The Most Valuable Life Skill?
I am—statistically speaking—more than halfway through my life. And I’ve been a professional counselor now for just shy of 13 years. I honestly don’t know how many clients I’ve had over that time, or how many hours I’ve spent in sessions, listening to people, hearing their concerns and problems. Conservatively, I’d estimate that I’ve spent almost 20,000 hours with clients.
The point is this: I’ve been around (professionally speaking). And I have a bit of life experience—not as much as someone in their fifties, but more than someone in their thirties. And the more that I think about it, the more I believe that the most valuable life skill one can develop is the ability to deal with disappointment in a healthy way.
Oh sure, grit is an extremely important measure of success—and we stress that to our clients. One could make the argument that relationship or interpersonal skills are essential to a healthy life. Learning how to achieve balance or healthy boundaries—I get it. But I submit that developing an ability to handle disappointment—sometimes called frustration tolerance—is an element of all of those things and more.
The tantrums that we throw as children, the defiance that we exhibit as adolescents, the sheer chaos that we bring into our adult relationships—so much of those things stem from frustration intolerance. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha famously said, “Life is all suffering,” and that so much of that suffering comes from “craving.” To put it in more contemporary terms: we often don’t get what we want, and that can be frustrating.
This has been attested to from different traditions from time immemorial. The Greek philosophers talked about it. In their Wisdom books, the ancient Hebrews wrote about the frustrations of desire and the unsatisfactory nature of life. Jesus—particularly in John’s Gospel—talks about yearning and thirsting.
Ask almost anyone in their eighties to talk about their lives, and they will nearly always describe their past losses, their suffering, their frustrations, with simple dignity and acceptance. “Well, that’s just the way it goes,” or, evenly simpler, “That’s life,” is what you’ll hear. They know—they’ve lived.
So frustration—disappointment—is a basic element of life. There’s no getting around it; there is only getting through it. Dealing with disappointment, then, is a skill you’d better develop, or else you’re going to have two problems every time you have one: the problem, and your problematic reaction to your problem.
One would think that parents would make “learning how to deal with disappointment” a primary focus of what they teach their children. Sadly, it too often isn’t. Many of us in my field (and in the field of education) are not seeing children who have been taught that they often have to adapt to the world; we see kids that have been taught the opposite: the world will adapt to them. When it inevitably doesn’t, low frustration tolerance leads to problematic or unhealthy behavior.
So, here’s a test: the next time you tell your child “no,” watch to see his or her reaction. Turn off the Xbox, tell them they can’t go to their friend’s house, make them put up their phones after 9:00, and then see what they do. Do they sigh and grumble a bit, but then comply? Good! Some grumbling and eye-rolling is to be expected, no? Do they fight you about what you’ve denied them and then ultimately accept it? Well, that’s not too bad—it happens, of course. If, when frustrated or disappointed, your kid displays meltdowns, tantrums, or aggressive behavior–over the next few months, you may want to make the focus of your parenting Dealing with Disappointment 101. It’s a class that they’ll inevitably take–as children or adults.
Teach frustration tolerance to them now, and watch them fail with grace, succeed with pride, and take frustration in stride.