Life can be overwhelming, especially when everything seems to be going wrong. How we respond to those setbacks, difficulties, and problems depends on many factors, including our tolerance for frustration.
People with a low frustration tolerance react badly when things don’t go as planned. They may become very angry, break down emotionally, or experience great anxiety. Obviously, these reactions do not help them cope better with adversity, but often cause even more problems.
What is low frustration tolerance?
The concept of low frustration tolerance was originally developed by Albert Ellis. It refers to an inability to manage unexpected life events or unpleasant emotions. Also known as “short-term hedonism”, this construct describes the inability to bear unpleasant feelings or stressful situations that do not correspond to expectations.
Frustration implies a state of internal tension that arises when our goals, desires, or expectations are frustrated. In fact, we have all felt frustrated on more than one occasion for different reasons. However, when we have a low tolerance level, it takes a little for that frustration to trigger and we experience it with great intensity.
In a way, low frustration tolerance stems from the idea that when things get difficult or uncomfortable, they are “intolerable.” The problem with this belief is that we will become increasingly less tolerant to discomfort, even though we know that this sacrifice can bring us future benefits.
The more we tell ourselves that we can’t stand certain things, the more they will affect us and the more we will restrict our margin of action, which will prevent us from growing as people. In addition, that frustration will turn us into authentic emotional time bombs.
Low frustration tolerance: causes and origin beyond “I am like this”
The low frustration tolerance arises from the idea that reality should be as one wishes. It is based on the belief that the world must conform to our expectations, goals and desires. Therefore, it implies rejecting the idea that things can go in another direction.
In a way, people with a low frustration tolerance believe they are “entitled” to have things turn out the way they want. They have a deeply self-centered outlook and think that the world should revolve around them. When they realize that it is not so, they get frustrated.
Low frustration tolerance is also based on the idea that problems and conflicts must be resolved quickly to erase the unpleasant emotions that they trigger. Therefore, it is closely linked to experiential avoidance, which consists of avoiding all those situations that can generate affective states that we do not know how to manage.
According to Ellis, these irrational beliefs and the avoidance of stressful situations end up generating emotional and behavioral problems. In fact, people with a low tolerance for frustration experience emotional upsets when they fail to quickly resolve their problems. Paradoxically, behaviors aimed at avoiding frustrating situations end up leading to a higher level of frustration and even adding more stress.
Of course, there is also an individual component as some people are more physiologically reactive to emotional challenges – they have “thinner skin” – while others with “thicker skin” better withstand adversity without overreacting.
However, breeding is essential to attenuate these physiological characteristics. For this reason, one of the main causes of low frustration tolerance is found in our childhood and adolescence, especially if our parents spared us a large part of the challenges, mistakes and problems typical of that stage of development or if they rushed to fulfill our every desire to prevent us from sulking or reacting with a tantrum.
Difficulty letting go of anger over past events has also been found to contribute to rumination, an inner dialogue that focuses on past grievances, including alternative responses we might have given, as well as acts of retaliation. Those looping negative thoughts can prevent us from developing a proper tolerance for frustration.
In any case, the most important thing is to understand that a low frustration tolerance is not simply a character flaw that we have to carry with us throughout our lives. In reality, it indicates a lack of skills that allow us to deal more effectively with the problems and negative emotions we experience.
How to recognize low frustration tolerance in adults, adolescents and children?
Recognizing that there is a problem with frustration it’s not always easy since it is generally a response pattern deeply rooted in the personality. However, some symptoms of low frustration tolerance are:
• You get irritated or angry easily when things don’t go the way you want or had planned
• You break down at the slightest obstacle and you think that you will not be able to achieve it
• You are rigid and inflexible with plans or the way of doing things
• You easily lose patience with the others and even with yourself
• You are impatient and when you want something, you want it now
• It’s hard for you to delay rewards, even though you know it’s the smartest and most convenient thing to do
• You have difficulties accepting reality when it doesn’t go in the way you want
Building the tolerance to frustration
Albert Ellis said that there are many paths to tolerance, including unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional acceptance of the others, and unconditional acceptance of life. Certainly, to better tolerate frustration we need to develop a radical acceptance.
It is not about resigning yourself and assuming a passive attitude towards life, but about learning to leave room for uncertainty, chaos and the unknown. In life, anything can happen. So we better be prepared for the change and have a plan B, C and D, in case plan A fails.
A study carried out at Boston University also found that the practice of mindfulness meditation can help us better withstand stressful events because it increases tolerance to frustration and, in general, to all negative emotions.
These psychologists found that people who practiced mindfulness were more persistent in the face of challenges and adversity, reacted less intensely, and did not feel as compelling a need to escape from these experiences because they understood their value and knew that they were temporary emotional states.
To work on frustration tolerance, it is also convenient to train patience. We must be aware that in life, everything comes and everything passes. Nothing is eternal, only change is immutable. Therefore, it is of little use to be impatient.
Finally, it is important to get out of our comfort zone and expose ourselves to new situations, many of which are beyond our total control. So we will learn to fall and get up. To deal with setbacks as well as those unpleasant emotions that we tend to avoid. This is how we learn, ultimately, to be more resilient, flexible and tolerant.
Carpenter, J. K. et. Al. (2020) The Effect of a Brief Mindfulness Training on Distress Tolerance and Stress Reactivity. Behav Ther; 50(3): 630–645.
Elsayed, M. (2017) Frustration Intolerance and Its Relationship to Personality Traits among Sample of Najran University Students «Predictive Study». International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences; 7(2): 49-54.
Hennessy, D. (2017) The role of anger rumination in the frustration-aggression link. En Cruz, F. and Sofia, M. Psychology of emotions, motivations and actions. Anger and anxiety: Predictors, coping strategies and health effects. Nova Science Publishers, 201-205.
Harrington, Neil (2005) It’s too difficult! Frustration intolerance beliefs and procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences; 39(5): 873–883.