If you’re an achievement-oriented person, a bit of a perfectionist, and/or have high expectations of yourself and others, you most likely experience times of significant frustration. After all, life and people (including you) are about as far away from perfect as we can get—beautifully and thankfully so. The cyclical negativity, disappointment, and frustration expressed towards yourself or others is, I would argue, connected to E. Tory Higgins’ vigilance and ought-motivated prevention focus, a frame of mind that keeps us ever on the lookout for flaws so we can keep improving, achieving, accomplishing, and perfecting.
The only downside of this vigilance is when you are prone to be hard on yourself in the best of times and downright mean to yourself in the worst of times, such as when you fail to live up to your own expectations. If you’re like me, a powerful narrative of negative self talk begins and quickly turns into a monologue not easily interrupted.
Most of us know either practically or theoretically that negativity and negative self talk is not only the least healthy conversation to have with yourself, it’s also the least effective way to get motivated, to get back on track, and to bring back your joy.
The only way I have found to interrupt the negative monologue in my head is to channel my inner Kastanza and do the opposite of what comes naturally to me—conscientiously and consciously go easy on myself. When I say go easy I’m not suggesting that you or I lower our standards or expectations of ourselves (unless those expectations are unreasonable and unattainable, then I do suggest an kind examination of how/if expectations serve us in a healthy way). I am, however, suggesting that when you don’t quite meet them (assuming they’re reasonable and attainable) go easy on yourself in order to get back on track.
Here’s four strategies I have found helpful and effective.
1) Take a look at the facts of your life right now. What all is on your schedule? How many significant pulls on your time and person are there? How many competing priorities are you juggling? Is work particularly stressful? Is home? How many hours of sleep are you getting? I’d be willing to bet that a cursory look at these facts would earn you a pat on the back and a nap rather than an anti-you rally in your head. By looking at the facts of the situation you find yourself in, you may see that you’re incredibly busy, incredibly distracted, incredibly tired, or some combination thereof. Get serious and take a hard look at the facts: Which ones aren’t relevant? Which ones are a distraction, a drain, a dread? Which ones can be postponed, delegated, dropped off? Disregard all these facts. Focus and prioritize only the most bothersome bottom-line facts that get you agitated, stressed out, and negative because they most likely represent a violation of a personal value. Values reduce to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.
2) Reflect on the previous times you’ve successfully transitioned through frustrated periods in your life. Think back to how long specific periods lasted (probably not too long) and how did you pull yourself through? Consider your past accomplishments; they were most likely accompanied by periods of frustration and negativity. Careful here: by this I do not mean to compare your current frustrated self to some past-perfect, idealized version of you. You’ve read it before, you’ll read it again now: comparison is the thief of joy. If you’re a planner, focus on setting up step-by-step process to move through the frustration and negativity. If you like routine, maybe get back to one that worked in the past, one that is easy for you. Find comfort in the familiar, in the planned, in the routine for a little while.
3) Show yourself some loving kindness. Indulging yourself in negative self talk, over-eating, over-drinking, or any other unhealthy coping mechanism isn’t going to help your frustrations pass. In fact, such behaviors and thoughts will only exacerbate your frustrations: don’t water your weeds. That said, you need to feel what you feel. If you’re frustrated, don’t deny it; it’s there, so be there with it, observe it for a while, then let it move on. Just remember frustration it’s a visitor in your life, so don’t let it take up residence in Frustration Town. Let the adage of considering whether or not you would talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself be your guide. Use supportive, positive, and encouraging words in your self-talk similar to those you’d say to your best friend when he/she is feeling down. Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healing for the body.
4) Put your current mood and feelings in broader perspective. Visualize a hot air balloon in the early morning, just before sunrise—I’m serious, visualize the colors and shape of the canopy, the weave of the basket, the sound of gas firing, the crisp morning air all around you. Now, feel the balloon lift, slowly gaining elevation that allows your view to expand and gain context within the grander whole. The sun is just up now, rising quickly. As it does, look down at the insignificant speck of shadow cast by the basket you stand in: that little shadow is your frustration. Does it block or overshadow your view? No. Does it block out the sunlight? No. So why would you let your temporary frustration block out the bigger picture and longevity of the life all around you? Yes, life is short and precious. Yes, we should surely spend our time wisely and mindfully. But such a scarcity mentality feeds current frustrations and negative emotions because we’ve limited and narrowed our view to seeing just the basket’s shadow. Don’t let your small thinking cut your life down to size. Reframe the scope of your judgment to optimistically account for your entire life and to moderate the current intensity and impact of your emotions.