In Temper Temper I explored the borderline between harnessing anger and becoming its victim. Let’s take a look at what’s behind the rage.

EXPECTING

Get frustrated often? Chances are expectations are behind it.

I put expectations into two categories: surface and background.

Surface expectations are the obvious triggers for anger and frustration. “Traffic shouldn’t be so slow.” “I should have gotten that promotion.” “Why can’t I ever win?” “How could I make that mistake?

Learning to flow through surface frustrations is a HUGE step in mental game. Those who can let go and return to the moment are more likely to perform well and enjoy the experience.

Some coaches say letting off steam is okay in these moments. A loud clap. Vocalization. Just do something to go from a yellow zone back to green.

I can see that as a tool but more of a band aid. The greater tool is developing a practice of not needing demonstrations of anger.

DON’T GET ADDICTED

It’s important to learn to handle frustration early. Frustration has a tendency to become addictive. And misleading. It still feels like the anger has a connection to the surface expectation, but the reaction has actually become automatic and even exaggerated.

This is the opposite of the habit we want to develop. We want immunity from these triggers. The more well-formed the habit, the more practice it may take to overcome.

EXTERNAL EXPECTATIONS

As I wrote in Temper Temper, we can also be influenced by what we think others expect. This happens in sports a lot.

A player loses a point and freaks out, not because of what just happened but because that’s what he thinks he is supposed to do. If he doesn’t show his anger, the fans might think he doesn’t care enough.

He has unwittingly been lured into performing for them instead of himself.

The fans might actually think he doesn’t care, but they don’t matter. When it comes to performance, all that matters is you and your opponent, and your opponent can be inspired when you show chinks in your armor.

Instead, keep them guessing. Use your resistance to frustration as a weapon. Be composed, unshaken, unflappable, even serene. An opponent who persists no matter what happens can be a terrifying force. Be the one with the nothing rattles him reputation.

ASPIRING TO CALM

Back to those surface expectations. Maybe what’s behind them isn’t really an expectation. Maybe it’s an aspiration.

I can aspire to a quick commute – and take steps to arrange my life to have one. But if I get frustrated with heavy rush hour traffic, I’ve probably confused that aspiration for an expectation.

I can aspire to run five kilometers under 22 minutes, but if I get frustrated with a near-best time of 24 minutes, I have collapsed that aspiration into an expectation.

To reduce frustration, look at the situation as objectively as possible and untangle whether an aspiration is involved.

For instance, thinking “based on my practice, I have a 70% likelihood of hitting a strike in bowling. I really want to bowl a 300 at some point. 80% of the time, I got strikes this week. Should I be frustrated or encouraged?” gives a different way of looking at the situation.

Or, observing “wow, I’m impatient for my commute to not be like this. I am a little worried about being late for work.” might defuse your frustration.

BACKGROUND EXPECTATIONS

Sometimes it goes deeper than surface expectations. If you become frustrated five minutes into an activity, it’s not about the surface. If you overreact on a regular basis, it’s not about the surface.

There is some other unspoken expectation involved. Generally these have fear at their core. By understanding what might be driving the emotions, we are in a better position to manage them.

Developing a practice of being aware of surface expectations and aspirations allows you to put frustration into context and set aside more quickly. Doing the same with background expectations is a path to superior mental strength.

Let’s go back to the traffic jam. A driver might think she is annoyed at the traffic or the chaotic driving around her, but because she’s enraged within minutes of getting on the road each day, she wonders whether something else is at play. Maybe it’s habit, but maybe there’s something more.

She recognizes a few fears:

I’m afraid of losing my job. Getting stressed during my commute makes me perform worse. And if my commute makes me late, I might get fired.

This might be what’s going on in the background, and she has a bunch of ways of addressing it, including questioning the truth of those fears. Would she really get fired for arriving late? She can act on her fears before the commute by leaving earlier, giving herself more freedom to take her time. And she can act on it in the moment, seeing that the traffic is out of her control, but what is in her control is arriving safely and in as calm a mindset as possible.

Her fears might go another level deeper, to a firm belief that caring for her family is her top priority. Her thought process cascades from this priority to road rage so quickly that she doesn’t notice the irrational leaps our brains can take. Reactions and emotions get exaggerated at each step, leading to our hero shouting in anger at her fellow drivers mere moments after starting her commute.

Background expectations take some work to unearth, and often they are bundled with longstanding habitual thought patterns. It takes work to sort through it, but it’s worth it.

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

High performers have high expectations for themselves, but if they let frustration and anger get in the way, they mute their potential.

Expectations can derail our most prized pursuits.

The path to an expert mindset includes developing skill at recognizing expectations when they show up and setting them aside before they impede our performance.

And like any important task, practice is essential for mastery and the creation of new, automatic and helpful responses.

In a way, knowing ourselves might be the biggest key to navigating through frustration.