We glide through life jumping from one event to another. We flourish through goal driven behaviors—intending, believing, and responding. Life is good. Until, of course, predictions go wrong. Our car doesn’t start; the chicken for tonight’s dinner is not thawed; or the fitness app doesn’t work. The momentary irritation frustrates, swooning down and destroying good feelings. Frustration tolerance is a key component of many psychological theories. Many therapists identify low frustration tolerance in clients and work to develop skills and resources to help them work through these problems.
The unexpected interruptions demand a shift, forcing adjustment to expectations, and new avenues of action. These changes draw from budgeted energy, creating discomfort and frustration. Frustration is a basic emotion. Infants quickly operate by expectations and changes startle their systems. Throughout life we crash headfirst into intention-halting obstacles. Yet, we feel frustration but survive. How well we survive, however, depends on many factors.
The ability to tolerate frustration varies. Genetics and environments do their thing, conditioning the child for lifelong relationships with frustration. Some children adapt wonderfully. Others suffer. Experience activates gene expressions to either simplify or complicate life. For those painfully susceptible, behavioral adaptions of structure or avoidance provide some relief. Rigid routines protect, but not completely. Avoidance limits frustrating events but stymies growth. The battle is fought on many fronts.
Frustration tolerance refers to an individual’s ability to withstand and cope with frustrating or challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed or distressed. It is the capacity to remain composed, patient, and emotionally stable in the face of obstacles, setbacks, or delays.
Individual Variance in Ability to Tolerate Frustrations
An individual’s ability to tolerate frustrations also varies, depending on context. Daily events drain limited supplies of energy—ego depletion. When we are tired, emotionally spent, or hungry, energy levels plummet. In ego depletion, small triggers enrage and we react with intensity.
Goals perceived as necessary intensely arouse when blocked, often inciting aggression or self-harming defenses. Our employment, security, and relationships rank high in importance. Obstacles to these goals give rise to powerful frustrations. Our reactions are further amplified when we perceive no control in the situation. Sometimes we displace anger by directing frustration at undeserving victims. Other times the pressure sends us spiraling into helplessness (See Learned Helplessness).
English Poet Mathew Prior expressed this beautifully:
Say, what can more our tortured souls annoy
than to behold, admire, and lose our joy?
Attainable joys and desired rewards activate emotions when circumstances intrude. A chemical change surges through our veins and our minds leap to action. Our response to these chemical messengers is critical. Harmful and ineffective reactions can be minimized by proficiency in two primary ways. First, through increased ability to tolerate frustration and second, through improved ability to down-regulate emotion. Frustration toleration and frustration regulation are similar but distinct.
“Frustration tolerance is a form of behavioral control and is related to, but distinct from, regulating frustration. Whereas frustration tolerance entails withstanding frustration, no matter how much frustration is experienced, frustration regulation entails reducing the experience of frustration” (Meindl et al. 2019).
Frustration regulation is using techniques to soothe. Albert Ellis proposes that beliefs make frustrations intolerable. If we adjust the beliefs, redefining the context and events to something more palatable frustrations naturally decline. Adjusting beliefs serves as a regulator of the emotion, making frustrations more tolerable. Other regulation techniques may include distraction, mindful breathing, or exercise.
Frustration Intolerance or Low Frustration Tolerance
Individuals who are frustration intolerant lack self-control to tolerate and the skills to regulate. They place responsibility for their emotions on outside sources (Harrington, 2005). They demand that others act in ways that do not offend. These unrealistic expectations destroy relationships and never resolve frustrations.
Four Dimensions of Frustration Intolerance
Neil Harrington discovered that not all frustration intolerance led to the same behavioral disfunctions. He created an inventory (Frustration Discomfort Scale) to divide frustration tolerance into four distinct categories.
Harrington’s Four factors:
- Discomfort intolerance. This subscale includes beliefs that life should be free of hassles, effort and inconvenience.
- Entitlement. This subscale identified demands for fairness and immediate gratification
- Emotional intolerance. This subscale measures the beliefs that distress in intolerable and must be quickly relieved.
- Achievement Frustration. This subscales reflects demands for high standards and intolerance with these standards being frustrated (Harrington 2005).
What is the Evolutionary Benefit of Frustration?
We typically try to avoid low moods. They don’t feel good, so we remember people, places and events that trigger emotional episodes. Frustration, sadness, confusion and even guilt serve a similar purpose, signaling unexpected demands on budgeted energy. Low moods wave a warning flag, screaming for us to pull back, put on the brakes, or run. When events overwhelm our limited resources (See Emotional Overload), we biologically react.
We shouldn’t ignore frustration. Our body has wisdom. We should listen, examining underlying goals and surrounding context. Pulling back doesn’t require giving up. Sometimes we just need a better plan to incorporate new information. Other times, our over-taxed system only needs rest to refill depleted reserves (see Burnout). And yes, there are times when goals are unattainable, experience exposes their ridiculousness, and we should swap them for new attainable goals.
Frustration signals that something is wrong, leaving complex identifications and resolutions to other cognitive processes. Both giving-up and buckling down have adaptive properties, the best solution depends on our particular situation.
Lack of frustration is dangerous, indicating missing linkage between feelings and thoughts. Without frustration, we may chase sunken costs, take dangerous risks, or miss obvious signs of exhaustion. When our vision is distorted, we make foolish choices, mispredict consequences, and mismanage resources.
Books on Regulating Emotions:
When Low Frustration Tolerance Interferes with Wellness
Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Theory (REBT) argues that the inability to tolerate frustration is a core feature of psychological disturbance. Frustration intolerance is associated with lacking self-control and procrastination (Harrington, 2005).
Self-control delays immediate gratifications (see Delay of Gratification) for larger rewards later. Emotional and physical discomfort (frustrations) are upfront cost for future achievements. When frustrations mount, and we lack skills to tolerate and regulate, we crumble, seeking escape through maladaptive behaviors. Todd Heatherton and Roy Baumeister suggest that problems such as binge eating represent dysfunctional strategies aimed at reducing distress, particularly negative self-awareness. (1991).
Frustration Tolerance and Academic Success
A recent study published in the Journal Emotion examined the association between frustration tolerance and academic success. The authors reported that frustration is one of the most frequent emotions experienced by students.
The researchers rated students on a frustration task (The Mirror Tracing Frustration Task). They then followed up two years later. They discovered that “frustration tolerance predicted outcomes over and above a rich set of covariates. Including IQ, sociodemographics, self-control, and grit” (2019). The ability to persist despite frustration is critical for achievement.
Other Impacts to Wellness
Other research found that intolerable tension is the most frequent emotion reported by self-harmers, and that self-harming, such as cutting, reduced the tension (Harrington, 2005). Ellis emphatically states, “that low frustration tolerance (LFT) is one of the most common instigators of people’s emotional disturbing.” He continues, “forms of it are ubiquitous: people procrastinate on tasks and miss important deadlines; they voluntarily start a project and then give it up when they encounter snags; they seek medical advice and then refuse to abide by it; and fail to start or persist in numerous other beneficial aspects of everyday life” (Ellis, 2002, p. 28).
One of the more serious dangers of frustration is misplaced aggression, abusing unsuspecting others as an outlet for our stress. In a cruel game of passing the stress along, we react, causing harm to those more vulnerable than ourselves.
What Causes of Low Frustration Tolerance?
The cause is never simple. Many factors combine to create a trait. Genes, prenatal development, parenting, neighborhoods, and trauma. Even when research discovers associated causes, individual reaction to the same causes vary greatly. Many suggested cures ignore the complexity, focusing on single causes. Even great minds, like that of Albert Ellis, often delve into single causes (such as unrealistic beliefs) and fail to include the possible presence of other significant contributors when designing treatment plans.
Personality and behavioral traits all begin in the genes. Embryos inherit their biological equipment. They are born with varying levels of sensitivity to their environments. These beginnings influence all interactions, setting the foundation for learned reactions to frustration.
“Prenatal environments can either maximize healthy development or create biological behavioral vulnerabilities in a child’s brain. (Karr-Morse, 2014, Location 1217).
The child moves into a world of others. Attachments, security, and trauma continue to enhance the trajectories of development. Daniel Seigel described frustration as a “precursor emotion” preceding the development of other emotional states such as Joy, fear, and anger. As a child develops, the differentiation of primary emotions into categorical ones becomes more and more sophisticated. (2020, Location 6349). Many adult emotions grow from the initial beginnings of frustration.
Parenting and Low Frustration Tolerance
Some researchers found associations between permissive parenting and a child’s frustration intolerance. Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence explains, “It appears that mothers who protect their highly reactive infants from frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a benevolent outcome seem to exacerbate the infant’s uncertainty and produce the opposite effect.” He continues “the protective strategy backfires by depriving timid toddlers of the very opportunity to learn to calm themselves in the face of the unfamiliar, and so gain some small mastery of their fears” (2005, location 4464).
Robert Sapolsky describes permissive parenting, “there are few demands or expectations, rules are rarely enforced, and children set the agenda.” Sapolsky adds that permissive parenting often leads to “self-indulgent individuals with poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance, plus poor social skills thanks to living consequence-free childhoods” (2018, location 3302).
How Can We Strengthen Frustration Tolerance?
There is hope. Most frustrations can be managed. In the Art of Somatic Coaching, author Richard Strozzi-Heckler wrote, “the consequences of relying on hope without new practices lead to a downward spiral of frustration, resignation, and hopelessness” (2014). With hope, we need techniques that work. The age old advice, “just deal with it,” is woefully insufficient for most.
The goal is to keep arousal in a normal range (window of tolerance) where we can hear our bodies speak, examine the frustration and surrounding context, and begin experimenting with resolutions. Goleman suggests that “the secret lies not in avoiding life’s inevitable frustrations and upsets but in learning to recover from them. The faster the recovery, the greater the child’s capacity for joyfulness” (2007, p. 173).
Managing frustrations before they surge out of control is essential. Bessel van der Kolk wrote, “when our autonomic nervous system is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our response to minor frustrations and disappointments, enabling us to calmly assess what is going on when we feel insulted or left out.
Effective arousal modulation gives us control over our impulses and emotions: As long as we manage to stay calm, we can choose how we want to respond.” He continues, “failure to keep this system in balance is one explanation why traumatized people . . . are so vulnerable to overrespond to relatively minor stresses: The biological systems that are meant to help us cope with the vagaries of life fail to meet the challenge” (2015, location 4990).
Attending to the Basics
The work to improve processing frustration must be done before the frustrating events occur. We begin by keeping our biological systems in balanced order. We get proper sleep, we eat nutritious foods, we exercise, we build healthy relationships, and avoid overly stressful situations. Proper self-care benefits future emotional processing, budgeting energy for the unexpected.
Mindfulness and Labeling
During episodes of frustration, we can mindfully observe our bodies reactions, implementing down-regulating techniques of attention and focused breathing. Most emotional regulating techniques perform better when preplanned and practiced. We can’t awkwardly employ a new skill during intense stress. The immediate needs will strangle our ability to shift attention. Many psychologist suggest labelling identified feelings (see Focus on Feeling).
Seymore Epstein in his book Constructive Thinking wrote, “in labeling an underlying disturbing feeling correctly, the feeling often goes away or, at the least, becomes less distressing” (1998). I have found this to be true.
Jonathan Haidt wisely quips, “changing your mind is usually a more effective response to frustration than is changing the world” (2006, location 150). We must catch displaced aggressions, blaming the world for our misfortunes. We must catch these wandering marauders, invading our minds and stealing our peace.
Whether we are naturally sensitive or resilient, we can improve. Our efforts will be rewarded, not with frustration free lives but enhanced skill to weather storms. Our exposures, when followed by success, bolster confidence, laying a foundation of strength by increasing tolerance for future frustrations and skills to down-regulate their influence.
Many therapists practice exposure therapy as a way to increase frustration tolerance. The theory suggests that through small exposures without disastrous reactions builds confidence in facing frustration. With confidence, we handle greater frustrations.
Ellis, A. (2002). Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach, 2nd Edition. Springer Publishing Company.
Epstein, S. (1998). Constructive Thinking: The Key to Emotional Intelligence. Praeger.
Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary edition.
Goleman, D (2007). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam; Illustrated edition.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; Illustrated edition.
Harrington, N. (2005). Dimensions of Frustration Intolerance and Their Relationships to Self-Control Problems. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 23(1), 1-20.
Heatherton, T. F. & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge-Eating as an escape from Self-Awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 86-108.
Karr-Morse, R. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition.
Meindl, P., Yu, A., Galla, B., Quirk, A., Haeck, C., Goyer, J., Lejuez, C., D’Mello, S., & Duckworth, A. (2019). A Brief Behavioral Measure of Frustration Tolerance Predicts Academic Achievement Immediately and Two Years Later. Emotion, 19(6), 1081-1092.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.