Have you ever been in a staff meeting waiting for your boss to arrive? The minutes can go by and still no word on why he or she is delayed. Or, sitting in an airport waiting to board your plane, when the announcement is made that the flight is delayed?

In both situations, we have the opportunity to observe diverse reactions by those involved. In the staff meeting, there may be some who are actively responding to messages on their phone, grateful for the extra time, whereas some that are tapping repetitively on the table with obvious annoyance that they are being delayed from other tasks. In the airport, one may be taking a nap on the floor, while another may be verbally irate to the gate agent.

These are just a sample of possible reactions. All are experiencing varying degrees of frustration from frustration free to extremely frustrated. Yes, each individual may have various stressors that contribute to their response, but at the core, all frustration is due to a single factor–expectations!

Frustration seems to be a universal emotion, often experienced 2 ways, either at ourselves or at others. Most commonly, it is the latter. Why is this such a common struggle? Why are we so easily frustrated?

I recall working with a leader who was chronically frustrated. He would voice frustration with his boss, peers, direct reports, and customers. A litany of exasperated reports was provided as he spoke of his ongoing frustrations. Yet, this individual did not see the underlying problem and why he was so frustrated. He expected others to agree with and do what he thought was best. He had spent time charting the course of best action and was surprised and frustrated by any resistance. He expected others to have the same thought processes, come to the same conclusions, and agree with his proposed solutions. When this expectation was not met, the result was significant frustration.

This leads us to the simple definition of frustration. Frustration occurs when expectations are unmet.

It is impossible to be frustrated when expectations are met. This critical concept can be the key to self-insight, particularly into our own emotional awareness. Notice, the experience of frustration has little to do with what the actual experience is or the reality around us, but rather with our personal expectations beforehand.

Think about a recent time you may have been frustrated. Maybe you were driving in the car and expected to reach your destination at a particular time, but then a slow semi-truck got in your way. You probably became frustrated. Or, you delegated a task to an employee, but the deadline was missed. You probably became frustrated.

Maybe your home décor project you started 6 hours ago doesn’t look anything like the Pinterest photo that promised results in 1 hour. You probably became frustrated.

Please note, frustration is not always bad or unjustified. We may have good reason to be frustrated, but the emotional experience of frustration interferes with our clarity of thought, in addition to it being a negative experience.

Consequently, the best way to decrease the intensity, frequency, and duration of our frustrations is to identify the unmet expectation. This takes the focus away from problem fixation and mental ruminations, and takes steps toward problem solution.

7 Steps to Manage Frustration

Here are some mental steps to help manage frustration:

Recognize you are frustrated. This can vary by person. Some people internalize their emotions and become quiet or withdrawn. Others externalize their reaction and become angry or aggressive. Identify your personal frustration response. This will help you recognize when you are frustrated.

Pause and take a breath. This important step helps rational thought begin to return to your mind.

Identify the unmet expectation. Think about what you expected to happen. What was the magnitude of difference between your expectation and reality? Often, the intensity of the frustration is proportional to this difference.

Ponder if your expectation is appropriate or inappropriate? Reasonable or unreasonable?

If your expectation was inappropriate, then adjust it to be more realistic. Think about how close your expectation is to past experience and does it allow for incremental growth? Does your expectation allow for human imperfection?

If your expectation was appropriate, identify if the expectation was not met due to a communication, skill, or motivation deficit. Did you not communicate the expectation appropriately or was it not communicated to you? Did you or the individual not have the appropriate skill to perform the task? Or, were they not motivated to perform the action? Take appropriate actions to try and prevent the situation from occurring again.

Repeat the steps as needed.

Finally, be patient with yourself and others in this process. The management of frustration is an ongoing, lifelong journey, which allows for improved interpersonal relationships, job effectiveness, and leadership. Gratefully, each time we manage our frustration it is an immediate, positive step on our journey!