Any frustrating task, problem, or situation might be unique in its details, but all frustration rises from the same foundation: there is something we want. Whether we’ve named it or not, there’s a goal we’re trying to achieve, an outcome we’re trying to obtain, a desire we’re trying to fulfill. We’ve been trying and trying and we’re still not getting what we want.

Whether we’re frustrated in cleaning a closet, or editing a paragraph, or closing a business deal, or arguing with a spouse, or recovering from an illness, or struggling with a math problem, or just looking for something to do — all of these situations provide the experience of what it’s like to not get what we want. The details of each situation are different kinds of icing and sprinkles on a cake that’s made of not getting what we want.

“Trying” to get what we want can mean various things. One kind of trying might be full of virtue and persistence that isn’t rewarded. Another kind might involve cutting corners and even cheating and still not getting a payoff. Yet another kind might consist of waiting and hoping with no physical action but with intense mental effort. We might want something valuable or worthless, profound or trivial, necessary or optional, honorable or scandalous. For this discussion, it doesn’t matter what we want or how we’re trying to get it. What matters is that we’re exerting ourselves and not attaining the desired outcome of that exertion.

Life is full of this experience. We try and try and we don’t get what we want. We might want to live forever but every single one of us who bears this wish will be denied. From the smallest to the biggest wish, not getting what we want is so common that, when you think of it, how could anyone possibly be happy if they weren’t skilled at handling this experience? To get better at life — better at facing thorny situations, better at working through challenging tasks, better at maintaining our composure in the face of adversity — wouldn’t it seem that we should get better at not getting what we want? Wouldn’t it seem that we strive to be experts, pros, superstars at not getting what we want — that’s to say, experts at responding to not getting what we want, when such is our fate? But we probably don’t want be experts in this field because it would require confessing that we don’t always get what we want. We’d rather be known for always getting what we want and never accepting anything less.

We earn respect by showing others that we get what we want, and in turn we respect others who demonstrate as much. If we were hiring someone for an important job, which candidate would we choose: the one who is incredibly adept at managing the experience of not getting what she wants, with a track record of never letting defeat get her down? Or the one who has such a hard time with not getting what she wants that she never allows it to happen, always outdoing herself and making sure her goals are realized? We might rather be friends with the more humble person who knows how to fail gracefully, but be honest: if we were going to pay someone to do an important job for us, wouldn’t we be drawn to the go-getter, the one who finds failure so intolerable that she won’t even accept it as an option? Perhaps there’s a go-getter within us, or perhaps we wish there were — maybe we suspect we’d be better off in life if we were more tenacious in always doing everything possible to get what we want.

Why is it so embarrassing to not get what we want? Why do we cover it up? Why is there so much pain involved and where does that pain come from?

When we don’t get what we want, the reason for our pain often seems glaringly apparent. It’s the lack of the thing we were seeking, it’s the absence of what we believe we need. This absence may have unpleasant practical consequences which lead to still further problems. All these problems dominate our field of view as the obvious explanation for our distress. We’re suffering because of deprivation and its side-effects.

For example, if we wanted to clean the closet but the task overwhelmed us, then we’re stuck with a lack of storage space. One negative consequence of this shortage is that we can’t proceed with our other house-tidying efforts because there’s nowhere to put stuff. Maybe there are odds and ends on the couch that have to stay there because they can’t be moved into the closet. Maybe we can’t even close the closet door.

If we find ourselves frustrated, infuriated, or embittered by this situation, we might blame these bad feelings on the absence of the thing we were seeking. That storage space was important. Surely we feel so mad because we didn’t get the thing we wanted. Surely we feel so mad because the lack of what we wanted now interferes with our other plans for tidying the house. Likewise, if we’re stuck in editing a paragraph, surely our pain comes from not having the finished revision, and therefore not being able to finalize the larger document. If we can’t resolve an argument with our spouse, our pain comes from not having the harmony we want. If we can’t close a sale, our pain comes from not getting the commission or the credit. If we can’t solve a math problem, our pain comes from not having the answer. The thing we want is important to us and if we don’t have it, of course that’s going to feel bad. It always seems that the lack of our desired result, and the practical complications that follow from that lack, are what’s causing our pain, case closed.

If we look further though, we might find that we’re mad at the situation itself, because it was so uncooperative. We’re angry at the closet, because it was so unkind to us. We’re angry at the paragraph, because it was so intractable. We’re angry at our spouse, because they wouldn’t listen. We’re angry at the math problem, because it stole our time and wouldn’t let us solve it.

But if we look even further, we might notice that the consequences of not having what we want aren’t bad enough to explain the intensity of our distress. And as for our anger at the uncooperative situation, well, we know that’s a “silly” kind of anger — the closet has no feelings toward us and cannot mean us harm; the paragraph does not know who we are; our spouse knows, but loves us and we know that; the math problem is just an assortment of symbols. There must be a deeper reason — something beyond the objective impact of our failure to get what we want, something beyond our anger at the person or thing that wouldn’t give it to us — that explains the severity of our pain.

If we look further still, we might discover that a deeper, hidden reason for our pain involves our ego. Really, we’re suffering because not getting what we want is a challenge to our ego. Not getting what we want makes us feel bad about ourselves. And that’s true regardless of what it is that we wanted and didn’t get, and regardless of how we tried to get it and failed. We know we invested energy and time in a project but we couldn’t make it yield fruit. We gave the project our hope and our attention but those were insufficient. Now we see ourselves as someone who’s not having success in what they undertake. Now we see ourselves as someone who can’t make their wishes come true. Someone whose values and goals do not prevail. Someone who doesn’t get what they want.

The external consequences of “not getting what we want” vary wildly from situation to situation, but the internal consequences always include the same kernel of pain: our ego takes a hit, our self-worth is diminished, we feel disempowered.

When we don’t get what we want, we wonder: Why is this happening to me? Why am I a failure at what I’m trying to do? The blame can go outward or inward. Either we’re a victim of unfairness and injustice (outward blame), or we’re unworthy, we’re not good enough, we’re not in charge, we’re not a star, we don’t have what it takes, we’re not powerful enough to manifest our will (inward blame).

But even if we assign the blame on outward circumstances — thinking that we’re just very unlucky or that we’re being treated poorly, by other people, by objects, or by reality itself — the blame still comes back to us, still turns inward. We still feel bad that we let ourselves get into this unfair situation and that we didn’t have the strength or the foresight to avoid it altogether. We weren’t leading our lives in such a brilliant way as to make this frustrating thing never happen to us. If we’re upset at other people or at the situation itself for treating us poorly, we’re also upset at ourselves, for exposing ourselves to such poor treatment. Someone else would have avoided it but we were gullible or weak enough to fall into the trap.

When our self-esteem is threatened, we might have a hard time seeing it. We feel threatened but we don’t recognize that our ego is the thing that’s threatened. Perhaps we can’t comprehend that our ego is vulnerable at all. We might believe we have strong self-esteem. We might be very good at defending ourselves and articulating our strengths. We might even be proud of our emotional maturity and self-understanding. We might embrace the values of acceptance and humility. We don’t think of ourselves as the kind of person who should have a such a hard time with not getting what they want. We don’t think of ourselves as the kind of person who would ever let a frustrating situation make them feel unlucky and inadequate. So we’re not able to see it when frustrating situations do this very thing. We can’t entertain the true reason why we feel so terrible — it doesn’t align with our positive self-image. We turn to the scapegoat of deprivation instead: if we had what we want, we’d be happy; we’re only unhappy because we don’t have it. We’re only unhappy because the absence of what we want is causing all kinds of practical problems for us — problems that are outside of the self, independent of the ego. There’s an illusion which captivates us. We see the absence of what we want. This absence grows larger and larger in our view, and larger still, eclipsing all other explanations of our distress.

When we encounter a frustrating situation, there is some insight to be gained from asking “How does this situation make me feel?” Often the answer will be the same: angry, annoyed, upset, anxious, unhappy. But there is a wealth of further insight to be gained from asking “How does this situation make me feel about myself? And how do I want to feel about myself?” Initially, that question might seem irrelevant, even humorously inappropriate with respect to the circumstance at hand. It might seem like our feelings about ourselves have nothing to do with the situation whatsoever.

If you’ve been on the phone with customer service for an hour and they keep putting you on hold and not giving you the information you need, then the answer to, “How does this make me feel?” will be some form of “furious.” But as for the question, “How does this make me feel about myself?” you might wonder, “Why would it make me feel any particular way about myself? The problem is that customer service is incompetent and I’m not getting the answer to my question. It’s objectively their fault — my ego has nothing to do with this!”

On a closer look, it’s clear that you feel disrespected. You want to receive signals that your needs are understood and considered important. You’re not receiving those signals — you’re not getting what you want. You’re also not getting the answer to your question — again, you’re not getting what you want. So you feel like a failure. A truly successful person wouldn’t be in this situation, wouldn’t allow themselves to enter a situation where they could possibly be treated this way. Therefore you’re not a successful person, not as successful as you want to be. That’s what you’re thinking, but you can’t acknowledge that you’re thinking it. Your distress seems to be 100% explained by the customer service agent’s incompetence. It’s entirely their fault that you’re enraged. You have good self-esteem and your request is reasonable and you have rights as a customer. You’re not the problem here. There’s no way that your ego has anything to do with this.

To see how the ego might be involved in generating the experience of frustration, it helps to imagine adding a detail to the frustrating situation so that the ego’s needs would be fully met. How would you feel if you still didn’t get the outcome you wanted, but your ego was somehow pacified? For example, what if you made the call to customer service right after surviving a game of Russian roulette? Then your ego’s needs would be met because you could see yourself as extremely lucky — you just avoided a bullet — and that’s enough luck to outweigh the minor unpleasantness of a phone call where your question never gets answered. What if you were being paid $1000 for every minute you spent on the call? What if a famous person you admire and respect were in the room with you, commiserating, acting as your cheerleader, making you laugh and telling you how amazing you were doing on the call? What if an omniscient deity told you that it had been preordained that this call would take a long time and not yield fruit: there was nothing you could have done to make it go faster or better — you played your part as well as possible, and you’re to be congratulated. When we imagine a version of a frustrating task where we come away feeling good, it becomes clear that the frustration is not an inevitable consequence of the setup. It’s not baked into the situation. It must really be coming from how the task makes us feel about ourselves. Even if we don’t identify with the task or consider it as something that we particularly care about or want to be known for, we still identify with getting what we want. We still feel bad about ourselves when we don’t get what we want, but that bad feeling — so common, so justifiable, so relatable — is not inevitable.

As I write this, I have two frustrating situations of my own in mind. First, I’ve been spending a month away from home to stay with a family member who’s struggling with depression. When they have a good day, I’m very happy for them, and I feel encouraged that my presence is helping them. But when they have a few really bad days in a row, I too start to feel distressed. I try not to reveal that to them. How can I process my own frustration with this situation when it feels too bleak to bear? I’ve found relief in asking: “How does my relative’s depression make me feel about myself?” At first, the question seems almost inappropriate and selfish: I’m here to help them. This is not about me at all. But I know I can be a more helpful to them if I’m not filled with frustration of my own, so it’s worth understanding where mine is really coming from. Plainly, I’m not getting what I want. I want my loved one to feel better and I’m not getting that. This makes me feel like I’m a failure. In fact, I do have the strength to handle this situation and continue to support them. The one thing I can’t handle is the feeling that I’m a failure. So if I truly want to help them and remain present for them, I must find a way to separate my own feelings of success or failure from their trajectory. That seems counterintuitive, because my goal is specifically for them to feel better. But if I want to help them get better, I have to be prepared to not get what I want and still feel OK with myself. And I can do that, as long as I keep it in mind.

The second situation is that I’m trying to redesign my personal website, so that I can do a better job of sharing essays like this one, but technical details keep getting in the way. I’ve poured many weeks of effort into this website revamp, but each day only brings an awareness of more work I need to do, and I’m losing — not gaining — clarity on when it all might actually be finished.

At the beginning of the project, the work felt pleasant, in the same way each step of a long walk feels pleasant. It’s rewarding to put one foot in front of the other and make a bit of progress; as you keep walking, that little reward is repeated 10,000 times. But once I started feeling lost in this project, it was as though I was now walking with a sprained ankle, where each of those remaining 10,000 steps caused a tinge of pain. That’s because each step became a reminder of failure. Those are two very different walks. But I wasn’t physically injured. The only injury was to my ego. When I asked myself, “How does this project make me feel about myself?” I could see how my pain was being formed. I’m supposed to be good at this kind of project: I’ve worked in technology for twenty-five years, and I’ve written essays about how to get things done. It’s really hard for me to accept that with all my experience, skill, and hard work, and with all the advice I’ve dished out about situations like this very one, I have not gotten what I want. It suggests that what I hold to be my strengths are not as firmly under my command as I want them to be. But if I can “deconstruct” my pain, understanding how it comes to be, I can begin to get past it, and face the next steps.

When we don’t get what we want, the consequences of not having it might be tolerable, or they might be traumatic in an objective and unavoidable sense. We might be starving. What we want is a bit of food. There’s no way to spin that. In this scenario, our distress from not getting what we want is no trivial matter that can be resolved by changing our view of the situation and calming our ego. What we need is nourishment, now. That said, if our ego happens to be threatened at the same time we’re experiencing this hunger — if we feel like we’re a failure because we don’t have food — this can only make the experience of the hunger even worse. We’d never choose to be in this situation, but once we’re in the situation, there’s still a choice of sorts — there’s still a bad version of the situation, where we’re just feeling the physical sensations of hunger, and a worse version, where we’re hungry and defeated.

No matter the severity of our difficulty, it’s always informative to ask: How can I see this situation as yet another fancy, dazzling, bewildering presentation of the familiar story not getting what I want? How does my failure to get what I want make me feel about myself? What does this say about me that I’m not getting my wishes fulfilled? What does it say about me that I’ve been trying and trying and trying and I still haven’t had success?

As an experiment, imagine that it says nothing about you. Nothing whatsoever. All it says is that you’re having the most common experience there is.

Not getting what we want is pervasive — it’s like air — it’s everywhere, unavoidable. We sometimes get a thing we want, but there are always many more things we want than we get. That’s our baseline condition.

You could declare: “I don’t accept this. I must get what I want.” But you still might not.

You could try to boost your self-esteem with an affirmation like, “I’m so wonderful. I deserve to get what I want.” But that just sets you up for more disappointment when again you don’t get what you want: “If I’m not getting what I want, how can I be as awesome as I just promised myself I was?”

You could also ask: “How can I practice handling the experience of not getting what I want?” If you’re not getting what you want, then you have an opportunity to get something you do want — that very practice. A good way to practice is in fact to meditate: to observe the thought that you didn’t get what want. To watch this thought as it floats in your mind. To distance yourself from this thought and see it fade away. And then to notice how you feel, and who you are, without it there, for just a moment.

That doesn’t mean you’re absolved from the need to keep trying to get what you want, if the situation requires it. But you can do so with less pain. Not getting what we want has two kinds of consequences that cause pain: objective consequences that are external to the ego, and subjective consequences that evolve within the ego itself. There might be nothing we can do about the objective consequences. But we can reduce our suffering by learning to notice the subjective consequences that are obscured by the objective ones. Once we notice those hidden subjective consequences, we gain the power to diffuse them. ■

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