Tuesday, 29 January 2013


I was supporting a colleague yesterday to run a training session on how to speak persuasively. I love this work, it's always so interesting to be with a group who are being asked to focus on a specific aspect of psychological and interpersonal functioning.

As the session beds in, pre-emptive intellectual defences are gradually eased away, and an intense, very intimate focus on feelings takes its place.

What I love about this is that it's an opportunity to think about feeling, which is a deeply difficult thing to do, because it entails the attempt to see one's self clearly, a near impossible task. We are like cats, trying to work out what that long flippy appendage behind us is, yet unable to recognize that it's part of us.

Frustration is an emotional response to a perceived impediment. Our English word for it comes straight from medieval Latin, frustrare, disappoint

The feeling of frustration can be connected to further emotional reactions, notably anger and disappointment. One can feel frustration at one's own failure to achieve a goal, frustration at not overcoming concrete external barriers (even if they are impossible to challenge, like a hurricane or earthquake, a hiring freeze, or getting a small baby to sleep).

Very often we experience frustration at the intransigence or incompetence of others, whose sadistic, belittling, indifferent or stupid behaviour blocks our own attempt to achieve something.

Humans experience frustration from birth — being born in the first place is pretty frustrating, because it constitutes a deeply painful transition from a state in which all needs are automatically and instantaneously fulfilled, to one of utter vulnerability. Birth puts us in a position in which we are desperately needy, unable to control even our own limbs. We spend the rest of our lives (whatever else it is that we are trying to achieve) either struggling to, or making sure that we can, meet our own needs, whether alone or through others. The first frustration is, sad to say, the caregiver, who simply cannot give enough to compensate the infant for his or her loss of complete comfort (the womb). Not being able to meet an infant's needs can in turn be very frustrating for the caregiver....

Frustration is thus inextricably built into love.

Of course, none of us can remember this early experience of frustration, which goes some way to explaining how deeply ingrained our responses to feeling it must go. When we start to feel frustrated, it is likely to be difficult to pinpoint exactly what that feeling consists of, where it starts in the body, and what course it will go on to take, mutating perhaps into other kinds of feeling.

Sources of frustration can appear at any time in one's day to day experience, and in one's overall experience of life, whether in career development, personal relationships, State interference, war, pestilence or famine, or not being able to afford a second home. We cannot predict it, or say how long it will go on. Wealth will not protect us from frustration. Nor will intelligence. Nor will youth.

It's what the feeling of frustration leads to that is important. Classic positivist responses are towards rational or logical problem-solving thoughts or actions, based either on personal change or practical alterations. We think, 'if I do this, then I will be able to resolve what is frustrating me — if I am nicer, calmer, more hardworking, then I will get what I want'. Or we think, 'let's get together, find the resources we need, and we will be able to solve this problem'.

What happens, however, if these positivist steps do not lead to resolution? This generates a further conflict for us. In the West, children and young people are taught that logical positivism will produce good results. All we have to do is think, either alone or together, and we will overcome. A truly terrible conflict is created when we come up, as individuals or as groups, against things we cannot solve, overturn, overcome or avoid through the power of thought or action.

Under such conditions, we are likely to become sullen, angry, or even enraged, lashing out either at the apparent source of the barrier, or at ourselves. We may become bitter, resentful, cynical and ironic; mocking the attempts of others to remove the impediment. Alternatively we withdraw completely, accepting defeat and abandoning all hope of a solution. Disappointment takes over and suppresses further activity. Depression ensues.

In the workshop I co-facilitated yesterday, there were two examples of deep frustration, which came out in the roleplay towards the end of the session. One individual felt that, no matter how carefully he made the case, he would never be able to obtain sufficient resource to support him to do his job properly. An intelligent, intellectual man, he had retreated into irony. He entered into negotiation roleplay already defeated and assuming the worst, jibing at his manager with passive aggressive rhetorical questions. Acting the manager, it was self-evident that his request would immediately be refused — it was easy to bat away the frustration, and reinforce the man's powerlessness.

Another individual also entered negotiation feeling that she would not obtain the support she needed to perform her function to its fullest potential. She however, had converted that anticipatory frustration into a simmering anger, which prompted her to treat her interlocutor sometimes as an equal (inappropriate when approaching someone from whom you need something), but at other times as an intellectual inferior (an absolute no-no). She, too, was extremely intelligent, conducting her negotiation in a foreign language. Physically strong and powerful, she could understand, but not accept, the invisible cultural barriers that were in her way, behaving as though she wanted to take them apart with her hands.


So what are we to do with frustration? It is a universal experience. We are all going to experience being thwarted at some point, however advantaged we are. If we are very unlucky, we are going to come up against irrational obstacles that we will be powerless to dissolve, circumnagivate, subvert or dismantle. We have choices in our own responses, some positive and active — but which may not work, others extremely destructive and negative, which are guaranteed not to work. Here are some things to try.


Deliberately resituate the obstacle in the broadest possible perspective. In the great scheme of things, even David Cameron and Gideon Osborne will go away eventually, and Michael Gove cannot live for ever. Your baby will be dry before he is an adult. Your mother won't always refuse you money for magazines. Maximise the spatio-temporal frame around your problem, and it will seem much smaller.

If you are frustrated by, say, your own mortality, your gender and its limitations, your class and its vicissitudes, try the opposite move: narrow down your perspective until you locate the small shivering problem that is really frustrating you, like the state of your intray or the rudeness of another mother at school pick up.

Imagine the obstacle in the bath. Obstacles to humans are usually other humans abusing power in some way, and they look silly when naked themselves, which is how they've made you feel, by turning down your promotion request, or your exceedingly good idea. If you imagine your problem in an irresistibly silly context, it can be a pathway to another form of diminution of the problem.


Devise 100 things you would like to do to defeat the problem, as obscene, sadistic and pointless as you wish. Don't show this list to anyone else. Add to it when you feel the urge.


Ask yourself whether you are being genuinely reasonable in your own demand. Is it really realistic, given all the factors, that your request is going to be granted, that your great idea is really viable, that you should have a promotion, or time off, or a book contract? Are you absolutely sure that you are entitled to what you want? Have a think about the kind of feedback you've had from superiors, colleagues, loved ones and friends. Was it justified? Did you listen to it? Were you given some good advice you've overlooked through pride? Above all, have you made up one kind of frustration to mask not achieving something else?

Before you go down the road of massive frustration, look very hard at your own capacities, and what it is you're trying to achieve. Are you really going about solving your problem or getting what you want in the most productive way? You are special, you are unique, you are brilliant, but you are not indispensable, unless you are the mother or father of very small children. (If this is part of your frustration, remember that frustration is part of love. Looking at your children when they are asleep is probably the best tonic.)

Alternative dimensions

Experiment with completely different activities like cooking, singing or exercise (unless you are a frustrated chef, opera singer or fitness instructor) — looking for fresh outlets for creative energy can alleviate feelings of frustration. Try something well outside your comfort zone. Do yoga with old ladies. Dance. Teach a child to read. It will not make the problem go away, but it will boost your serotonin levels while you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Voluntary work, that old chestnut. Amazing how your spirit soars when you're not being paid, but you know you're doing something for the common good. One part smug, one part righteous indignation. Just don't let anyone called you a 'silent hero'.


Read up on assertiveness and practise it relentlessly. Look people in the eye. Listen more than you talk. If you are belittled, pause, relax your shoulders, then say in a completely neutral voice, "Please don't talk to me that way". The effect will be spectacular. Just don't say anything else.

Watch your own reactions for aggression, passive or otherwise. Bite it back. Not splurging on the feeling of frustration goes some way to preventing frustration turning into an obstacle in its own right. Sometimes you'll just have to talk about your frustrations, but be aware that venting them also encourages them to grow.

Read widely in general. Other people's books have an amazing capacity to alter perspective and dimension. Just don't read about frustration, it's so frustrating.

Keep a mood diary, rather than a diary of your boss's behaviour in anticipation of a tribunal.


Bide your time. If you can possibly avoid a showdown, do so. They almost never work. This isn't quite the same as withdrawal, in the sense that you have not given up hope of overcoming your obstacle and attaining your goal, you are simply keeping your powder dry.


As infants we simultaneously loved and hated our caregiver for being simultaneously perfect and imperfect. Very confusing time, infancy. As adults, we have long forgotten about this, but perhaps it's worth remembering that we are in love with our frustrations — what thwarts us is what we love. After imagining our frustrators in the bath, what about imagining taking them out to dinner and listening to all their problems? 


litlove said...

This is very timely; after two years of feeling almost completely okay, I've suddenly been assailed by extreme anxiety again. The frustration is immense. Is it good news that it no longer comes in the form of chronic fatigue, but just as its bullying, overpowering self? Well, I suppose so, although when I was just tired, I got more read.

It is most frustrating, though, because although I have lost a lot lately - university job, and Alexander on brink of leaving home - I have gained peace and space, things I have always wanted very much. That I can't use them now seems the most wretched irony. But I like the idea of widening the time frame - I've been in and out of anxiety before and survived. And I know I have to somehow accept it with a resigned shrug, not hostility. If I could love it, it would be even better. If... Thank you for the sane voice in the wilderness!

Jon Harris said...

These are brilliant solutions, none more so than the last, because it seems to me that to LOVE the frustrator (or perhaps more precisely, the person whom we think is the frustrator) is to achieve the best leap in PERSPECTIVE : rather than being stuck in the playpen chucking coloured balls at them, we've stepped outside the playpen and we're analysing it, positively, constructively, seeing what it's made of and leading them to see that too.