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"Frustrated?" There's Probably Another Emotion Present

Sometimes, deeper feelings lie under the surface.

Andre Hunter/Unsplash
Source: Andre Hunter/Unsplash

As a long-time therapist and mental health columnist, I'd say that "frustrating" is one of the most common emotional labels that I hear used to describe difficult times in life, from everyday annoyances to larger ruts that feel impossible to get out of. And though the term obviously is useful as a starting point for people explaining their emotional experience, I find that more often than not, it pays to go further.

Frustration is likely to be the top layer of a feeling. It speaks to a sense of stagnation or helplessness, an inability to make things happen in the way that someone wants. Merriam-Webster defines being frustrated in part as "feeling discouragement, anger, and annoyance because of unresolved problems or unfulfilled goals, desires, or needs."

We 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 giving up altogether in a huff, from hanging up on someone to kicking a wall.

But while this picture of frustration—the angry, sulking person who's annoyed at the futility of their efforts—is a common one, with a little emotional exploration, we can see that an additional array of possible emotions can underlie frustration. And the first step in getting through the experience in a healthy way is to figure out exactly what those deeper emotions are. Here are some common examples.

Anger: A classic partner to frustration, anger is often what's going on when you feel that something is thwarting you—and your ire is directed at that person or thing. You want to tear out your non-working dishwasher and set it aflame, or throw your frozen computer out the window. You want to scream at your teenager to get into the car already because you've told him four times to get his shoes on, and yet it still isn't happening.

When anger is at play, it's helpful to validate the 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.

Anxiety or Fear: A lot of times, "frustration" seems a safer emotion to admit to than fear. But in these cases, what is really frustrating you is the fact that you want answers to something that's scary: You're looking for reassurance or certainty, and yet it's not coming.

You're "frustrated" that 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. It will be more helpful to acknowledge and label that anxiety than to keep bumping against the limits of the control that you have over the situation.

Sadness: Sadness also can feel more formidable to reckon with than frustration. Sometimes, the sadness comes from a sense of despair about the seeming hopelessness of a situation. You want a situation 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 mourning 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 fitness goal or losing a job. Acknowledging and moving through the sadness will serve you better in the long run than just calling yourself frustrated.

Guilt: When guilt underlies frustration, it typically involves wanting 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 are looking for someone else's help in this process, and yet they're not doing it.

Cases I've seen like this include 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"—feeling frustrated with them that they won't just let it go. Might it instead be helpful to face more directly your own feeling about what happened?

Shame: Related to guilt, shame nonetheless strikes sometimes even when there is nothing for which to be guilty. If you have a history of low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, or feeling like you are "bad," you may be unusually sensitive to frustration related to carrying these feelings around.

The weight of long-term shame can cause a general sense of helplessness and hopelessness, both of which can contribute to your frustration. If you experience chronic frustration that seems connected to a sense of you not being worthy enough to live the life you want, it could be worth more deeply examining these potential feelings of shame.

Being better able to label and identify your feelings is associated with better coping and well-being. So, the next time you are feeling frustrated, see if you can go even deeper and better identify the root of the problem.

What has caused you "frustration" lately? Let me know in the comments!

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