

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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