The Inner Workings of Frustration

 Along the way of my twenty-year journey as a musician I have encountered numerous obstacles and one topic has become very familiar to me over time: Frustration. Frustration is a strong disempowering feeling that can quickly lead to hopelessness, a sense of being stuck and
ultimately - to giving up music completely. To reduce the feeling of frustration we experience, we need to gain a deeper understanding of it´s inner workings.

Tolerance to Frustration

There are two types of frustrations we encounter when trying to develop a skill - inherent frustration and optional frustration.
Inherent frustration simply arises out of the difficulty of learning a complex task and can´t be avoided, it´s part of the learning process.
Optional frustration on the other hand is created by ourselves and refers to ineffective learning habits or destructive mental patterns.
This type of frustration can and should be avoided (unless one is masochistic). In addition to these two types of frustration we all possess different levels of tolerance to frustration and these directly translate into the options we have in our life:

Low level of tolerance to frustration = few options in life
High level of tolerance to frustration = many options in life

A low level of tolerance to frustration translates to very few options in life, because we will immediately give up if learning a skill requires more than a few attempts.This will constrain what we are able to learn in life immensely and confine us to only performing simple tasks. A high level of tolerance to frustration immediately opens up many new possibilities for us, because most things worth accomplishing take a lot of try and error, discipline and sticking power. The good thing is that our natural level of tolerance to frustration is not fixed. We can increase it over time to withstand inherent frustration and simultaneously work on minimizing the amount of optional frustration we create during the process.

Causes of frustration

Aside from ineffective learning habits, most optional frustration is caused by negative, unconscious mind patterns. Here are some I have observed in myself over the years: Unrealistic expectations We have to be very clear about what our goals in music are (even if we have to adjust them after a while) and realistically assess if what we want to accomplish is possible for us in terms of available time, energy and money. The general desire to “play an instrument, write one´s own music and record it” sounds simple, but will definitely surpass the limit of necessary time and resources for a lot of people. If this is our goal and we try to accomplish it by investing half an hour per week, it´s simply not going to happen in this lifetime and our frustration will be a direct outcome of unrealistic expectations. How then, if we just start out and have no perspective on how big a certain goal is, can we find out if our resources match our goals? The best way is to find someone who is doing what you want to do and ask. Underestimating the amount of work something takes is a very, very common trait in us musicians.

Comparing yourself to others

Our minds are comparison machines by default and we can´t help to constantly compare ourselves to others. Others are smarter, more talented, more gifted, whatever… The big problem with comparisons is that you can never make a valid comparison between you and someone else. What does that mean? You always compare your inside with someone else´s outside and that´s not a valid comparison. The outer, fabricated and glorified image of your hero gives you absolutely zero idea what´s going on in that person´s inner world. We often erroneously equate skills or accomplishments with happiness, but life, in most cases, is not that easy.
On the outside your hero´s world sure looks great, but maybe, just maybe - the hero he doesn´t really like to play guitar anymore, maybe he´s depressed and an alcoholic. Maybe he would like to give up music, but he can´t because he´s attached to his own image as a musical legend and therefore locked inside his own mental prison. We only meet images and all people love to display the image of success - only the spouses and very close friends could tell you the truth and this will most likely never happen. We have to stop comparing our inner world to somebody else´s superficial image - it´s not a valid comparison. Here´s my invitation to all of us: Let´s compare ourselves, but only with another version of ourself.

Expecting linearity

Does this scenario sound familiar? You set out to study music theory to improve your songwriting skills and decide to dedicate a fixed time slot for it each day of the week. You keep at it, make good progress for a few weeks or even months, but at a certain point things are not going as they used to. You feel less energized, less motivated and can´t concentrate as well. Noticing this, you feel even more demoralized and might notice thoughts like “I´m such a failure, I can´t keep up anything…” Often the reason behind our frustration is our expectancy of linearity. We expect things to go a certain way forever, which they never will, because life is not linear. Life is cyclical and very paradoxical at times - we have to take this into account and adapt to these cycles. We have periods or high energy that we can use to practice, learn and expand and then we have periods of low energy, which is a good time to let that growth catch up with us. We should not devalue the cycle of low energy, because that too has it´s place and if we learn to adjust to our cycles we will encounter much less frustration in the long term.

Trying to “Get it done!” 

Trying to “get it done” is the insane idea to reach some end point in music, a point where we will be totally satisfied with our abilities. It´s the proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow and it doesn´t exist. The unconscious idea of arriving at a destination is very common, responsible for constant stress and the inability to never enjoy your music in this moment. It´s always the next thing; the eternal carrot dangling directly in front of our nose, but when you try to grab it, it has moved an inch further away. And so it continues. We constantly have to remind ourselves that there is no end in music, that we cannot get it done to avoid falling into this trap. Music is infinite and there´s no end point to reach. Music is not a race with a finish line, it´s an eternal journey of conveying emotion to others, learning about yourself and this journey is about fun along the way, not about reaching a destination. Unquestioned assumptions Frustration is a natural human feeling that NO ONE is exempt from. At first glance this seems obvious, but when we look deeper, we often discover that we still hold a feeling that only we experience frustration and that “divine musicians” would never have these problems. The hidden belief that “the great musicians and composers never struggle” is a dangerous myth and poison for our musical development, because it puts them on a pedestal and us in the dirt. It´s a recipe for stifling our creativity and feeling unworthy as musicians. Learn to detect your unquestioned assumptions and put them under the bright light of examination, become the Sherlock Holmes of your inner world and you will laugh at some point when you realize how silly ideas can have an immense power over you. As an additional antidote it helps to study the lives of great composers and musicians to realize that they all had their trials and tribulations and where not that different from you and me. 

Not celebrating our victories

We constantly complain about not having enough skills or not making enough progress, but let me ask you this: Do we actually celebrate our victories? Do we gather friends for dinner, because we made a breakthrough in our songwriting abilities? Rarely. If we make progress, it´s more like: “Yeah, well, great. Could still be a lot better though…” We are very eager to bring ourselves down and very bad at giving ourselves credit for what we actually do and accomplish. We should remind ourselves regularly to schedule celebrations for our victories, because this gives us an enormous motivational boost and a sense of doing a good job. You´ve written a new song, recorded and mixed it? Invite people over for dinner and play it for them! Celebrate it! Forcing things to happen vs. letting them happen We have to practice and work on your skills - yes, but we also have to realize that we can only water a plant so much. More water than this and you will actually kill the plant over time. The male attitude is to always go out, dominate, conquer and this is fine - but it can quickly become dysfunctional if there´s no balance with the more feminine approach of yielding, of being receptive and of letting things happen. We have to realize that many things develop and grow by themselves over time, without our constant control and intervention. Do what you can in a relaxed attitude, but don´t try to force everything into being.