Yesterday while I was on the radio, a mother called in to ask about how to deal with extreme frustration. I gave a couple of ideas, but after having had 24 hours to think about it, I actually now have a real answer. (I have no future in situations requiring a quick and thoughtful or quick and witty response... unless people are willing to wait around for a day or two. I should probably stick to writing where no one can see how long it takes me to work something out. Plus, I'm not good at short, as you probably already know.) On the slim chance that the caller found my blog (and for anyone else who deals with this), here's what I wish I would have said.
We all deal with frustration at one time or another and we've all watched our children deal with frustration. Or not dealt with it as the case may be. Webster's 1828 dictionary defines frustration as, "The act of frustrating; disappointment; defeat; as the frustration of one's attempt or design." There's a lot wrapped up in that short definition. At its core, though, we experience frustration when what we think about ourselves doesn't match our current reality.
It is easiest to understand frustration when observing it others, particularly our children. We've all watched it... a child trying to do something new and after repeated attempts becomes more and more frustrated. And we can watch the frustration kicking in as the attempts become wilder, less focused, while the child becomes angrier and more upset. In the child's head, he can see himself doing the new skill and at some point thought it would be easy. (This idea can occur when watching someone else who is skilled at the task and makes it look easy or when the child has no experience related to the task and thus no basis on which to form judgments.) As parents we realize that the only thing we can do to help our child at that moment is to have him take a break and do something different. I think it is a gift a parent can give a child to help him to recognize when frustration is getting the better of him and what to do in the face of it. Often after a break, I find the child's brain has had time to reorganize the new information and as a result the child is often much closer to accomplishing what they wish.
Frustration is pretty straight forward and relatively easy to deal with when it is our child learning to ride a bike or jump rope, but what about when we find ourselves experiencing frustration about things which we feel we can't just walk away from... parenting for instance? After years of experiencing frustration off and on in some form or another, I think the two examples are more alike than they are different.
First, we get it in our heads that parenting is easier for some people (everyone?) than it is for us. If that mother doesn't have to work at it, what is wrong with me that I am finding it such a challenge? We sabotage our parenting by beginning with unrealistic expectations. Other unrealistic expectations can come from what we "should" and "shouldn't" be doing. We think because we see another mother in one venue that we know what she does in another. We create a fantasy that has no basis in reality. I will add that blogs have added greatly to a mother's unrealistic expectations. In the blog world, the writer only shows what she wants you to see. Very few air all their dirty laundry and for those who do sometimes show a more realistic side, it is often still tempered. We all want to look good, so that is what we show.
(I am as guilty of this as anyone, and I will repeat that if you think I am perfect or somehow superior to you, you are very mistaken. I am just as human as anyone else, and if I am able to do anything well, it is not due to me, but because somehow God is able to work through all my imperfections.)
So, the first step in dealing with frustration is to examine what is at the root. Ask yourself, "What makes me frustrated?" Is it toys always strewn about the house? This was a source of frustration for me. I would ignore and remind, ignore and remind, until I had had enough and my head would figuratively explode. (My children may contest the idea it was figurative.) After many repetitions of this, I realized that it wasn't my children not picking up their toys, it was that it was too difficult for them to, combined with the fact that this was not an area that bothered them. Realizing what was really causing my frustration... too many toys and not enough structure to deal with them... helped in making me realize it wasn't actually my children I was frustrated with.
Just like we sometimes have to redirect a frustrated child to another, completely different, task, sometimes we parents have redirect ourselves. Now this is often a little trickier because mothers are not often able to just walk away from a frustrating situation... if we do, the frustrating situation may follow us. But we are the grown ups and as such have the capacities to act like one. If a situation is really frustrating, leaving and locking yourself in the bathroom (it's the only door that actually latches, much less locks around here) is sometimes necessary. It gives you that space to calm down and thus be able to think about the situation a little more clearly. Other times, you can sense the frustration level building and you can redirect the situation before meltdowns occur. If children are bickering more than usual, I find that if I can involve everyone in a group activity it stops the bickering. Reading a book together, getting out an activity that isn't always available, making cookies... that sort of thing. I know that sounds as though I'm suggesting rewarding poor behavior, but I'm not. I find that bickering escalates in direct correlation to how much attention my children feel I am giving them. Children aren't always able to understand why they feel a certain way, they just know they feel unsettled and act out. For my crew at least, bickering is not usually as much outright misbehavior as it is acting on feelings they don't understand.
The third step in the process is to go back, when there is time and when you are thinking clearly, to really examine what caused the frustration and what can be done about it. I know I find when I do this, what I thought was the cause of the frustration was actually merely the trigger and the actual cause was something else. I also find if I ask for God's wisdom in clarifying the problems, things become much clearer and that God also provides the solutions.
Don't think that any problem is too small. Remember my whole ironing epiphany? In the great scheme of things my pile of ironing was pretty silly, yet because it was always in the back of my mind and adding guilt to my life, it had become a big thing and I spent far more time on it than it really deserved. But it wasn't until I became so tired of being frustrated about the whole thing and handed it all over to God did I figure out how to solve the situation. You can't tell me that your problem is more trivial than my ironing pile. Just give it to God.
In solving my frustrations, I find that they are often the results of bad habits. Give yourself some grace as you do the hard work to break any habits that need to be changed. It won't happen overnight, but if you prayerfully work towards changing them, God will help you. It might help to enlist the aid of a friend who can help to hold you accountable.
So there's my not-so-short answer to frustration. We are all works in progress. Thanks be to God that he created us to be able to change.