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the frustration is a good thing

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

So, you’ve decided you want to make a change. Maybe you’re working on recognizing and changing a bias you carry. Or you’re trying to use learn a new skills, like Indian clubs (see video below). Or you want to start using your non-dominant hand for more activities. How long does it take before you feel frustrated? What happens then– do you give up?

As we learned in our last blog, changing patterns takes time. Every time you’ve previously chosen to do something your “habitual way,” you’ve reinforced the likelihood that you’ll do it again the same way next time. Overall, this is a good thing. These shortcuts in our brain (central pattern generators) minimize the effort we expend so that we can easily (and mindlessly) do things the way we always do. Imagine that every time you had to accelerate or slow down your car, you had to stop and think about how you did it, just like when you were a new driver. That would be terrible, right? It’s good that our brain has these reflexive shortcuts.

But sometimes we’ve decided that we need to do things differently; we want to learn a new pattern. If you can recall the last time you tried to learn something new, this can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, especially if you’re really, really used to doing something a certain way. Here’s the fantastic news (and the point of this blog): that frustration is a good thing.

When we decide that we need to change our behavior, our brain has to engage in top-down processing. This means that our big, smart human forebrain is suppressing the automatic response from the limbic system. When this happens, norepinephrine (adrenaline) is released in the brain. This functions to make us more alert– it’s a way that our body gets us to pay attention to what’s going on. However, we tend to experience this as agitation and stress.

At the same time, our brain is also being flooded with another chemical, acetylcholine. This has the effect of increasing our focus so that we can pay closer attention to whatever is happening and make corrections as needed.

So, let’s say you’ve decided you want to vacuum your house with your non-dominant hand, and you quickly discover that you don’t have the same amount of dexterity or strength that you typically do. That feeling of irritation or stress that comes over you– that’s just these neuromodulators (chemicals) doing their job to say, “Hey! Pay attention! We’re trying to do a new thing.”

At this point, you might make a second decision, which is that you don’t care about being able to vacuum with your non-dominant hand, and you move back to the other. But maybe you don’t have a choice– perhaps your dominant hand is injured and it is imperative that the house be vacuumed (sometimes these examples get dumb, don’t they? Just go with it). So, you continue to vacuum in your clumsy way.

But then, something interesting happens. As you persist with the task, you begin to improve. Here’s where it gets super cool. When your brain recognizes that you’re starting to be able to do the task better, you get an infusion of a third chemical– dopamine. That’s right! Now you get a shot of feel-good. You start to think, “Hey, maybe I’m pretty good at this after all.” That dopamine is your reward for sticking with it, and it keeps you on target to continue the effort.

But– and this is key– the frustration was the gateway to getting there in the first place. We need to experience that stress or agitation of being really awful at something before we get the bliss of a dopamine hit.

If we walk away when we become frustrated, we’re re-wiring our brains to both continue our habitual/reflexive habits, and to give up the next time we become frustrated.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, especially if we want to continue to learn and grow. If we can familiarize ourselves with this stress as the precursor to change, we can even come to welcome and appreciate it. It’s a little bit like the way some folks can associate the discomfort of an intense massage or foam rolling with pleasure (I don’t think we’re born believing that a deep jab in a tight muscle feels great), so that they even enjoy the discomfort. This may be one of the secrets to a growth mindset— recognizing and even appreciating learning discomfort as a necessary part of the process.

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