Taking the full measure of life

Overcoming Frustration

December 22nd, 2008 · 9 Comments

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I was in a deep funk.

In the midst of packing boxes and making holiday plans and attending my grandmother’s funeral and trying to work in a half-empty apartment (part of the contents of which had already disappeared with their new owner), I unraveled.  I grew anxious and angry.

Why was it always my responsibility to make plans with my friends—did it mean they didn’t want to be around me very much? What did it say about me that I lost friends? Why couldn’t I let go of people who didn’t want to be close to me anymore? Why did my family have to be so complicated and frustrating? Why was my husband expecting so much of me—didn’t he know I was feeling frail? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t function better? Why were the holidays always so hard?

I’m good at stewing.  I can ruminate on a sole topic for days, or weeks, or longer.  I can go to bed exhausted and then still lie awake hours later, spinning and respinning particular events, thoughts, words, emotions, writings, over and over through my brain, seemingly unable to stop the cycle.  On rare occasions, I get this worked up over good things, but usually, it’s the opposite.  Why did he get that look on his face? What did she really mean by those five words? If I dream at these times, it’s always of puzzles with too many missing pieces.  I’m usually lacking full eyesight in these dreams—it’s me without my glasses—and I’m overcome with confusion. But I keep striving and striving to no avail.

At one point in this episode, my sage husband told me, “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to any other cause.” I laughed good-naturedly and called him Confucius.  Part of me felt he was right, but part of me felt wronged.  By anyone, everyone, myself included.  I tried to be gentle with myself to ascertain what was really wrong, but I struggled against that, too.  What could I be worth if all these people didn’t care to try harder to understand me?

We were in the car, my husband driving, and I stared blankly out the window, ruminating further—my frustration at a low boil.   Even though it is important for us to have boundaries and expect other people to treat us decently, I don’t generally struggle with that.  I struggle with the opposite—expecting too much of others and myself.  The thought popped into my brain that perhaps, in this season of Advent, I should stop for a while asking why others couldn’t give me more, and I should start asking what I could give.  Somehow, that thought was a revelation to me.  And so I thought about what bothered me, and I asked myself:  what can I give to these situations? What can I give to these people?

Like the Grinch, I felt my heart expand with the questions.

Gratitude—that was the first thing.  Yes, I spend much more time planning activities with friends (and fielding ‘no’ responses, which I often take too personally) than my friends do for me.  But a few days before, who had come over to help me move items from one house to another  (which I view as one of the most irritating jobs in friendship)? Several friends.  And who had written me a very thoughtful email about my recent difficulties despite being nearly overwhelmed with her own? My friend.  And so on—friends, family, the world, and my husband:  they all deserved gratitude and not just frustration.

What else could I offer? Understanding—the same understanding and empathy I felt I wasn’t receiving adequately from others.  I thought about how nearly everyone is juggling too much this time of year, and coming into the holidays with their own fears, expectations, hopes, and trepidation . . . their own emotional baggage from their life histories and personalities.  Just like me.  The combination makes things difficult, and people are generally doing the best they can.  “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to any other cause”—he has a point.  Even if the person is being malicious, you may be better off emotionally if you work from a different assumption.

Gratitude for what I was receiving, understanding for what others weren’t able to offer me:  somehow, in offering other people those elements, I was able to be more generous with myself about my own gifts and shortcomings, as well.  In the coming days, through additional aggravations in our move, as I would feel the anger and frustration well up inside me again, I would think, “How do I offer gratitude in this situation? How do I offer understanding?” and I would calm down to a manageable level of emotions again.

Three days ago, someone stole boxes of my clothes, shoes, and jewelry from the back of our car while we were moving.  I was rightfully furious and sad when I realized what I’d lost, especially since I had already pared down my belongings to only keep what I really wanted.  I could have ruminated for weeks on that one loss.  At our Christmas party two nights ago, a friend told me he’d heard about the theft of my belongings, and that he was sorry.  “It does suck,” I replied.  “But I’m trying to look at it positively and remember that at least I have renter’s insurance to cover most of it.  The benefit now is that I can be very careful about what I purchase to replace those things, to make sure I’m only buying what I will cherish.”  He and another friend looked at me skeptically. “But it’s okay to be mad!” they said.

And it is, absolutely.  As I’ve covered before, hurt hurts–there’s no denying it.  But it doesn’t do me any good to stay stuck in mad, or sad, or anxious, forever.  It’s my own life I’m harming when I don’t make room for more pleasant viewpoints.

Tags: gratitude · sturm and drang

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kristen // Dec 22, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I would love someone to shop with now that I have to replace EVERYTHING and it’s such a chore. Sorry to hear about the theft of your clothes/jewelry/shoes.

  • 2 Vegetation // Dec 22, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Great post. I too have a habit of going over small things (over and over and over them, thereby giving myself very strange and frustrating dreams).

    Sorry to hear your clothes got stolen, however you have a wonderful outlook on the whole situation 🙂

  • 3 Ricki // Dec 22, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Oh Sally, so sorry to hear about the theft! But you are MOVING–what a wonderful way to start afresh. And your attitude is great. I’ve spent so much (wasted) time wondering what someone REALLY meant. In recent years, I’ve tried very hard to do what your husband suggested, and take things in the most positive way possible. Have you read The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns? (Horrible name, but fabulous book–he uses principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–CBT–to help deal with all kinds of situations, and to learn to take that positive attitude more often).

    Hope your holidays are wonderful, that you enjoy unpacking in your new home and thinking about all the things you’ll cherish, and that you have a beautiful Christmas filled with love!

  • 4 Edie // Dec 22, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Sally, I feel like your post was a Christmas gift to me (and many others for sure). I have been feeling the same way over the last few weeks. I learned a lot about myself and some friends just by reading this through. Thank you so much for sharing your struggles, strengths, and wisdom! And so sorry about the theft.

  • 5 Sarah // Dec 22, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Wow. I just read this post after I posted this evening. Sally you always have such a much need perspective on life. I am in such a funk right now and I am trying hard to break it. I am going to focus on the more pleasant view points.

  • 6 Bee // Dec 23, 2008 at 1:04 am

    Thanks for such a good post! You let us know you are not perfect (though I suspect you are close) and leave us hope for ourselves. I am usually an “up” person but there are days I feel like there is no sense and no motivation and what is life all about…then I try to get beyond that by doing all that I read about, hear about etc such as list what I am grateful for, meditate, breath etc. and I have been able to pull myself back up – I had a time when I could not feel like there was an up – panic attacks, over drinking and going out (was going to say partying but it was not really partying more like crazy’ing) but managed to get back to myself and reading your blog helps me and will help me when times are down…I just know it. Thanks! Bee

  • 7 Kay // Dec 23, 2008 at 6:36 am

    Great post, Sally. Celiac has made me feel more isolated and abandoned because . . . I am. Food was my life and my career and my identity. The transition has been tough, and I don’t know what my new identity will be. I’ve been in limbo for nearly a year. Still waiting for that new career. Not sure which road to take. Hoping for a sign. The economy’s not helping.

    But I have found that improved health has brought many rewards. Maybe the best reward is sleep – luxurious, decadent, baby sleep. I spent five years tossing and turning, waking and dreaming, fighting pain, fighting the dark thoughts that grow more ominous late at night. I thought I was just bad at sleeping. Now, not so much!

    I’m sorry your personal things were stolen. Violation always hurts.

  • 8 Cheryl // Dec 23, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Oh Sally, I’m sorry to hear you hit a rough patch, but I’m glad that it sounds that the worst is behind you. Thanks for your gift of such a great post, and I wish you and your loved ones a beautiful holiday.

  • 9 Amanda // Dec 24, 2008 at 7:18 am

    If you go to brick and mortar stores, I’d love to be your Clinton and Stacey!!

    (Translation: I can’t buy clothes for myself until next August, but I LOVE shopping, and it’s fun to give people fashion advice!)

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