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Irritation is a good thing for u ...

Posted Apr 16 2009 11:39pm

Irritation is a good thing for us to talk about, as is a relative of it: frustration.


You guys are doing such a great job of normalizing the range of experiences you encounter in your work on yourselves. What I mean is that you're holding the entire continuum of experiences as "normal" and expected, as opposed to thinking that only "good" things are what's supposed to happen and that somehow if that isn't what occurs you have failed.

I want you to challenge yourselves to go even one step farther and try to not use terms like good and bad to describe these experiences. These words are too loaded and polarizing in our culture. They hold judgement that just isn't helpful in growing as a person. (you know what I mean- that purging is bad, that being "skinny" is good, that not showing emotion is good... or bad... depending on how you are thinking about it...). This work on ourselves is intense enough; let's try to simply notice, acknowledge and make use of whatever experiences happen along the way. (I don't mean to imply that there is no place for the words good or bad. Certainly there is. I'm advocating that we use them judiciously and carefully- and literally- as they were invented to be used. Only in those ways. For instance, it's possible to have a "bad" piece of fish, which might mean you hated how it tasted, or it was spoiled- as opposed to fish being a "bad" food because you are afraid of how many calories it has...)

Now, on to irritation and frustration. 

I know that neither of these is fun to feel. I don't like how they feel any more than you guys do. But in the spirit of making use out of whatever comes our way, let's not be so hasty about hating irritation and/or frustration. 

Any of you who know child development are aware that children, in order to grow (intellectually, emotionally, psychologically) need to encounter and withstand frustration (and the irritation that goes along with it). Child development people call this "frustration tolerance" and it is crucial (yes, crucial) to healthy development.

The gist of frustration tolerance is that a kid needs to experience just enough frustration that he is challenged to figure out how to solve a situation/problem, but not so much frustration that he is overwhelmed and sees his situation as hopeless and then gives up, or not ever enough frustration to motivate him to grow and advance.

Working with frustration tolerance is one of the important and artful jobs of a parent/guardian/teacher/therapist etc. If, in general, the child is challenged (frustrated) just the right amount, he learns that he's powerful, effective, capable and resourceful in the world, and he gains confidence. If (and neither of these are conducive to healthy development) he's chronically under-challenged (under-frustrated) or overwhelmed by frustration he won't accrue any of these important things he needs to function well in his life. 

Frustration tolerance is a terrific example of why we actually need frustration and irritation. And why we should value it (in the right amounts).

Remember, this is a particular type of irritation. And it's WAY different than the kind of irritation you experience when you: over-exercise and get a stress fracture and keep running on it and it gets worse and worse and becomes increasingly irritated and you think it will go away if you ignore it and run on it more and it doesn't get any better only worse...(know what I mean???). That kind of irritation is your body's way of saying, "help, I'm in trouble and I need you to pay attention, and fast." The only way this kind of irritation is important is to get you to a doctor asap! Unlike frustration tolerance, it's not necessary for healthy development.

Our job is to differentiate between the various types of irritation, and to act appropriately (in our best interest is what I mean). Whatever the type of irritation we encounter, we need to take it seriously, assume it is there for an important reason, assess the situation, and decide what to do next.

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