Getting Along with Your Frustration, Anger, Guilt -- But Not Letting Them Ruin Your Bridge Game

Frustration, anger, and guilt are a natural part of being human. Sometimes you are frustrated; sometimes you are angry; sometimes you feel guilty. You are not going to change that. That's just you. It's everybody else too. So let's accept frustration, anger, and guilt. However, we don't want them ruining your bridge game. Does it make any sense to study holdups, squeezes, Roman Key Card Blackwood, and Bergen raises, then ignore the emotional side of your bridge game? I don't think so.

The Tirade

Playing duplicate, a player picks up 5-5 in the majors, with a club void and 5 HCP. His wife opens 1 club. He bids 1 spade. That's maybe a little aggressive -- he will face an awkward choice if his wife rebids two clubs.

But pleasant surprise, his wife reverses into 2 hearts. Some players will pass with 5 HCP, grateful to have found a fit. Some will bid 3 hearts, showing support. But our hero realizes that, even though he has only 5 HCP and no heart honors, his 5 trumps and a void will somehow produce 10 tricks. He bids 4 hearts. A master bid. A happy ending.

Not a happy ending. His wife bids 4NT. Even though she couldn't force to game, she is now forcing to slam. Our hero knows that his lack of heart honors is a serious problem for slam. But he can't stop her. He shows his ace, and she bids 6 hearts.

One eyewitness (my partner) says he started criticizing his wife as soon as he put down the dummy. My vague memory is that she first expressed disappointment with the dummy, then he launched into his tirade. She had KJxx of hearts opposite his xxxxx, and they were down one. He did not stop criticizing. My partner bravely suggested that his criticism was inappropriate. He still did not stop.

His tirade clearly was not wise. The goal of bridge should be enjoyment. Was he enjoying himself? Was he helping his wife enjoy herself? Was his goal before playing, "Maybe if I play bridge with my wife tonight I will get a good chance to really criticize her?" Of course not. Okay, maybe his goal was to win. Does anyone think a tirade against partner on the second round of the evening is the best strategy for winning? So his tirade was not only inappropriate, it was counterproductive, and our fallen hero knew it. He did it anyway.

Alas, his behavior was painfully human. He became frustrated. That's natural. He let his frustration turn into anger, and there might have been some guilt fueling that anger. Why did he become angry? We can caste him into the moral darkness for not having enough willpower. But I know of no way of increasing willpower. (I have looked, desperately.)

So the story had an unhappy ending. But it didn't have to. Our hero did not understand frustration, anger, and guilt.

Frustration

The first step in managing frustration is to acknowledge it. You can't manage your frustration if you don't know you are frustrated, or if you are trying to deny your frustration. Our hero should have thought, "I am frustrated."

The second step is provisional acceptance. Some people believe that they shouldn't become frustrated. So they get frustrated because they are frustrated, or angry because they are frustrated, or feel guilty because they are frustrated. That's not right. It gives frustration a lot more power than it should have. And dealing with frustration itself is difficult enough; you don't need any extra emotions to deal with. So accept that you are frustrated, at least for the moment.You are human. Human beings become frustrated. That's just the way it is. You were in a frustrating situation. You did nothing wrong. Our hero should have thought, "It is natural for me to be frustrated. So far, I have done nothing wrong."

The third step is identifying the source of your frustration. Frustration occurs when you assume you will accomplish some goal, then something or someone thwarts your goal. So, you need to search for goals that have been thwarted. Our hero assumed the contract was going to be 4 hearts and that they would probably get a good board. That was taken from him. So that's one source of his frustration. But when you are being overwhelmed by frustration, often there is more than one source of your frustration. So do not stopping searching just because you found once source. Once his partner launched into Blackwood, our hero had the goal of stopping her from bidding slam. There was no way to stop her, and that might have frustrated him too.

Unfortunately, identifying the sources of your frustration is even trickier than that. Frustration doesn't disappear just because the frustrating situation disappears. Once I had a battle with my FAX machine and lost. I held my temper for a while. But as I was walking up the basement stairs, I saw this juicy wall and my frustration came tumbling out. Now there is a hole in the wall commemorating my frustration. The point is, I did not leave my frustration when I left the FAX machine.

So our hero has to ask himself, did I have a frustrating day? Did something frustrate me on the way to the bridge club? If our hero was already frustrated before beginning the bridge hand, then his new frustration piggybacks onto his old frustration. That doesn't invalidate his new frustration. But he needs to know where all of his frustration is coming from. By identifying the sources of your frustration, you are less likely to carry your frustration onto the next hand of bridge.

Reducing Frustration

As negative emotions go, frustration isn't that bad. So it would not be too bad if you had to just accept your frustration and live with it. But being frustrated isn't fun, and it doesn't work well to be frustrated with your partner. Fortunately, there is one wise strategy for reducing frustration -- dropping your assumption of success.

Consider this common situation. Your partner opens a strong no trump, you bid 3 no trump with 10 HCP, then 3 no trump goes down. Will you be frustrated? If you assumed 3 no trump would make, if you have already added your points to the rubber or estimated your matchpoints when you made your bid, then you probably will be frustrated. If that is your attitude towards bridge (or life), you will be frustrated a lot.

Our hero knows that this contract of 3 NT will usually make, but sometimes it won't. In other words, the situation is probabilistic. When it doesn't make, he isn't frustrated. He says "Oh well, this is one of those times when 3NT doesn't make."

Our hero should retroactively apply that philosophy to his goal of a good board for bidding 4 hearts. If he was all-knowing and all-seeing, he would have known when he bid 4 hearts, his partner might go on to slam. That probably would not have changed his bid, but it would have given him a probabilistic point of view and reduced his frustration. If he did not think about the possibility of her going to slam when he made his bid, he can realize it now. The situation was probabilistic. It didn't work out this time. Oh well.

Anger

The primary danger of frustration is that it will turn into anger. Unfortunately, it's a short step from frustration to anger. What should you do when you become angry?

The first three steps of of anger management are the same as for frustration. First, acknowledge your anger -- you can't manage your anger if you don't know it exists or you are trying to deny it. Our hero should say to himself, "I am angry."

The second step is again provisional acceptance. It is hard enough to deal with anger just by itself. It helps no one if your anger is also triggering frustration, guilt, or even more anger. So accept your anger. You are human. Humans get angry. You were put in a situation that made you anger. That is natural. You did not ask to become angry, and you have done nothing wrong. What counts is what you do with your anger.

The third step is identifying the source of your anger. Again, there can be more than one source of anger. Our hero had to ask himself if he was angry about something before the hand even started.

Now you are ready to try to deal with your anger. The obvious effect of anger is to make you want to hurt others, particularly whoever is frustrating you. A less obvious effect of anger is that you do not worry about your own safety. So anger occasionally has its uses, but the danger is that you will do something you will regret later -- such as hurt someone, or lose a good bridge partner.

Avoiding destructive behavior means willpower, but it also means getting the big picture and realizing that you don't make very good judgments when you are angry. Books have been written about controlling destructive behavior, and I cannot repeat all of their advice here. One well-known technique for controlling your destructive behavior is postponing action. You delude yourself into thinking you will take that action later, and that satisfies your anger for the moment. Later, when you are not angry, you can take wise action. For example, our hero could tell himself, "I will wait until I get home to yell at my wife." By the time he gets home, he probably won't be angry, and so his wife will never get yelled at.

Unfortunately, postponment doesn't work well if the bridge game is going to continue. Our hero still had 20 hands of bridge to play with his wife. No one goes 20 bridge hands without communicating their anger.

Reducing Anger

Fortunately, there is one wise strategy for reducing anger that will work at the bridge table. Let me tell you about a time you were angry at your partner, then your anger went away. You were on defense, and you wanted your partner to lead a suit. You expected your partner to lead the suit, and your partner should have known to lead the suit. Then your partner didn't lead the suit. That was frustrating, and you became angry. Your reaction was natural. Then you discovered your partner was out of the suit and couldn't lead it. Oops. Your anger went away. Okay, maybe it didn't disappear completely, but basically it was gone.

Why did it go away? Because your partner had a very good excuse. Ultimately, frustration turns into anger when you feel your partner has done something wrong. When you discovered that your partner did nothing wrong, your anger slowly went away.

So, in theory, our hero has to ask himself if his partner did anything wrong. In practice, this does not work. Once you are angry at your partner, you are not going to make good judgments.

Therefore, once you are angry, it is too late to decide if partner has done something wrong. Instead, you have to work it out in advance. Will your partner have a good excuse for a play that frustrated you?

One perfectly good excuse, for any bid or play, is "Partner, I thought it was the best thing to do." You cannot ask your partner do more. A second perfectly good excuse is, "Partner, I made a mistake." Your partner is not trying to make mistakes, they just happen. To everyone.

These two excuses cover almost all situations where you might become angry with your partner. The bottom line is, you rarely have good reason to be angry at partner. You need to know that in advance, and you can know that in advance. Whenever your frustration with partner turns to anger, you have to remind yourself that your partner is trying to play well. If your partner did make a mistake, mistakes happen.

Good and Bad

Good bridge players live in the world of "could have" and "should have". That's how they got to be good; that's how they get better. So our hero is not going to leave the 6-heart disaster at "Oh well, this was probabilistic situation." Our hero will look for thing that could have been done differently to avoid the final contract of 6 hearts. We don't want to take that away from him.

However, anger belongs in the world of morality, not in the worlds of "could have" and "should have". Those worlds have their own logic for what is right or wrong. Yes, she could have bid something differently, and maybe she shouldn't have made that bid. But that is no cause for anger, it is just a bridge analysis. She was still trying her best, so there was no cause for anger.

So, when something doesn't work out the way you hoped or expected, it is natural to be frustrated. If you start examining your partner's actions, you might come to the conclusion that your partner should have done something different. You cannot trust that judgment because (a) you made it when you were angry, and (b) it is very difficult to judge the correct action once you know the full hand. But suppose you are right -- your partner should not have done whatever your partner did. You have not discovered a good reason for being angry with your partner. Remind yourself that your partner is trying his or her best. Wait for your judgment to clear before discussing the hand with partner.

Guilt

Guilt is the hidden fuel to anger. When you see wood burning stronger than it should, suspect gasoline; when you seen anger burning stronger than it should, suspect guilt.

Why does guilt fuel anger? It is horrible to feel guilty. If you just start to feel the flickering of guilt, it is natural and human for you to do whatever you can to avoid that feeling of guilt. Fortunately, there is a way to try to make that guilt go away. Unfortunately, it's called blaming your partner. Blaming your partner doesn't work well in any situation, so it's a stupid thing to do. And it's wrong to blame your partner just so that you don't feel guilty. But guilt doesn't feel good, and blaming is a natural temptation for anyone. Unfortunately, blaming your partner is the same thing as thinking your partner is wrong, and that turns frustration into anger.

So, suppose you feel a flickering of guilt. You absolutely need to acknowledge it. Acknowledging guilt is painful, because it turns that flickering of guilt into a real feeling of guilt. But if you don't acknowledge it, you can't manage it. Instead, it will control you. If you are angry, look for sources of guilt that could be fueling your anger.

Second, you need to provisionally accept your guilt. For now, you are just noting that, right or wrong, you feel guilty. You are not saying that you deserve to feel guilty.You are a human. Humans feel guilty. Sometimes they deserve to feel guilty, and sometimes they feel guilty when they shouldn't. Again, the worst thing you can do at this point is start defending yourself, because that is going to lead to attacking your partner.

The third step is identifying the sources of your guilt. It is usually not difficult to find the sources of guilt. As far as I know, guilt will not ride with you in the car to the bridge game, and there usually is only one source of guilt.

Reducing Guilt

I cannot help you if you really should feel guilty. Suffering is still better than trying to blame other people.

But should you feel guilty? Your partner always has two acceptable excuses -- "I was doing what I thought was right" and "I made a mistake." You should allow your partner these excuses, because they are fair and appropriate. For the very same reasons, you should allow yourself these excuses. This is your recipe for not feeling guilty. You were doing your best. If you made a mistake, you were not trying to make a mistake, mistakes just happen.

Our hero made a mental mistake. When he bid 4 hearts, he did not think about the possibility that his partner might bid slam. When she asked Blackwood, he realized his mistake, and he probably started to feel guilty. Blaming partner was easy -- she is not supposed to go to slam just because he bid game. Lucky him, he doesn't have to feel guilty. But he ruins her enjoyment, and he ruins his chance of winning. And you know his anger is going to come back to him. The price he pays is all out of proportion to the pain of a little guilt.

Does he deserve to feel guilty? No. OIf he had thought about the possibility of her bidding slam, he would have made the same bid (and hoped). In terms of mental mistakes, he cannot think of every possible contingency. He has a limited time to bid, he has to think about what he can, but sooner or later he has to stop thinking and make his bid. But so what? Even if he made a big mistake, those happen too. He is human, he makes mistakes. When you make a big mistake, forgive yourself, confess to partner, and go on to the next hand.

Conclusion

So, you are a human being. You come to the bridge game programmed to feel emotions, including frustration, anger, and guilt. Unfortunately, these three emotions interfere with your enjoyment of bridge and your ability to play to your potential. Bridge is your chance to practice dealing with these emotions. When they occur, acknowledge them. Don't start feeling frustrated, angry, or guilty because you have these emotions. Accept that you are human, and it is natural to have these emotions. But that doesn't mean they are right. Find out the source of your emotions, then consider if the emotion is correct. Should you really be frustrated? Or can you rethink the situation as probabilistic? Should you really be angry? See your partner as doing what he/she thought was right? Should you really feel guilty? You try not to make mistakes, but they happen.

Now imagine this. You make a mistake. You apologize to partner. Partner says, "That's okay, no problem. Mistakes happen." Find that partner. Be that partner.


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