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Emotion Regulation

The Key to Coping With Frustration

Manage your expectations to beat frustration.

Key points

  • Frustration is the emotion we feel when our expectations are thwarted.
  • The first steps to managing frustration are recognizing the frustration and understanding what preconceived expectations led to the feeling.
  • By adjusting our expectations to be more flexible, it is possible to feel much less frustrated when things do not go according to plan.

Every once in a while, I think it is helpful to get back to the basics. This can apply to everything from self-care to playing a sport to managing one's emotions. If you feel like your life is crumbling around you, a good question to ask yourself could be, "Am I hungry?" If you keep hitting a tennis ball into the net, are you keeping your eye on the ball? If you are feeling frustrated, are you properly managing your expectations?

Frustration is one of the common emotions reported to me in my therapy sessions. Whenever things don't go the way we planned, we feel frustrated. This is normal. We get frustrated at traffic, at our partner, at ourselves, and the list goes on and on.

However, merely naming frustration is not enough. Why exactly are we getting frustrated? Do we have any control over feeling this uncomfortable feeling? Is there any useful function to frustration?

The way I would define frustration is the emotion we feel when our expectations are thwarted. Just like with other emotions, frustration is not just a "feeling" we experience, but rather, often also includes physiological components such as increased blood pressure, bodily tension, and stress levels, a cognitive component revolving around the thought "this shouldn't be so difficult," and a behavioral component of acting in agitated ways. Sometimes, the behavioral component can look like trying even harder to get something to go our way. This is a positive function of the feeling of frustration. If I feel frustrated that something is not working, I might experience a short-term uptick of motivation to expend more energy to overcome this frustration and achieve whatever goal I was after. In fact, we often get more frustrated by obstacles the closer we get to our goal (e.g., feeling more frustrated if someone cuts in line ahead of us when we were up next as opposed to if someone cuts in line ahead of us when there are 30 people ahead of us). However, what if we are frustrated about something that is unlikely to get better even if we get more frustrated at it (you know, like all the times you act really frustrated at your partner and they immediately change their behavior and beg for forgiveness? ... Anyone? Bueller?)

The first step to managing frustration is to recognize you are starting to feel frustrated.

The second step is to understand what preconceived expectations led you to feel frustrated.

The third step is to adjust your expectations, ideally, before it's too late.

If you expect things to go one way and they don't, you are likely to experience frustration. The great thing about this is that we actually have quite a bit of control over how frustrated we might get in the future ... by preemptively imagining that things can (and will) go differently than we expected. Once we do this, we have adjusted our expectations to be more flexible, and in turn, you will likely feel much less frustrated if (and when) things don't go according to plan because you didn't expect them to in the first place.

Now, the key is to not do a 180 and assume that things are going to go wrong, because we can just as easily jump to this conclusion and talk ourselves out of doing many things that could have been pleasant because of our negative expectations. The point is to not assume either way that things are going to go right or wrong, but rather, to be open and flexible to a range of future possibilities.

Try this out the next time you are about to enter a scenario that has brought up frustration for you before. Pre-imagine things going differently than you would like. Can you imagine yourself having already anticipated this happening? What changes in you when you already anticipate something that would have immediately frustrated you had you not gone through this mental exercise before?

Hopefully, with practice, being better able to anticipate the situations that usually frustrate you and adjusting your expectations can allow you to waste less emotional energy on unnecessary feelings of frustration and instead spend this repurposed energy on the important things in your life.