Here’s the dictionary definition of frustration: “The feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of an inability to change or achieve something.” Sound familiar? It sure does to me, especially in the context of health. I am unable to change the fact that I live with chronic pain and illness every day. I could relate many instances of when frustration has boiled over into anger, often followed by tears.
The problem with frustration—no matter in what context—is that being “upset or annoyed” adds a second layer of suffering to the emotional suffering you’re already caught up in. In my experience, frustration serves no useful purpose. Quite the opposite: It clouds the mind, making it hard to see if there’s constructive action you could take to improve your situation.
Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies to minimize the impact of frustration in my life. (These suggestions apply to any source of frustration, whether in relation to your health or not.)
1. Recognize that you’re not alone. Everyone gets frustrated at times. Knowing this can keep you from adding yet a third layer of emotional suffering in the form of that nasty culprit self-blame. Even the Dalai Lama said that he can still get angry at times. If he gets angry, he must also know what frustration feels like! So be sure not to make things worse by blaming yourself when this unwelcome emotional state comes calling.
2. Don’t treat the feeling as if it's set in stone. Impermanence is a universal law. Nothing stays the same for long. Of course, impermanence can be a source of sadness; but I like to say it can also be your friend.
Don’t set your frustration in stone by telling yourself that it’s a permanent feature of your personality. If you’re thinking, “But I’m always frustrated,” first of all, it’s probably not true. And second, even if it were true, you can change your response when this unpleasant emotion shows up (and this is true of any unpleasant emotion). This is because, as we’re learning from neuroscientists, the mind is malleable; this means that you can change even your most deeply ingrained habits.
An effective way not to “set your frustration in stone” is to step back mentally, and take out self-referential terms, such as “I” or “me.” Simply say to yourself: “Frustration is present at the moment.” Then you won’t think of it as a permanent feature of who you are. Holding this stressful emotion lightly in this way loosens its grip and makes it easier for you to move on with your day.
3. Work on developing patience when frustration (or any painful emotion) is present. When a painful emotion arises, trying to force it away tends to intensify it. This is certainly true with frustration. The alternative is to recognize its impermanent nature and patiently wait for it to blow out of your mind, like a storm that passes overhead. I wrote a piece on how to develop patience. You can see it here.
4. Contact a friend or relative who doesn’t mind listening to you “unload.” Think about whether there’s someone you could contact who will understand what you’re going through—perhaps someone you know who’s recently been faced with an experience similar to yours. It’s amazing how talking (or emailing or texting) with someone who shares your frustration can suddenly make it bearable, and allow you to patiently wait it out as in #3 above.
5. Administer self-compassion immediately. Self-compassion is my go-to practice in any stressful situation, including when I find myself caught up in an unpleasant emotion, such as frustration. All self-compassion asks is that you be kind to yourself. This means not blaming yourself for what emotions you’re experiencing at the moment: all kinds of emotions arise and pass without being invited ... so, no blame!
Self-compassion also includes doing something nice for yourself, whether it’s lying down and listening to some music or watching a funny show on TV. Each of us has that special thing we can do for ourselves that soothes the mental pain that accompanies unpleasant emotions.
Finally, try speaking silently or softly to yourself in a compassionate and understanding voice: “It’s hard to be in so much pain. No wonder I get frustrated at times.” When you give voice to your feelings in this way, you’re letting yourself know that you care about your suffering. This alone will ease your emotional pain.
I hope these five suggestions have been helpful. My best to everyone.