Frustration to Motivation!

Frustration, to me, is a form of anger. It’s an accumulation of emotions very often targeted at one specific thing or person. As such, because they have a strong direction and foundation, they can be used to motivate behavioural change. People who are truly fed up with something are quite willing to change drastically. Frustration in and of itself might sound quite negative. I don’t think it needs to be. Frustration is just a form of discontentment. Meaning you’re not happy with the current state of affairs. You might be either under- or overwhelmed. In the latter case there is also a strong connection to burnout. Frustration that continues to be pent up and not let out in a healthy way, can turn incredibly negative. It can make you really angry, leading to an inevitable rage quit, and before that explosion just an all-round awful person to be around. It can eat away at your own self-esteem as your continued frustration turns into feelings of helplessness and turns into a vicious cycle of negative thoughts. Regardless of which one of these two, and many other scenarios, your frustration turns into, it’s better to let it out. In a healthy manner.

To get back to my comment on burnouts. Burnout is almost exclusively associated with work. And I’m pretty sure a lot of frustration does come from work. Unhelpful colleagues, clients who cannot make up their minds, co-workers who casually take credit for your work and a boss who emails you at all hours of the day, all days of the week, and seems to think all e-mails need to have a direct reply (they don’t, it’s e-mail, not a damn phone call). You have two options here: confront or suck it up. Now sucking it up can work to some extent, if there is a clear end to this situation in sight. Like a project deadline. You’re not going to be working with a certain team or client forever. In that case, take up Thai boxing and vent to people who are NOT involved in that line of work. But if there’s no end in sight to whatever is causing your frustration, what happens is that this frustration tends to get internalised, and then you’re never far removed from either a blow-out or a burnout. Because this stuff accumulates very insidiously. For example: a colleague who continuously takes credit for your work is not going to be so finite as a project deadline. That behaviour, if left unnoticed or even unpunished, tends to get worse, and not better. You can be frustrated about this, but you could also check in with your other colleagues if they’re noticing what’s going on here. You can also check in with your boss (line manager or supervisor) to see if they realise that you’re putting in the work. It sounds super childish, I know, because you’re essentially “telling” on someone. But if you’re going to lose out on a promotion, and the person who claims they’re doing your work gets that promotion, how frustrated do you think you’ll be then?

If shenanigans like this are going on in the place where you work anyway, frustrations can really get high. If your work is a continuous cause of stress and frustration, it might be time for that drastic change I mentioned earlier. The more frustrated you get, the more appealing it’ll be to tell everyone to fuck off and just quit. But how realistic an option is that? I’ve felt like this many a time, but I’m not quitting the PhD program anytime soon… A much more realistic option is to initially talk to your boss, see what can be done about the situation and let that conversation sink in. If after a week you still don’t think the conversation helped in any way, shape or form, it’s probably time to consider switching jobs. No joke. For many people frustration with their current position at work has lead them to change jobs, careers or sectors as a whole. Frustration often comes from things being done in a way that doesn’t suit your working style, or maybe even your needs. Again, that sounds kind off childish, “they’re just not doing it my way!” But if you can go somewhere else where you’re just a much better fit, that wouldn’t be such a weird choice to make now, would it?

Although I’ve described frustration exclusively in a work setting so far, it can manifest in any aspect of your life. Just think about it. Replace co-workers with friends or family, your boss with a partner and work stress and deadlines with finances and you’re golden. It’s difficult to change your friends and family, hell, it’s difficult to change anything about anyone else, but if they’re a constant force of frustration, you might want to look into what you can change how you feel about these people, or the interactions you’re having. Frustration can stem from very genuine things, like not seeing eye to eye on key things like politics, gender equality, euthanasia, capital punishment etc. Now I’m not saying it’s an issue that people have opinions different from yours (it’s not), but talking to them always ends up with you being frustrated and your day being ruined, maybe it’s time to change a few thing. It’s very unlikely you can change their mind, but what you can do is choose your reactions and the extent of your interactions with them. You can always choose to spend less time with them. In the case of a relationship however, this might just mean it’s the end of the relationship. But if you were constantly frustrated with them anyway, that might not be a massive loss… Family is also a bit harder, but maybe just try to avoid whatever topic or situation is making you so damn frustrated. It’s not helpful in any way.

Frustration doesn’t just stem from our interactions with the external world either. You can also be frustrated with yourself. Frustrated with the debt you’re in or the weight you’re currently at, as easy examples. This type of frustration is important to understand and use for yourself, rather than against yourself. Write down what you’re unhappy with, in an almost objective manner. Write down what you would be happy with, and then start breaking this down into smaller steps. Use a framework such as SMART to get you where you want to be. Set up external motivators or check points, such as friends making similar changes in their life, or just checking in to see if you’re making progress and reaching your (intermediate) goals. Get professional help if you can. For debt there’s many agencies that can help you design financial plans and hold you accountable. The same goes for weight loss, or increasing muscle mass etc. in the form of personal training or diet plans.

When it comes to frustration it’s really important to know what you’re frustrated at. First, do some exercise to get the anger and adrenaline out of your body. Then, sit down and define what exactly is causing you to feel so frustrated. Is it a person? A location? Your work? Or someone at work specifically? Do you feel frustrated every single time you had an interaction with a certain person, and if so why? Or is it not the person but the type of interaction? Are you frustrated with yourself rather than someone else (be honest…)? Again, if so why. The what and the why matter a whole lot when being frustrated, because they will entirely determine your plan of attack when it comes to battling your frustrations. Once you have determined what and why (this might take a while), you can apply a model such as SMART. Give yourself a clear main goal, several subgoals, and a time period to do it in. Build a support network, or figure out a way to hold yourself accountable, and have others hold you accountable, in a way that works for you. I’m writing this article specifically because I’ve noticed myself getting increasingly frustrated with everything lately, especially work (PhD) related. I’m writing this article weeks after I wrote the “PhD Blues” post, so you can imagine what state of mind I’m in. But there’s no point in being angry or feeling sorry for yourself if there’s nothing you can do about it. Focus your attention and energy and just get going. In the end, my frustration is the reason this blog exists in the first place. So let something good come out of it!