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Feeling "Frustration"? These 5 Emotions Might Be What's Really Going On
Episode 2827th January 2023 • Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice • Dr. Andrea Bonior
00:00:00 00:18:26

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Today we're talking about frustration. It's ubiquitous in modern life, and it's a natural reaction to so many situations. It doesn't always have to be a bad thing. But sometimes, it's a copout-- because something much deeper is going on.

Join us for a deep dive into five emotions that often are at the root of frustration-- and learn how much better off you will be if you address your authentic emotional experience, rather than the superficial frustration that might just be the upper layer of it.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Do you find yourself getting frustrated a lot? Do you find yourself getting frustrated more than you have before? What if frustration on its own was often a sign of some other deeper emotion going on? Today we're talking about frustration and how it sometimes is like the crust that forms on top of a deeper feeling. Is that gross? Probably. But we're going to talk about the way that different emotions relate to each other and how if you are frequently prone to frustration, you might get some relief by taking a more detailed look at other feelings. If you feel like you could use some insight into what may be really going on underneath your frustration, you'll want to tune in to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and it's good to have you here today listening. This is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about the meat stick dance. Okay, let's get on to today's episode. The word frustration evokes something in most of us. I'd say it's a word that we all have had some experience with. If you really sit and notice your body when you imagine being frustrated, it's probably pretty telling. Your nervous system gets on edge. Your muscle tension increases. Your chest might feel tight or hot, maybe your jaw clenches. Feeling frustrated is pretty opposite of feeling relaxed. It would likely be impossible to just immediately fall asleep, for instance, if you're highly frustrated unless you took a sedative, I guess. The frustration is agitation. It's arousal of your nervous system that is, it's tension. It's irritation, it's grumbling, it's prickliness, it's being disgruntled. If it gets really bad, we say that it's exasperation. It's a fly in the ointment of our lives. Frustration is the snarl that we didn't expect. It's the sense of helplessness against a system that we can't seem to beat. Are we feeling annoyed yet just talking about this? Think about a time in the last week or two that you've been frustrated. Can you identify the trigger? Was it one thing or a series of annoyances? Annoyances that built up like a, ah, travel adventure gone completely wrong, one step after another, like feeling blocked at every turn on a certain day? Was your frustration directed at a person, at a situation, at an object, at life as a whole? There's probably a wide range of what people are thinking of here, from wanting to just shake your fist at the gods, or at least the gods of rental car reservations, to having a petty annoyance like a blister from a pair of shoes. As, uh, a therapist, I hear all of it, and I'd say that the word frustrating is one of the most common emotional labels that I hear used to describe difficult times in life, from pesky everyday things that irk you for an hour but you get over to larger ruts that feel impossible to get out of. But here's the thing, though. The term frustration is obviously useful as a starting point for people talking about their emotional experience, I find that more often than not, it pays to go further. Now, do you have to go deeper about feeling frustrated that your password isn't working on a certain website? So then you try to reset it, and then it tells you that you can't choose a password that's the same as your old password. And then you say, well, if it was the same as my old password, why in God's name was I locked out and needing to create a new password in the first place? Do you have to go deeper about that? No, of course not. But what if your frustration leads to an outsized reaction? You snap unfairly at your coworker or your loved ones because of it, or you remain in a foul mood all evening, or your frustration happens a lot because if it's not the password issue, it's something else. And the next thing you know, you're in a constant state of frustration. Then it might pay to go deeper. And still other times, even just for one off experiences of frustration, it can be helpful to look under the surface. This is especially true with high stake stuff like conflict with a partner or an exasperating project within your job. Maybe there's something much more important in your emotional experience than just frustration, and you need to look at it, because that will actually help you manage the situation. That's very often the case. Frustration is likely to be the top layer of a feeling. It speaks to a sense of stagnation or helplessness and inability to make things happen in the way that you want. Merriam Webster defines being frustrated in part as feeling discouragement, anger, and annoyance because of unresolved problems or unfulfilled goals, desires, or needs. For the record, Miriam Webster now officially defines the word janky as well, so they know of what they speak. We can picture someone unable to open a jar of spaghetti sauce, or more seriously, a person unable to get their partner to understand their emotional needs. For many of my clients, being frustrated can make them act out, from picking a verbal fight to, uh, giving up altogether in a huff, from hanging up on someone to kicking a wall. And it can eventually lead to feeling depressed and helpless. But while the picture of frustration that angry, sulking person who's annoyed at the futility of their efforts, while that picture is a common one, with a little emotional exploration, we can see that a whole boatload of additional feelings can lie under the surface of frustration. And the first step in getting through the experience in a healthy way is to figure out exactly what those emotions are. So let's talk about five common examples of what can be underneath your frustration. Now, please note in today's episode, we're only talking about emotional roots of frustration. When frustration is the mask for an additional or alternative feeling, we're not yet tackling all the other factors that can contribute to you feeling more frustrated, like a lack of sleep, or heightened muscle tension, or being gaslighted in a relationship or trapped in a dysfunctional workplace. So let's get to these emotions. Emotion number one. The most obvious one anger. It's a classic partner to frustration, but oftentimes it's more palatable for us to say we're frustrated instead of saying that we're angry, especially if it's about a person that we love or that we're kind of fearful of, or if we feel that our anger is not acceptable. But being that is often a natural response to feeling that something or someone is thwarting you from reaching a goal, so your ire is directed at that person or thing that makes sense. You want to tear out your nonworking dishwasher and set it a flame or throw your frozen computer out the window. You want to scream at your preteen to get into the car already because you've told them four times to get their shoes on, and yet they're still moving around at the pace of a typical pale throated sloth. When anger is at play, it's helpful to validate that feeling. Don't beat yourself up for being angry or try to mask it while also figuring out how to manage that anger in a way that doesn't harm yourself or others. We've talked about this pause before. There's a big difference between acknowledging an emotion versus acting destructively on it. And we'll have upcoming episodes on anger alone. But know that getting physical with it can be a big help. Getting physical in it in the right ways, giving that energy, that agitation, that heat some place to go with moving your body, with getting energy out in a positive way, noticing where that frustration or that anger is in your body and helping counteract it, stretching your muscles, getting your heart rate up through dancing. Also looking for the larger pattern of the problem that's making you angry. It could be that if it's built up to the point of this anger already, then it's an issue that keeps coming up repeatedly. Maybe there is resentment involved. Think through whether it might be more helpful to think of your frustration as actual anger and whether that's frightening to you, but whether actually strategizing ways to manage that anger would ultimately help you feel less, quote unquote, frustrated number two fear or anxiety? A lot of times, frustration seems a safer emotion to admit than fear as well, because all those old ideas that strength means not being afraid, that fear is a sign of weakness. That robot umpires would be a good idea for Major League Baseball. It's just not right. Fear is not a sign of weakness. As I've said before on here, courage isn't the absence of fear. Courage is feeling fear and choosing to face something anyway. A m person who's not scared, well, how hard do they really have to try to do something? Are they truly the hero, but rather the person who's absolutely soiling themselves with fear but chooses to go through with something anyway? That's courage. Maybe it's courageous to be willing to use the phrase soiling themselves on a mental health podcast. I don't know. Perhaps that was a bad idea. But in these cases, where fear is what's really going on under the surface, being masked by frustration, it's truly helpful to acknowledge the fear. Because fear or anxiety can help you plan, it can help you connect with others. It can help you be better able to give yourself some compassion and then eventually give yourself props when you move through that fear. None of that really happens with frustration to the same extent. And of course, at some point, when the anxiety is excessive, it's helpful to manage that, too. When it's getting in the way of your decisionmaking, when it's not helping you plan, when it's not giving you insight, but rather, you're going around in circles. A lot of fear masquerading as frustration comes from our intolerance of uncertainty. I was just talking with my students about this concept. We call it IU in the psych literature intolerance of uncertainty. A lot of frustration is really the underlying discomfort with, um, uncertainty. And that's heavily related to anxiety. Maybe what's really frustrating you is the fact that you want answers to something that's scarily uncertain. You're looking for reassurance, and yet it's not coming. You're frustrated that, uh, the doctor isn't getting back to you when she said she would. You're frustrated that your partner hasn't checked in after their long drive. In reality, though, your frustration is driven by anxiety. And it will be more helpful to acknowledge and label that anxiety than to keep bumping up against the limits of the control that you have over the situation and getting frustrated with it. Number three, sadness. Sadness also can feel more formidable to reckon with than frustration. We're seeing a pattern here, right, that sometimes frustration is the sort of palatable emotion, and we protect ourselves by just considering ourselves frustrated rather than managing an emotion that's more intimidating. We certainly have the same cultural messages about sadness and what it means to be sad and how that's correlated with weakness that we do with fear. Big girls don't cry, et cetera, et cetera. Walk like a man. Okay-- What in God's name was going on with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and gender roles? Sometimes the sadness comes from a sense of despair about the seeming hopelessness of a situation. You want something to change, or maybe you even want to change parts of yourself, and yet it's not happening. Not only does that make you feel frustrated, but it could be the beginning of a morning process of letting go of something that you always thought would happen, or it could be more seriously that you are chronically disappointed with yourself. Imagine the frustration that comes from not ever being able to meet a particular self improvement goal, or losing a job, or making a big mistake. Acknowledging and moving through the sadness will serve you better in the long run than just calling yourself frustrated. Because, as we learn, it's not really helpful to mask a feeling. Feelings have a tendency to just boil over in that case, because we're not managing them, we're not addressing them, and we don't have the opportunity to learn from them if we just try to stuff them or mask them or numb them or avoid them. There's research you've heard me talk on here before about how much our feelings get more manageable and how much more comfortable we can be tolerating them when we label those feelings. So that's a pretty big overarching reason to not just mask our feelings as general frustration. Not to mention when you're dealing with the ache of sadness that might be underlying your daily life, we're really talking about the potential for depression. Indeed, many people don't realize that irritability and constant frustration can be a symptom of depression. So it's helpful to take that possibility seriously because there is treatment. Number four guilt. When guilt underlies frustration, it typically involves winning resolution for something you haven't yet forgiven yourself for. You want to just be able to move on, and yet you are frustrated that you can't and you can't escape your feelings. Perhaps you're looking for someone else's help in this process to absolve you of what you've done, for instance, and yet they're not doing it, so then you're frustrated with them. Cases I've seen like this pretty commonly involve getting frustrated with a friend who still won't get over a mistake that you made, or wanting to end an argument with a partner and just forget about it and move on feeling frustrated with them that they won't just let it go. It's a kind of defense mechanism, really, to just keep feeling frustrated about the external ripple effects of whatever you did instead of reckoning with the fact that you have a lot of guilt that you're dealing with. While that guilt could use its own support in a different way, so might it instead be helpful to face more directly your own feelings about what happened? If you do that, you might also identify some dysfunctional messages that you're telling yourself, some cognitive distortions, where maybe you're using such harsh judgment on yourself that you're adding to your distress that maybe you need to relax your expectations or find a way to give yourself grace or compassion or forgiveness. Those are so much more profound challenges to overcome than just stopping being frustrated. But when you do work on overcoming them, the difference will be tremendous. Number Five shame related to guilt, shame nonetheless strikes sometimes when there's nothing in particular that you're feeling guilty about. If you have a history of low self esteem or imposter syndrome or feeling like you are bad, or you had traumatic experiences that you carry a lot of shame about, or you grew up in an environment where there was a lot of secrecy, you may be unusually sensitive to frustration related to carrying those feelings around. The weight of long term shame can cause a general sense of helplessness and hopelessness, both of which can contribute to frustration. If you experience chronic frustration that seems connected to a sense of not being worthy enough to live the life you want, it could really be worth more deeply examining those potential feelings of shame. There's so much out there about shame, and I'm sure we'll spend a whole episode on it sometime. But when your constant frustration feels like it's connected to not measuring up or to feeling like you're not worthy as I mentioned, or you constantly set unrealistic goals for yourself that you know you probably won't meet, but it's a way of beating yourself up. It's a way of self sabotaging. Well, that frustration may just be that superficial top level of this deeper sense of chronically feeling unworthy. It's worth tackling because it's no longer just a simple matter of, hey, I'm frustrated that I didn't get my task list done today because I spent the whole afternoon in a Wikipedia rabbit hole that started when I asked myself whether Bette Midler had children. It's not that simple as in, oh, I just wish I would have done things differently. When there's shame involved, it's chronic, it's pervasive, it's corrosive. So please give some of that some thought, too, because there is help if that's what's going on. So being better able to label and identify your feelings is associated with better coping and well being. So the next time you're feeling frustrated, see if you can go even deeper and better identify the root of the problem. Of course, it might just have to do with the foibles of modern life, and that's okay, too. But if there is something deeper, it'll probably be helpful to identify it. What has caused you frustration lately? Reach out and let me know. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @BaggageCheckPodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told him where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered by Daniel Merrity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.