Using Writing Frustration As a Learning Tool

No one likes being frustrated. But those moments when we're grinding our teeth and clenching our fists can teach us valuable lessons.

I recently learned a truth about myself and how I communicate. All because I was frustrated. This post gets around to writing, I promise. But it starts with a story.

The other morning, my husband wanted to tell me about an interesting article he’d read. As soon as he started talking, I interrupted and started asking questions

He got frustrated, and I got frustrated that he was frustrated. I mean, I was showing interest in what he was saying, for Pete’s sake!

As we talked ourselves down from the brink of a my-feelings-are-more-hurt-than-yours yelling match, we figured out what was really going on: our brains each wanted something they weren't getting.

Brains at an Impasse

My husband's brain wanted to get everything out without being interrupted so as not to lose its thought. Mine wanted to pause him so as to understand items one at a time

But knowing this was powerful. Once we put the situation into words it became neutral. It became a problem to solve. We asked whether there was any room for negotiation in what our brains wanted, and it turned out there was.

Even though my preference is to ask questions as they come up and hear background and context first, I am capable of refraining from asking questions. On the other hand, if I were to continue asking questions, my husband would actually lose his train of thought.

I was still hesitant to compromise, though. Wasn’t my brain’s preference still important?

Re-Framing Frustration

What really helped me was my husband reminding me of how I’ve achieved the behavior of patient listening at other times. He pointed out that when I watch a movie that begins in the midst of action, I wait for the context to unfold rather than yelling questions at the screen or the person next to me. Envisioning myself successfully listening felt good. It felt like, “Oh yeah, I do have that skill! I can choose to use it!”

The situation was re-framed for me: instead of giving up on my preference, I was choosing a new behavior that would create a beneficial situation. (I really did want to hear about the news story, after all.)

We tried again. It was hard for me to listen without talking. I have a deeply ingrained habit of interrupting with questions to try to help people clarify their ideas! But I set the intention and was successful.

While this new action felt strange and uncomfortable—it even felt a little rude since in my mind, asking questions shows I’m paying attention—I’m glad I chose it.

My new habit of listening first will create space for better communication. The frustrating moment turned out to be an opportunity for deep insight.

The Message in Frustration

Pay attention to where you get stuck and frustrated because this will show you what your brain wants that it's not getting. If you're helping a child who is frustrated, try guiding him or her through these steps.

When a prickly place comes up, try to name what’s going on:

  • What’s frustrating you? Be specific.
  • What do you wish were happening instead?
  • What conditions would help you feel less frustrated?

Once you know what your brain wants, you’ve got options. If you can give it what it wants, fantastic! Make the switch.

If it’s not possible in the moment to get what your brain prefers, ask if there’s any room for negotiation. If it feels like there isn’t, take a breath and take a break. Give yourself some space to walk away from the situation. If there’s someone else involved, say you need a minute and you’ll be back to finish the conversation later.

If there feels like there could be room for negotiating with your brain’s preference, that’s great! Here’s what you can try if the prickly place occurs with someone else:

  • Ask the other person to share his/her experience of what’s happening so you can both understand what’s not working.
  • Ask the other person involved what would work for him/her.
  • Ask yourself if you’re willing to try the suggestions from the other person.
  • Pick a new behavior you want to try.
  • Think of a situation in which you’ve successfully done that behavior previously.
  • Think of a hypothetical situation in which you could imagine yourself successfully using that behavior.

If you’re alone, do these same steps with yourself! Ask yourself if you can do something else and what it would be. This is a great way to dial down frustration because you’re treating yourself with empathy instead of yelling at your brain for getting stuck.

Apply This to Writing

Finding a prickly place might mean…

  • not knowing what to write next
  • feeling like the draft just isn't good enough
  • shutting out feedback
  • giving up on a certain part of the writing process, like revising or editing

Negotiating with a frustrated writing brain might mean...

  • taking a quick brain break
  • continuing to work on a project but putting on a favorite song for a mood boost
  • reviewing a rough draft by looking for positive aspects first and areas to improve second
  • continuing to plan a project but switching methods (mind map? bullet point list? voice typing in a Google Doc?)
  • continuing on a project but moving to a different physical location
  • getting clear instructions for a challenging task, such as how to analyze a quote or proofread effectively
  • getting help from a previous stage of the project, such as looking back at the outline and remembering the Big Picture
  • continuing to work on a project but on a different aspect  
  • talking through what should come next with someone else

And don’t forget to re-frame! Instead of beating yourself up for getting stuck, embrace the opportunity to try a new behavior and build a new habit. There’s an opportunity to leave behind what's not working and to discover new tactics that do work.

Once you’ve defined the problem, tried the new behavior, and re-framed the situation, give yourself a break. Building new brain habits can be intense. Thank your brain for giving you the message of frustration, and let it know you’re ready to be its partner. Happy brains make happy writers and happy people.