Each of us has a set of tried and true behaviours. Whether we are faced with a stressful situation or just going about our everyday activities, we tend to use behaviours that we’ve used before. We even use favourite self-talk behaviours: some folks habitually tell themselves that they are Mr. or Ms. Wonderful, while others seem to tell themselves that they are unworthy of even basic courtesy.
In Reality Therapy, we use the term “frustration signal” for that feeling we get when there’s a gap between what we want and what we have. When our habitual behaviours aren’t working effectively for us, we become aware of this frustration signal. This awareness can be a very powerful motivator to change. What do we do then?
Let’s take a look at Pam. She’s a shy person, unsure of her own worth or place in the world. Her behaviours include avoiding eye contact and speaking so softly as to be nearly inaudible. When Pam heard of an opportunity to work with a group to develop her skills, her usual collection of behaviours came bursting out. Those behaviours included anxieties: “Will I fit in?” “I might be embarrassed in front of everyone!” “What if they laugh at me?”
Any shy person will recognize those questions and plenty of similar ones. It’ll take a great leap of courage for Pam to make a change—to try doing something differently. Finally, Pam’s frustration signal—telling her that she wants more effective control over her life and her interactions with people—is greater than her trepidation. She signs up.
As Pam grows more comfortable with the group, it turns out to be a need-satisfying place. That is, her love and belonging needs are met because she is consistently greeted in a friendly way. As she learns to make eye contact and speak more easily, she begins to meet her power need, realizing, “I really do matter; people listen to me!” Her need for fun is met by the laughter that can accompany learning, making mistakes, and being accepted anyway. And freedom comes along too, as Pam begins to feel freedom from the fear that she would never fit in and be accepted.
So by choosing to try this new activity, Pam expanded her behavioural collection in a positive direction. Realize that Pam had other less effective choices open to her. She could have instead chosen to try to reduce her frustration by isolating herself—spending her days on the couch with the TV. Or she might have chosen internet-based relationships, safe in the knowledge that she would never meet these people. Pam could have even chosen to do nothing new, to stick with her comfortable behaviours despite her increasingly strong frustration signal.
Is a frustration signal in your life signalling that it’s time to try a new, more effective behaviour?