redefining frustration

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/5/2019

Sometimes I get frustrated.

I’ve made it a practice for some time to now to bring attention to my unfolding emotions and look for ways to reframe what I’m feeling when I feel stuck in a loop. Frustration is not the beast it once was.

It’s certainly still there, though. It shows its face regularly. I’m assuming that it serves a purpose.

In the past, I could be utterly defeated when things didn’t go my way. In college, I lived in a constant state of frustration.

I was a music major, but I hadn’t arrived on campus as a musician with a basic grasp of my instrument, sight reading and musical theory. I was surrounded by gifted and creative musicians who continually modeled for me something I wanted to be, but I just couldn’t seem to get there.

A friend of mine called me “Dilligent Dellinger” because I spent so much time in the practice rooms trying to catch up. But unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to practice. I didn’t know how to patiently and methodically work through the exercises that would have cleared the path ahead of me.

I wanted to be an instant musical genius. So I spent a lot of time “improvising” instead.

In this case, “improvisation” meant moving my fingers over the strings of a double bass or the keys of a piano without any idea which notes I was playing. Rather than slowing down and playing scales and arpeggios that would have helped me map the relationship of my body to the music, I continued flailing like this day after day.

I did make discoveries, but progress was mind-numbingly slow.

I think what kept me going was my addiction to the trance-like state that came with the experience. In the search for the sounds in my head, I would go deep inside myself. The outside world disappeared.

The highlight of this experience was winning 2nd prize in a campus-wide piano competition for my wild improvisations (which sometimes included bonking the keyboard with the heel of one foot while my hands continued scurrying).

There was a feeling of triumph in that I had devised a system outside of traditional music theory that gave me enough control to make a powerful musical statement. I made those discoveries through the experience of countless hours of sensory meditation inside my tactile explorations of the piano keyboard, trying to intuitively match my movements to the sounds.

I achieved something, but it was limited in its potential for further development.

Around the same time of the piano competition, I was bewildered by the experience of trying to accompany a friend who had written some songs on her guitar. They were basic chord progressions, but each time I tried to find a bass line, I continually played notes in the wrong key, each one feeling like a knife in my heart.

In my head, I could hear the notes I wanted to play, but my fingers simply couldn’t find them.

I finally gave up, and told her that I wasn’t good enough, walking out of our last practice together in tears and filled with shame.

I remember another day when I was walking across the campus in a strong wind which was blowing me around a bit, continuously throwing my hair all over the place. I responded by grunting, cursing and even punching the wind.

Why wouldn’t it leave me the hell alone?!

I wish I had known then what I knew now, how to step back, breathe, reframe the situation, and define a next useful step to take me in the direction I need to go.

But I didn’t.

Looking back, it appears obvious that I simply didn’t see the range of options available to me, including asking for help. I assumed that I was supposed to be able to figure things out on my own and if I didn’t succeed it meant I was an incompetent human.

This assumption also conveniently kept me from trying a different approaches that might have generated different results.

This morning I was feeling frustrated. I can still taste it, but it’s not as sharp as it was a couple of hours ago. What I’ve just written was part of that process of letting go.

There are many things we think we “know,” but don’t actually act on.

Then life teaches us the lesson again and we feel like we’ve had a new insight even though we quickly realize we’ve been through it before.

This morning I felt something much less desperate than trying to battle the wind, but with one similarity. I allowed myself to fall into the trap of thinking a situation was an unalterable fact of life.

I assumed I had no options.

A shift came when my partner saw options I didn’t and offered me a helpful suggestion. Ironically, her good idea was something I had previously considered and ruled out.

I realized I did have options after all.

Indeed, it’s not as if I haven’t been through this before, but I’m taking this occasion to try to imprint the insight more deeply inside by saying to myself:

When you feel frustrated, what it really means is that you’ve stopped looking for new options.

It’s a reminder to look at things with fresh eyes. Maybe you need to talk with someone or take a walk or come back to the problem later. But this feeling of impossibility isn’t genuine.

If you are willing to start fresh, you could still see something new, do something new, and feel something new.

If I can learn to more consistently understand that this is what frustration is really all about, then maybe it doesn’t have to be so frustrating after all.


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2 thoughts on “redefining frustration”

  1. Sometimes frustration is completely authentic. You’ve arrived at the limit of your understanding, and your plan was just to find the limit of that understanding. Other times, frustration is a complete bullshit relationship with achievement. Bullshit in that you are tied to achieving something you are not ready for, committed to, willing to explore. You were hoping for something better and Santa didn’t deliver. I have been frustrated in my ATM practice, garden-variety-frustrated, you’ve-never-had-that-movement-in-your-hip-joints-why-would-it-flower-in-this-one-lesson?-frustrated. Then there was the one moment where my frustration was authentic: it was yoked to a question I could not answer. So I abandoned everything: my preconceptions, my library, my typical, and I just went directly into the question. 90 minutes later, I answered it. And things have never been the same.

    1. Yes, there’s definitely different varieties of frustration. I like the way you’ve described them.

      You’ve certainly made me curious about your question, your 90 minutes, your answer, and how things have never been the same since.

      Maybe that’s worth another lunch? Or maybe that’s your next blog post?!

      I certainly feel like I’m looking at questions and answers of that nature since the last FTA segment.

      Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

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