Dealing with Frustration and Anger in Life

I have noticed a few incidents recently in which I have become angered over things that wouldn’t normally get under my skin. The other day I was at Union Station in Washington, DC trying to find where the buses depart from so that my girlfriend could depart unhindered. The only available employee to ask for assistance was a very plump female sitting behind the Amtrak counter. Of course, I know that the buses are not run by Amtrak, but I figured that since she works at Union Station that she would have a much better idea of where things were. When I politely asked her for help, she did not say a word and merely pointed her plump index finger toward the Amtrak sign behind her. I suppose she was too tired of working so hard to answer in words that she did not know. Then I realized that her lack of verbal communication was not due to her working hard, it was because she did not want to be distracted from the game of ‘Angry Birds’ that she was playing on her cell phone. This annoyed me to a small degree that she was refusing to help a fellow human who was in need of direction. When I inquired further about her knowledge of the facility that she was working at, she got very upset and loudly explained that she works for Amtrak. I didn’t recall asking her where she worked, but none the less this irritated me even further. I told her that I’m sorry for interrupting such a diligent, hard worker from playing the game on her cell phone. I then walked away before I told her how I really felt.

It is these incidents that pinch a nerve in me and it becomes hard to dissipate the anger that is created. The Roman philospher, Lucious Seneca, spent much of his life dealing with angry people, rather, one angry person that eventually ordered him to kill himself (Nero). It is Seneca’s philosophy that I have been recently introduced to that helps to prevent these situations from stirring anger within my loins.

Seneca states that when one’s expectations of a situation are too high, then those expectations are likely to be hacked at, thus causing frustration and range within that person. Thus, to have low expectations throughout life you are less likely to be let down, therefore causing less frustration in your day.

He goes on to say that anger and frustration are irrational responses to these high expectations being broken. The only way to asage this negative response is to remain calm and understand that things go wrong (shit happens – Forrest Gump). Seneca believes that it is the suprise of having something go wrong which causes the frustration. Thus, being aware that your day may be filled with these setbacks may be the best way to handle them. It sounds like a pessimistic way of dealing with one’s life, however I have noticed that having low standards always makes me pleasantly surprised that things actually go smoothly throughout the day.

If you feel so compelled, I think you should try it and see if it works for you as well. Alain de Botton does a great job of explaining and summarizing Seneca’s work.

  1. A lot of my students adopt this approach and I think that it is fundamentally wrong, surely it is better to have realistic expectations rather than over or under inflated expectations? I have found those with low expectations tend not to achieve and belive that they can’t do well, it tends to end up in self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Very interesting comment and I think you’re right. The line between being realistic and pessimistic can be blurred to some people. However, I tend to agree with you in that being realistic about situations is the best way to approach life. The hope would be that the true outcome of the situation would be as close to the predicted outcome as possible in order to decrease frustration.
      It seems as though Seneca had a very oppressive life which would further blur the line between realistic and pessimistic. For those of us who do not have to deal with constant strife and disappointment, it is easier to say that one has a realistic approach to life.

  2. Rebecca James said:

    Interesting conundrum that I constantly wrestle with. Where do you go when everyone has lowered their expectations to the point that there are no expectations at all?

    • Good point. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the movie, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but there is a robot in it that reminds me of what you are saying. The robot is so obscenely pessimistic that he essentially is a useless entity. Similar to what you’re saying, people would be incredibly pessimistic and things would not get done. Maybe if this idea of low expectations was judiciously applied to certain areas of life, then it would work out better. Such an area of life may be in dealing with a significant other (just kidding).

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