Best Method for Self-Improvement: Strengthen Your Frustration Muscle
I’m sitting here on a flight going back to New York and I can’t help but smirk as I realize my frustration tolerance is being tested yet again. I didn’t have the opportunity to meditate this morning before I left so I decided I’ll do it once I get settled on the plane and when it became “quiet.” As I’m sitting at my seat quietly with my eyes closed, I started to feel the sunburn on my neck from the attempt to get some sun in before I left to the airport. Simultaneously my chair was getting kicked by the child in back of me who was already getting restless at takeoff. I was also feeling crowded by the narrowness of the seat and the cool air blowing at me as the air duct was pointed right in my direction.
My thoughts shifted back and forth. I heard “maybe you should wait to meditate on the ride home, it will be quieter”, “tell the child behind you to please stop, then you won’t be as distracted”, “close the duct, you’ll be more comfortable” and many other conflicting thoughts lured me into holding off meditating and do whatever I could in the moment to just be more comfortable.
I also found myself thinking about the past few days. There was a particular food item that was left over and remained in the refrigerator after the Passover Seder. For two days I kept seeing it and I had sat with the food cravings that felt like “it” was personally calling out to me. Each time I thought about approaching the refrigerator or was actually eating, I heard the voices, “just have a little bit, you’ll be able to stop at a spoonful”, “you will have to wait a whole year to have this again, take advantage of it now”, “it tastes so good, don’t deprive yourself of it” and the many other thoughts to follow.
I decided to sit with it all. I purposefully sat with my discomfort during my meditation and mindfully just noticed me feeling unsettled in my seat on the plane just as I had done with craving from the days before. Instead of giving into the craving and eating a lot more sugar than I really wanted and intended to, I made the choice to stick it out with the understanding that the craving would eventually subside. This wasn’t an easy process in any of those circumstances but one I committed to in order to strengthen my “frustration muscle.”
I revel at how, as humans, our frustration tolerance is always being tested somehow and in some way. It is part of our daily lives; we are consistently challenged to see how tolerant we can be of our growing frustrations. There is always something for us to be frustrated about – whether it is self-induced or perpetuated by someone or something outside of ourselves. It’s easy enough to react to, it’s actually much harder and challenging not to react to it, but to just sit with it.
When I work with patients, I refer to it as the human condition of being “frustration avoidant.” I explain that this is a normal human state. We are always modulating ourselves, in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be more comfortable, no matter what the long-term consequences are. It carries over to every part of our lives, whether we try to avoid conflict in our relationships, try to avoid addictive/impulsive behaviors, avoid having physical discomfort, avoid doing hard work or putting in concerted effort, avoid having uncomfortable thoughts and emotional states, etc.
We learn to do this at a very young age and it is perpetuated as we grow into adulthood. Because of the great comforts we are afforded with today in society, it makes it even easier to avoid things we don’t like or want around us. If we wish to be distracted 24/7, we can easily accomplish that. If we want our children to struggle less, we can arrange for it, and if we want to be physically more comfortable, we can put mechanisms in place to ensure ourselves of it.
By continually challenging yourself, you can substantially grow through the process and enhance yourself personally and in your relationships with others. You don’t have to shy away or avoid frustration but rather welcome it and become curious about what you can learn from it. There is always something you can learn about the way you think, feel and behave. You can consider constantly being in a lab and conducting science experiments, with “you” yourself being the research subject.
The other major things you experience when you stick with the frustration is self-compassion, self-belief and an eventual internalization of self-confidence and pride in regard to your accomplishments. You realize that anything that you really want and wish to do well at, albeit, it requires a lot of effort and is inclusive of self-defeating thoughts and feelings, you need to work through the frustration from the beginning to the end of the process. There’s just no way around it.
Self-compassion comes from noticing and being with your typical normal human emotional states. The self-belief comes from your self-efficacy and the belief that you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to if you stick it out, no matter how much effort and discomfort it takes. Your self-confidence and pride gets internalized when you take inventory of what you were able to accomplish despite the adversity. It gives you the will to take on future challenges and the belief that you can work through those challenges even if you have to recalibrate, adjust your goals and/or look more intently into the values that may be operating.
The next time your mind tells you or tries to convince you to avoid your frustrations or discomfort, which it inevitably will, you may consider an alternative response. Flexing and strengthening your “frustration muscle” can afford you with an enhanced sense of self. You won’t believe you can accomplish something unless you actually take action and do so. Don’t take my word for it, seek to be your own research subject and prove it to yourself.