Using it Wisely: Frustration, Procrastination, and Learning Differences

 Adults with learning differences can experience profound frustration. It is certainly an understandable emotion when facing a multitude of academic, professional, and interpersonal challenges. There is often a “chasm” between our intelligence and performance (Orenstein, 2021 ). However, how do we understand and use this emotion productively? Do we let it hold us back, or do we motivate ourselves to make changes?  The answer is linked with self-acceptance, or whether we acknowledge our situation while committing to change. Unfortunately, many of us become stymied in our frustrating cycle of procrastination and self-criticism. The longer this persists, the deeper feelings of shame, remorse, and even self-loathing fester. However, if we can acknowledge what this emotion is telling us, we can break this negative cycle. I highlight a few suggestions for doing that below.

            You may be deeply frustrated by professional, social, and academic challenges. You may think that your situation results from your life choices and inadequacies; you might ask yourself why you didn’t manage your time better, integrate into the company culture, or make friends in college? These questions may become judgments and “should” statements, which do little to motivate taking responsibility, but rather bog you down into a self-loathing cycle. Furthermore, if responsibilities remind you of your perceived inadequacies, you may avoid them, leading to further procrastination and frustration. However, if you were to look at them as opportunities to build new strengths and abilities, you might be better able to effectively manage the negative emotions that come with them. Many of us with learning differences have received so much consistent negative feedback that we forget our strengths and ability to overcome our deficits. Therefore, our self-talk, or the way that we automatically internally respond to a challenging assignment or activity, leads to debilitating frustration. We may benefit from implementing a more positive and realistic mindset to manage this feeling and overcome procrastination.

            Much of our negative self-talk stems from our perceived “deficits.” If all our lives we were told that we are lacking in ability, why wouldn’t we avoid those activities that remind us of it?  However, while we may have challenges, they also present an opportunity to realize what we still need to learn! For example, if you are frustrated with a work assignment leading a team, maybe you would benefit from focusing on developing leadership. These challenges may not be as immutable as you imagine, but they require you to brush up on some more fundamental skills. Perhaps the frustration is telling you that you still need to build a foundational aspect of learning. Realizing this can be freeing, as those of us with learning differences are not always fully aware of the fundamentals we are missing, and what we could do to learn them.

You might be thinking, “Ben, if it was so easy learn one of these fundamentals, I would have done so already!” While this is a valid point, I would say that there are ways to break them down into smaller steps. For example, instead of trying to immediately lead a team, maybe you would benefit from starting with one collaborative task. Also, remember that there are a variety of strengths that you may bring to an assignment, such as creativity, responsibility, or persistence. How can you use these for your benefit to overcome what you find frustrating? Also, remember that it is not too late to learn a new skill, even if it takes time. However, to accomplish this, you may need to start by working on your self-talk. Instead of blaming yourself for not having developed strategies, realize that there may be valid reasons as to why you never fully developed time management, leadership, or even social skills; maybe you never had someone who could understand your learning style enough to teach them to you to begin with. However, that does not mean you are not responsible for learning them now; it is just about finding the approach that works for you. Keep in mind that not everyone learns in the same way; some may learn by observing, and others writing out a plan, for example. Experiment until you find the way that works best for you.

Another effective way to respond to frustration is to practice a radical form of self-acceptance. I know that this is easier said than done if you are dissatisfied with your professional status, isolated, and/or struggling with how to advance in your career or social life. However, as I said in the previous paragraph, it is important to recognize that there are valid reasons why you never developed the foundational skill to advance to where you want to be, and your current state is not stagnant, as you can apply new skills to move forward. Frustration is a powerful emotion that can provide insight into where you are versus where you would like to be. The key is not to remain in negative self judgement, but to motivate yourself to learn the foundational skills that will lead to getting unstuck and a happier life.

Part of practicing self-acceptance is refraining from the all too easy comparisons that we make with others who seem to have it all together. Worse yet, what if you have a sibling or boyfriend/girlfriend who is “high achieving?” Resentment, jealousy, and anger are all natural emotions; you have a right to feel them. However, I think that it is wise to get in touch with the benefits of our journey. Specifically, it can be helpful to remember that adversity and struggle can call on us to draw on our strengths, build resiliency, and have more empathy with others. The challenges we face also force us to have a deeper understanding of how and why we learn the way we do, and what professional and social environments will work best for us. Remember that some who are gifted have never given this much thought, sometimes until they discover that they are not a fit for their chosen professions. Focus on your own journey and what you can learn to move forward in your path rather than comparing yourself to others.

Frustration is a natural emotion for many of us with learning challenges. However, instead of allowing it to cause us to fall into a cycle of self-blame and self-criticism, we can use it to recognize the fundamental skills we could still benefit from learning. Practicing a self-acceptance of where we are at the moment while refraining from comparing ourselves with others can help us to accomplish this goal. Ultimately, we can transform frustration from a negative emotion into a productive one.  

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