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It shouldn’t be this hard!

How to use Emotional Literacy to handle frustration like a masterful leader

I hear phrases like this from clients frequently:

“I certainly wasn’t expecting him to behave like that!”

“I gave them plenty of time to complete the order. Now we are working over the weekend to fulfill our promise.”

“I get so mad at myself when it takes twice as long as I think it should. I know people who do it so easily.”

“Every day it’s the same feeling of pushing the rock up the hill. Everything here is so hard to complete.”

“Seems like my office door has the title ‘Chief Problem Solver’ on it! My team constantly brings me problems and expects me to solve them.”

All the above stories have a common underlying message: It shouldn’t be this hard. It should have already happened.

In one word: FRUSTRATION.

How have you experienced frustration lately?

Hard to imagine a day without frustration.

Traffic intersections, time schedules, and dependance on others all give ample opportunities for frustration to show up.

Here’s the good news.

You are likely experiencing frustration because you care. Because you want something to happen or be different. You are creating change and fulfilling obligations.

You are engaged in your life and have expectations for a better future.

“Expectations are the leading cause of frustration.” – Ken Roseboom

And when those expectations aren’t met, you experience frustration.

Here’s how to use Emotional Literacy to deal with it.

“Emotional Literacy is ability to learn from the experienced feeling and emotion, determine if that emotion is helping or not helping, and then navigating to actions and emotions which will serve the moment.”  –  Summarized from Dignity in Policing – Dan Newby and Marcel Brunel*

Name it to Tame it.

I look at my clients and see tightness, their jaw clenched, weariness in their shoulders from the pushing and pulling.

I ask them to name the emotion they are experiencing.

Angry. Irritated. Annoyed. Resentful. Aggravated. Frustrated.

Or a combination of similar emotions.

After considering these possibilities they might decide the primary emotion they are experiencing is frustration.

The good news is that emotions come and go.

They stick around longer if we feed them.

They dissolve and resolve if we consciously navigate them.

Navigate to a more helpful emotion.

Emotional Literacy includes the ability to navigate from your current emotion to one which will serve the moment.

While frustration provides a valuable message, it is hard to imagine being effective while consumed with the feelings of frustration.

Here’s a short list of emotions that might be more helpful:

  • Acceptance: “It is what it is even though I may not like it.”
  • Patience: “I can wait.”
  • Curiosity: “Tell me more. I’m wondering what might be an easier way.”
  • Trust: “I’m not taking excessive risk.”
  • Empathy: “I am feeling what you are feeling.”
  • Self – Compassion: “I am in a challenge. No need to be so hard on myself.”
  • Ease: “I feel relaxed and no tension at all.”

Hey Ken, thanks for the short list of helpful emotions to resolve frustration.

But when I’m frustrated my blood is boiling – and the last things on my mind are Ease and Patience!

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What do you do when frustration has you in its grip?

The first thing to know is we cannot begin to move to a desired emotion if we are in a “triggered state”.

It is completely human to become triggered into fight, flight or freeze responses.

When you get triggered (and all humans do) – here are some things that can help:

Breathing Practices

Breathing practices can support calming our sympathetic nervous system. Many resources are available. Searches on Box Breathing are a great start.

Want to learn more and take this to another level?

Check out the benefits of the “physiological sigh” here:

Time Outs

It is always a good idea to “call timeout” when frustration is bubbling.

A short walk, trip to the restroom, or even a quick change of topic for a moment can give you a chance to recover (and not have a regretful reaction).


Of course, you can always seek out a coach experienced in emotional literacy for support in navigating emotions. Book a call with Ken.

Frustration’s purpose is to challenge us to find that better way.

In my world all emotions have a story, an impulse to action, and a logical purpose.

The impulse for action for frustration is to look for a faster or simpler way.

Once you have the emotion of frustration handled, your next mission is to uncover the root cause of that frustration…and find a better way.

This is what masterful leaders do.

They take cues from their emotions, but don’t let those emotions carry them away.

If you’d like some support on your journey towards becoming a more masterful leader, let’s talk about coaching. You can book a call here: Book a call with Ken.

* I want to acknowledge Dan Newby and Marcel Brunel and their new book

Dignity in Policing – How Emotional Well-Being Saves Lives, Families, and Careers. I used this book as a reference for Emotional Literacy and Emotional Regulation skills and emotion definitions in writing this article. While directed towards the First Responder Community, this book provides clear inspiration and direction for applying emotional literacy skills for all humans.

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Ken Roseboom

Ken Roseboom is the President of Thinking Partners. He partners with leaders to increase impact, create aligned teams, and deliver better results. He leverages the Alignment process, assessment tools, expert coaching, and years of front line leadership experience to support his clients.