Validation, Perception Shift, Mindfulness, and Gratitude
Frustration is a hard topic for philosophers and those seeking self-help. Much of the advice boils down to some variation of “well, just don’t be frustrated by things.” The avenues that lead there are varied: change your internal perception so minor annoyances simply wash away; practice some breathing to ground yourself in the moment; embrace a mindset of gratitude. Framed as “just do x” or “it’s simple,” the messaging around these practices come off as disingenuous and arrogant, even while the practices themselves are incredibly useful. The result is that they do not generate buy-in, and many people just brush them off. But how, then, do we deal with frustration?
The above tactics (perception shift, mindfulness, and gratitude) are excellent strategies, but they are generally missing one key component: validation. It is valid to feel frustrated. It is a naturally-occurring human emotion, springing from an inability to do or to change something. A lot of common self-help literature is centered around removing frustration as quickly as possible, or trying to dislodge it altogether. Little sayings worm their way into your ears from “don’t worry, be happy” to “just breathe.” The intention behind such things is good and can help reroute pathways in the brain to avoid or better use feelings of frustration, but the marketing is terrible. It’s invalidating.
The first step of dealing with frustration, or discomforting emotions of any kind, is to acknowledge it. It is much harder to operate when you are unaware that something is affecting your every thought and action. Frustration leads to confirmation bias, where all new sensory information is routed to the brain in a way that strengthens frustration’s hold. The same is true for anger, or sadness. When you acknowledge the emotion, it is much easier to wrangle new information out of this pathway.
The next step is to validate the frustration. The fact that you are experiencing the emotion is enough for it to be valid. No matter what it is predicated on, or in response to, it is real to you. And that is okay. This is a practice of mindfulness— to be in the present moment without judgement. The validation process is not a process of trying to change the emotion. Rather, it is a process to feel the emotion and let it exist. To remember that you are human, and that all humans feel this way sometimes.
Only after these two steps are completed can the cocktail of remedies from above be applied. Stoicism teaches that shifting your perception of events will lead to reduction in frustration. Slave-turned-Stoic-teacher Epictetus says in his Discourses: “if someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” This is easily extrapolated to events; if fate or fortune provokes you, your mind is complicit. Shifting the perception around the occurrences, flipping the script so that obstacles (frustrations) can be turned to benefit, reduces much of the frustration that can accompany less-than-desirable circumstances.
Mindfulness is what people are really talking about when they say “just breathe.” Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, known as the “father of mindfulness,” teaches that mindfulness is like a lamp, and our breath is its fuel (Your True Home, 22). The breath lives in the present moment only, and is a good anchor point for the mind. Focusing on breathing can relieve a lot of the excess in frustration, leaving space to remember that, no matter what, we are okay at this precise moment. And, as we fuel our mindfulness, it begins to emanate out from us, relieving the tension surrounding us like a lamp shines light on its surroundings.
This connects to gratitude, or a deep appreciation for having every basic need met and a sense of belonging with others. Whatever the frustration is, it will likely not reduce needs being met or the security that comes from your balanced relationships, rendering it long-term ineffectual.
The frustration will pass, but the good will endure.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry