Picture of a hand holding tight on a rail which symbolizes resilience with the text "Dealing with Frustration: Lessons from a Highly Sensitive Person"

Dealing with Frustration: Lessons from a Highly Sensitive Person

By now, you’ll know that I’m a highly sensitive person and a crier. I quickly burst into tears, especially when dealing with frustration. One of my core values is persistence, so I don’t know how to give up. I think I struggle with dealing with frustration because it feels like I’m failing. Like letting something else win. Not that I’m an overly competitive person. But if something stops me from achieving something I want to do – it’s now my enemy. And I need to defeat it.

I spent most of my life feeling this way. I felt that stopping when you hit a roadblock is bad because it’s giving up. Now, though, I see that the stops don’t have to be forever. Sometimes there’s magic in the pause.

My first big memories in dealing with frustration

I started learning how to play the piano when I was 4. My older sister had started taking piano lessons, and I wanted to be able to do whatever she was doing. Motivated by stickers, I diligently practiced every day (mostly) and started to progress. However, as you continue to learn something new, the work gets harder and more complex. Multiple times over the years, I got stuck on a few bars of music that I couldn’t learn right. I just couldn’t convince my fingers to do what I needed them to do. Same mistake kept occuring. I have been a super type-A high achiever from a very young age. I would always pound away at those keys for hours, as I try dealing with the frustration by overcoming it.

Dealing with frustration feels like failing to me. Like letting something else win.

Then, because I’m a highly sensitive person that’s quick to cry, I would often start crying while still practicing. I remember crying multiple times over the years as I was trying to learn something hard. My mom would come over. She take my hands off the keys, close the lid, and say, “It’s time to walk away.” I thought she did this because it was annoying to hear the same bit of music. Especially because the music is playing wrong over and over again. Now I know she was trying to show me, in her own way, the power of the pause in managing frustration.

What the lesson really was

Fast-forward thirty-some years, and I was writing in my journal, just rambling and processing whatever came up. All of a sudden, the clouds parted and I realized that she wasn’t closing the piano for me. Just because it was annoying to hear the same bars being reworked over and over. My mom knew, maybe on a subconscious level, that my nervous system was activated. Also, that I wasn’t able to access the part of my brain that I needed to make progress. So she essentially forced me to take a pause and allow my nervous system to calm. Stop pounding against that proverbial brick wall, and allow myself to come back to it with a more calm approach. This is in dealing with a frustrating experience.

The truth about frustration

You see, frustration is an emotion associated with our stress response. Our stress response was designed to keep us safe, not help us learn a new skill. We see something dangerous coming at us, and we either fight or flight away to safety. Now, of course, there is the freeze and fawn response. This have come about from living in this dumpster fire of a world that we live in. Also, the trauma (both big and little ‘t’ trauma) that we’ve experienced. Regardless, in response to stress, we’re wired for survival, not complex thinking.

Sometimes there’s magic in the pause while dealing with frustration

When you’re running away from a dangerous animal, contemplating the meaning of life. Maybe also solving a complex problem – not a priority. The same goes for when we get so frustrated because we’re stuck on something and can’t find the way forward. Our stress response can kick in and shunt blood, oxygen, and nutrients away from our prefrontal cortex. Our higher level thinking, problem-solving brain. So when we keep pounding away at those piano keys. When we just can’t seem to figure out the correct way to play the song. Our stress response makes it harder or nearly impossible to figure it out. Dealing with frustration in this way only exacerbates the problem.

Frustration activates our stress response, making it harder to be curious, flexible, and think outside the box. Which is the exact opposite of what we need at the times when we’re frustrated.

Applying the lesson in dealing with frustration to a more recent experience

I had a really interesting experience with this very concept just a few weeks ago. I went roller skating for the first time in over 20 years earlier this year in March. Right away after putting on my skates, I stood up and promptly fell over backward, landing right on my tailbone. You know, when your arms move in a windmill to try and catch yourself. Already, your feet just keep rolling out and eventually go up in the air. You then land down on your butt. It hurt, but I couldn’t help myself. I just started giggling right away thinking of how funny it was that I couldn’t even stand up. The night went on, and I continued to fall all over the place. I quickly became hooked on skating after just a brief period of practice. Thankfully, so was my partner.

Our stress response was designed to keep us safe, not help us learn a new skill in dealing with frustration

We went the next week to get our skates. We’ve been back to the rink almost every week since then. He’s started getting into roller derby, but I want to be able to dance on my skates. One week we went to an intro skate-dance lesson. Even though I had been good about not falling as often, I fell oh so very many times. Usually right on my tailbone. Frustration mounted as I struggled to identify my mistakes, and I couldn’t grasp what I was doing wrong.

Embracing Frustration: Learning Roller Skating Moves Through Determination

I left that skate night hella sore and covered in bruises – but determined to get these moves down! We’ve cleared out some space in our home for roller skating practice. So I was trying these new moves at home…still consistently landing HARD on my tailbone. I started to cry – not because it hurt. “Despite the pain, my frustration grew as I struggled to master these moves. However, unlike what I did when I was younger, I didn’t keep pushing through. Instead, I sat down on a cushy chair and just had a good frustration cry. I let the stress, the frustration, the emotions out. I gave myself permission to stop pounding against that proverbial brick wall in my way. Instead just leaned against it to rest and regroup rather than continue with the frustration. A great way of dealing with frustration.

Frustration activates our stress response, making it harder to be curious, flexible, and think outside the box

How the pause helped

On our next trip to the roller rink, I decided to listen to the DJ playing all the fun tunes. While simply skating around in circles. Nothing fancy, nothing new, no pressure. My only goal was to try and make it through the night without falling over backward. And I got it! Didn’t even fall once! I took the break that I needed, to calm my nervous system and to start problem-solving. To also realign with what I really wanted for my new hobby.

I needed to be more gentle with my expectations for myself. So, I took a step back and realized that I wanted roller skating to be fun. I wasn’t supposed to have to push myself on this. Sure, I do want to get better – but I don’t have a timeline for that. I didn’t need to achieve this goal goal by a certain date. I know a couple moves, I’m learning how to fall so it doesn’t hurt too much. The people I meet at the roller rink are fun to be with. Maybe, at least for now, that’s enough.

It’s only because I took that little pause, rather than continuing to push through. By this, I gained this clarity and saved myself a whole lot of bruises.

So friend, I have to ask you. What have you been really determined/stubborn about lately that maybe you need to take a little pause from? You know, just enough of a pause to gain clarity and allow your stress response to calm down. So you can think outside of the box.

What have you been really determined/stubborn about lately that maybe you need to take a little pause from?

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Still/Sound - Olafur Arnalds