Mental Health and Frustration
Forming Healthy Expectations
I don’t know if this is going to be useful to anyone. I am the last person to figure some basic things out. I realized very recently that critical remarks only cut to the bone when you yourself already believe it to be true. I felt proud of myself for figuring out this important fact about life. I didn’t realize that everyone had already knew that :S
It seems pretty obvious in hindsight, and it may be exactly because it is obvious to people who aren’t me, but even if you already understand this idea, maybe I’ll give it a new vocabulary or twist you haven’t heard already. The idea is this:
Mental health is largely about managing expectations, and the failure to do so properly is called frustration.
I’d like to explain what I mean by this and how it might offer a more proactive, empirical approach to our own mental health. It’s a very incomplete picture of mental health, but it’s been a useful addition to my own mental health toolkit and I hope it’s useful to you.
So, what the fuck is frustration, anyway?
I like looking at these diagrams online that try and map out what feelings and emotions fit together hierarchically. Anger is usually represented as a category with other related emotions and feelings underneath it (e.g. rage, annoyance, indignation, contempt, etc).
I like it because a broad vocabulary to describe your emotional state can help you better understand what exactly you are experiencing. The knowledge alone that we feel a specific emotion reveals something about our beliefs. For instance, if we are feeling anger, then it reveals that we believe that someone is acting against our interests.
The authors of these diagrams seem to disagree with each other about how these emotional categories break down, but generally they are more in line with each other than not. And usually frustration is added to the category of anger. I wonder if it really belongs there, though.
I don’t want to frustrate you, so instead of teasing you any longer, I’ll just tell you how I’m using the word:
Frustration describes both a subjective emotional state and a relationship desires and intentions have to reality. A desire or intention which is achieved is satisfied (e.g. I want a glass of water and then I get one). A desire or intention which is not achieved is thwarted or frustrated. When we feel frustrated, it is because we have certain expectations about how events are supposed to play out, but don’t.
I have a bad habit of indulging in road rage. I have a certain expectation about how people are supposed to enter and leave lanes, how fast they are supposed to go, that they will always use turn signals, etc. When they don’t, I will occasionally exclaim things like “nice turn signal, fuck ass!” Now, I don’t do it nearly as often as I used to, but I slip sometimes.
The real asshole here, is me. Not everyone drives like I do (the right way). People forget turn signals, drive slow, take their sweet time turning off at an exit, and this is consistently the case. There isn’t a single day where everyone drives to my satisfaction. Sure they ought to drive better, but I’ve also got to actually live in reality — to be empirical. I’ve got to manage my expectations, and when I do that, I get far less frustrated. If I don’t expect people to drive well, it doesn’t bother me as much when they don’t.
If we look at frustration this way, there are a lot of things that could fall under this emotional category. My road rage is a form of frustration; irritation is another example. You could even argue that to be irritable is to have irrational expectations that people need to treat you in a particular way, and when they don’t, it’s cause for resentment.
What I mean by feeling irritable is that it’s an intoxicant, a mood that when you sober from, you no longer respond to the same people or irritations in the same way. When someone takes the rest of the coffee in the office break room and doesn’t fill it up again, you might resent your teammates when you are possessed by such a mood, when you wouldn’t even think about it otherwise and just make a new pot yourself. Your expectations of other people are different.
I feel irritable mostly when I’m depressed, and it may sound weird, but I mean to include depression under this same category of frustration. I think any rational definition of mental health would put depression in the category of ill-health. And now, I’d like to explain how I think frustration factors into that.
So what the fuck is mental health anyway?
A quick google search says that mental health is “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.” I can’t really argue with that. I don’t really even know what that means. Is a person who takes sadistic pleasure in hurting other people mentally healthy because they feel well emotionally and psychologically? If you don’t feel well emotionally, does that mean you are doing something mentally unhealthy?
It’s not really important for this discussion, it’s just a pain trying to get a simple picture of what mental health is supposed to be from wikipedia and the DSM. Personally, I just get increasingly confused, and that’s frustrating! ;)
I feel like trying my best Jerry Seinfeld impersonation and asking “what is the deal with definitions of mental health these days? I feel like I’m becoming a neurotic trying to figure it out!”
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining mental health as having an empirical relationship with reality. Not a comprehensive definition, to be sure, but at the very least, we can accept that our rational faculties aid us in seeing reality for what it really is, what are legitimate threats in our environment, what actions are going to serve our interests in the short and long terms, etc. And our emotions should reflect the reality of the situation, in terms of severity, not impugning malicious intent upon others where none exists, etc. (i.e. getting upset for “no good reason”).
Physical health describes, at least in part, a fitness for handling physical challenges, like walking up stairs. Our definition of mental health also includes a fitness for handling psychological and emotional challenges, too.
I submit that we do that by having healthy expectations, and by healthy expectations, I mean rationally expecting things as a result of empirically processing reality. We expect what we have reason to expect, and not getting angry with all the stupid drivers in the world. It’s that definition of insanity:
Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
The primary emotional challenge of interest here is depression.
In Nathaniel Branden’s work, he defines depression as a deficiency in self esteem. Self esteem is one measure of a healthy mind — the purpose of the mind being to help us organisms operate within reality. According to Nathaniel, the two primary components to self esteem are positive self regard and a sense of self efficacy. So, in other words, feeling good about who you are, and what you are capable of. The first one is fairly obvious, but self efficacy is maybe not so obvious.
If you haven’t read his work, do that now! Seriously stop reading this and go read his books. Come back and finish this article though!
When we lack self efficacy it is with thoughts like “life is too hard, and I will never become my own boss”, or “that asshole is dating her. I wanted to date her. Life is so unfair.” These beliefs contribute to a sense that life is not worth living, or that it is worth living, but I’m incapable of getting to that point myself.
And so you can see why Nathaniel Branden would describe depression as lacking self efficacy; depressed people feel ineffective. And this is why I say that depression is a form of frustration. Our expectation that life should be a certain way (e.g. easy or devoid of assholes) is being frustrated. Our perception of what life should be is itself being frustrated.
One theory I heard as to why we developed depression as a species is that we probably got consistently frustrated with the absence of game to hunt or berries to forage in the winter months and so we become reclusive and don’t do as much, and as a result we use fewer resources and burn less fat. That way we outlived the people who kept trying things that wouldn’t work and lost a lot of calories in the process.
Depression doesn’t seem to be helping anyone anymore, though.
Depression so often comes with particular irrational ways of thinking about events. One example is “all or nothing” thinking where people don’t see nuance, or they present you with false dilemmas. For instance, a depressed person may take an annoyed expression from a crush to be a fatal blow to their chances of winning their crush’s heart.
Another example is when depressed people pessimistically minimize or discount positive events. Evidence that counters their working theory of how nobody cares about them, doesn’t factor into their thinking at all. There is no null hypothesis when people who do show that they care are taken as just another example of how people don’t.
This kind of thinking is bad, m’kay? It’s going to lead us to more frustration and more depression.
I don’t know how common it is, but when I’ve gotten depressed, what usually precedes the alleviation of my symptoms is a cathartic experience. My expectations are suddenly re-aligned and my priorities change. I no longer feel ineffective and my motivation comes back.
I’m convinced that working with depression, anxieties and other mental health problems is done by working empirically. I try and meet people in reality, rather than with all sorts of expectations. I try and find out what I can expect from myself, rather than holding myself to a standard I will become frustrated trying to meet. I try to be humble and curious, understanding that I’ve had some irrational expectations lately, and I’m capable of error.
I think a big part of the reason we set ourselves up for frustration is because, in childhood, we were manipulated into adopting irrational beliefs, such as “if I make mistakes, I will lose credibility and I won’t be able to live it down” or “I can’t change my mind, because it will show that my judgment is flawed and that I’m a fickle mushhead.” or “if I give up on this, it will mean that I’m a failure and no one will rely on me.”
I am happy to expand on that thought if readers are interested, but let’s end here for now by reiterating that:
If we want mental health, then we must live in reality.