Building Your Frustration Tolerance

In the last post, we discussed the role of frustration tolerance in contributing to the condition we call failure to launch. Frustration tolerance refers to the ability of a person to maintain control in light of a situation that puts stress on that person, or the ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings without having a significant negative reaction. Different people have different levels of frustration tolerance. Some people are naturally “patient” people, they have been able to handle frustration well from an early age and had the fortune of not being exposed to any trauma that would damage that natural stance. Others may have always been quick to react in a negative way to a frustrating situation—maybe throwing temper tantrums early on has given way to a quick temper or substance use in adulthood.

While sometimes a high frustration tolerance may seem genetic, something you’re either born with or not, the good news is that anyone can increase their frustration tolerance. There aren’t any “quick fix” solutions, but there are plenty of exercises that you or a loved one can do every day to build that tolerance little by little. Just like your actual muscles grow stronger bit by bit every day with regular exercise, your frustration tolerance can grow bit by bit every day by doing some mental exercises. There are dozens of exercises you can do to grow your frustration tolerance, but here are just a few of the many to get you started:

Delay Gratification (for as long as you can): There’s nothing quite as frustrating as waiting for something that you really want. Whether it’s something small like a snack or sweet in between meals, or something big that new thing you’ve really been wanting to buy but just haven’t got that last bit saved, try and wait as long as you can before getting it. If you’re someone who finds that you really struggle to wait for things, maybe set a timer for 5 minutes before having that snack, and then just…sit. Or do some breathing exercises. Or do something else. Just hold on to that little bit of frustration for a bit. If you can go one minute today, maybe try to go for two in a few days. Then once you can go for two, go for three. Bit by bit you start to realize you’re getting strong enough to hold that frustration until you can intentionally, calmly, decide on a productive and healthy way to let it go. After some practice, you’ll find that you don’t automatically yell at the person who cut you off in traffic on your way to work; instead, you find that you have a bit of a fuse—you notice you’re tense and angry, but don’t automatically react. Congratulations! That’s a good sign your frustration tolerance is growing.

Talk to yourself (but not out loud!): How you think about a thing that happens determines both the emotion that you feel and the degree to which you feel it. I was listening to a podcast a while back on the psychology of everyday situations when the topic of standing in line came up—particularly what happens when someone “cuts” you in line. Depending on your cultural roots, you could have very different thoughts about what just happened. For the American (or Brit, German, etc..), it’s a very frustrating experience—accompanied by thoughts like “that’s not fair” or “that’s so disrespectful!” Only those with high degrees of frustration tolerance would be able to handle that situation well.

However, those from some Eastern European and Asian cultural backgrounds (where they use a “scrum” instead of a line) may experience some frustration, but to a lesser degree, as they may simply step to the side and look for their own better position. They don’t see the cut as an act of disrespect, but a more neutral jockeying for position in a less organized push to the end of the line. Therefore, their emotional reaction is more neutral. But, consider the reaction of someone who immigrated from a developing country, where walking was the primary mode of transport and waiting in line was seen as a reprieve and break! To them, they got an extra minute or two of rest, and had a somewhat positive reaction to this development, and it took them very little frustration tolerance to handle the situation in a positive way! All this to say, how you “talk to yourself” about the situations that frustrate you can make a lot of difference.

When you get frustrated, try asking yourself some of these questions:

  • Are there other ways to look at this situation?
  • Is the thought I have about this really true? (Hint: thinking things are always or never something is rarely accurate; and have to and should take away your power in a situation—consider if you can rephrase your thought in a different way)
  • Is the way I’m thinking about this helpful? (If not, see what other ways you could see the situation?)
  • Can I put this in context? (Rate on a scale of 1-10—is this as bad as being in a car wreck? As bad as surgery? As bad as doing your laundry?—then you can match the intensity of your emotion to the context)
  • What about this situation can I control? (There is usually one or more things you can—see the next point)

Find what you can control: If there was ever a situation that represents high frustration and little control, it was the situation in which the Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl found himself during World War II—locked in a death camp having lost his friends and family, simply because of how he was born. Yet, even in these harrowing circumstances, he still found things over which he could control.

He realized that even in abject misery and without any liberty, he still had control over his response to and interpretation of his situation—he was free to choose how his suffering affected him. This realization started an entire school of psychotherapy, and helped many around him endure the horrors of the camp. What was true for him then is still true for us now—there is always something we can control in every situation, even if it is just how it impacts us. After we find and identify the things we can control, we can take our anxiety, fear, and frustration, and channel it into controlling what we can about even a difficult situation.

There are many other things one can practice to build ego strength—practicing mindfulness, identifying and journaling about your emotions, exposing yourself to frustrating situations in small doses, and on. If you feel like none of these fit for you right now, keep searching! After some trial and error, and a bit of practice, everyone can grow their frustration tolerance. And, with a higher frustration tolerance comes a lower risk of everything from anxiety, to substance use, even “failure to launch.” Happy practicing!

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