Frustration

Today I want to take a break from talking about learning and talk about an unfortunate but inevitable aspect of learning: frustration.

Let me dispel two myths quickly:

  1. Everybody feels frustration sometimes
  2. There is no way to avoid frustration

In fact, I would say the harder you work, the more frustration you will feel.

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The good thing is that if you are feeling frustration… it probably means you are improving and growing faster than everyone else!

We often feel like we shouldn’t be feeling frustrated, or that we’re the only one feeling frustration, but this is not true at all.

So let’s talk about frustration.

What is frustration?

Frustration is the feeling of disappointment or annoyance that causes us to lose our sense of fulfillment or motivation.  We feel frustration when there is something we want – whether it’s a goal, a thing or even another person – and something is blocking us from getting it.  Looking at it this way, we can see why it’s such a normal feeling: there is always something we want, and we can’t always get it.  It doesn’t matter how smart, rich, happy, positive or talented you are, everybody wants something, and nobody can always get everything they want right away.

Think about that: the only kind of person who could never feel frustrated is someone who never wanted anything!  What kind of life would that be?  Probably not very interesting or fulfilling.

In your case, it’s probably the ability to do something in English.  Maybe you want to pronounce English better.  Maybe you want to remember what you learned better.  Maybe you want to understand what they are saying in Hollywood movies without using subtitles.  Maybe you just want to be able to make a sentence without having to think so much!  Whatever your goal is, the more important it is, the more irritating it is not to reach it.

Sometimes we don’t get frustrated when we can’t reach a goal.  For example, maybe we believe the goal was unreachable anyway, or maybe it’s not that important.  If I wanted to eat vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate, but the store ran out of vanilla, I’m not going to scream and pound my fists in frustration.  I like chocolate too.  I’m also not frustrated or depressed that I’m not a billionaire.

Why should I care about being frustrated?

This is a fair question.  Besides the fact that it doesn’t feel good, are there any reasons to care about frustration?

Yes.  There are many reasons to care about it.  I’m going to list three that relate directly to learning.

  1. It’s stressful: Feeling frustrated adds unnecessary levels of stress to our lives.  We don’t study languages in order to feel more stressed.  Many of us decided to study in order to relieve stress!
  2. It makes us lose confidence: Getting frustrated leads us to believe all kinds of crazy things, like “I’m not good at English” or, even worse “I’ll never be good at English”.  This makes it harder not only to continue studying English, but to take any joy in anything in our lives.
  3. It makes us give up: Frustration is unpleasant, and when it leads to a loss in self confidence, it can persuade us to quit.  This is bad because it starts a cycle of feeling frustrated at many important things in our lives – our jobs, our marriages, our health – and then giving up on them.

Let me remind you: frustration is normal.  Everyone feels it sometimes.  But when frustration leads to these (and other) problems, it’s something we need to deal with.

How can I deal with frustration?

Step 1: Be realistic about your goals

Can you really achieve them?  Think about this question positively, but be realistic.  You can probably achieve most of your goals, but all of them?  Do you have too many goals?  Do you have any goals that are in conflict with other goals?  Do you have enough time and energy for all of them?  Also very important: are you giving yourself enough time?  One of the biggest frustrations I see is that many people – and some of my own students – have realistic goals, but they want to achieve them RIGHT NOW!  Skills take time to build, and we don’t get to decide how much time.  So be patient with yourself.

Think about what you hope you can achieve, but also what you are willing to be happy with.  If these two things are the same, then you are probably setting yourself up for frustration.

Step 2: Remember that many frustrations are external

Sometimes, there are things beyond your control.  Whether or not you get 900 on the TOEIC is outside of your control.  Whether or not that study abroad program accepts you is beyond your control.  All you can do is give it your best, and if you fail this time, pick yourself up and try one more time.

Step 3: Remember that many frustrations are internal

Sometimes, we believe things or tell ourselves things that cause us to feel frustrated.  Sometimes it’s better to just accept that we didn’t get the result we want, instead of driving ourselves crazy asking “Why, why, why??”  Sometimes we need to stop worrying about the future – will I ever speak English well?? – and focus on the present.  Sometimes we need go even deeper and examine our beliefs about our potential, our expectations, and ourselves.  Is it really fair to expect ourselves to speak English perfectly?  Is it reasonable to think we can have a full time job and study English for an hour every day?  This is an aspect that I will delve into more deeply in the future.

Step 4: Start taking steps towards being more positive

Keep a list of everything you’ve accomplished, even outside of studying English.  Look at it when you feel frustrated and remind yourself that you are a capable person who has succeeded before, so you can do it again.  Remind yourself that you’ve overcome setbacks before.

Step 5: Allow yourself to take breaks

Do not feel guilty or ashamed for taking a break.  Very, very often, when I feel frustrated I convince myself I need to keep pushing and pushing, and then I just get more frustrated.  Almost every time, I finally break down and take a break – maybe watch some movies or meet some friends – and put aside work for just a little while.  Every time I do this, I start to miss it, and I feel motivated again to give it another try.

This is normal!

So start taking these steps and achieve a feeling of control over your frustration.  As you work on it, you’ll find that not only is your frustration easier to deal with, but also that you start feeling frustrated less and less.

Please be careful though!  While frustration is normal, you should not be feeling it too often.  If you’ve tried improving your situation but nothing seems to change, you may need to take other measures.  For example, you mean need to take a long break, stop doing what is causing you frustration or see a professional to discuss the issue.  Giving up is usually not the best option, but neither is banging your head against a wall.

I hope that was helpful, and I’ll see you again next week!  Have a great Obon!

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