When We Get Frustrated

More often than not, frustration involves a feeling that we’re not able to change a situation. It appears that there is no direct path of action available to us. We feel unfree, controlled by forces outside us. And then what happens? Well, some of us, especially men, become irritable or angry. Others, whether immediately or after trying the angry option, yield to a discouraged or avoidant position.  

As a coach and psychologist who consults mostly to highly educated and successful professionals and executives, I see a good deal of this. People in general, but this segment of the population in particular, can have a low tolerance for frustration. These expectations of being efficacious in action explains much of their success. But it can also blind them to their own limitation and vulnerabilities to frustration.  

Reacting Versus Responding

It’s a simple distinction, one that you may have considered before. It’s also a vitally important one that can significantly influence all that follows.  

To react is normal. We are “wired” for it, as fans of neuropsychology might say. But long before all this interest in the brain, there was a body of wisdom about how habits and habitual ways of functioning serve us well, and by no less a scholar than Aristotle in 4th century BC Greece. Studies today indicate that over 50% of our behavior in life – at home and at work – is guided by these learned patterns of action.  

Habits stick because they work. American pragmatist, John Dewey, knew this. He also knew that thought (reflective thought) is most often triggered when habits fail us. The most adaptive among us, therefore, shift from habit to a more deliberative style of problem solving with ease. That’s the basic difference between reacting and responding. But there something more to consider.  

Dewey also knew that this “instrumental” mode of responding and thought works differently with technical and nontechnical problems. Technical problems tend to activate our analytical, means-end style of thought. Nontechnical problems are best understood through a less controlling mode of mind. Openness, inquiry, suspension of cause-effect hypotheses, and noticing the felt sense of issues is key.  

Indeed, this less analytical state of mind consciously relaxes control, allows our receptive mind to see what is always already there. This insight is usually gained from intuition, our felt sense – yes, I mean emotionally toned awareness of what seems important, valuable, “off”, or good, right, and proper. More could be said about how to navigate this distinctive mode of mental processing, but not here, not now.  


What makes this shift from reacting to responding and from frustration to productive action most difficult is the way we can prematurely give up and foreclose on the possibilities of change. This can happen when we are stubbornly committed to our rational-analytical mind when this is the wrong mode of mind for the problem at hand. For some, they just don’t (or can’t) believe in this other mode of mind.  

But there are also problems that require interpersonal solutions. And the relationships we rely upon for working out these problems can be subject to the same limitations that affect our individual minds. We form norms and embrace certain shared values that have shaped our habits of communication and joint problem-solving. Among our habits, we can form “fixed” impressions of what the other is capable of.  

The fixations in belief we have about one another can operate with such iron-clad certainty that we can habitually and selectively look for evidence of their continued hold on others. And it is this constraint that I am often called upon to help alleviate. It’s often the case that a “disruptive” third party is needed to help disconfirm the self-limiting beliefs of one another that block progress. 

Push “Reset”

Reset is the act that evokes a reflective pause. It’s the pause that creates space to notice what is always already there and most clearly discerned through intuition and our felt sense. It’s also the mechanism through which we’re encouraged to suspend application of the “tried-and-true” habits of analytical mind that may block access to what is best seen with our receptive mind.  

What makes this kind of reset difficult for bright, ambitious, self-directing professionals are their needs for control and their skepticism of the more passive, patient qualities of mind that require humility and acceptance. What makes the disruptive third party helpful is not mere dis-ruptiveness, but a special kind of inter-ruption that calls attention to how we’re being self-defeating in the moment, as we’re doing it.  

That’s not always easy because the tension and conflict that holds an individual in place, a bad place, or that holds a couple (intimate or colleagues) in conflict, is an intense conflict. It can feel threatening to the third party, unless the third sees and knows it for what it is, and thereby draws encouragement to intervene. Of course, having some skill in this kind of intervention helps!