Imagine the year 1789, the American Revolution, and the British General Charles Cornwallis at the battle of
Yorktown surrounded by the Continental Army, fighting a siege war that he abhorred. A superior French fleet
guarded the Chesapeake Bay, preventing the British fleet from entering with reinforcements and supplies. The
rest we know. Cornwallis surrendered, thus ending the American Revolution.
We can easily guess how frustrated Cornwallis must have felt. His expectations that the British fleet would
protect him so that he could fight the type of open warfare he preferred simply did not materialize. So at the
day of surrender, the British band played "As the world turns over," reflecting their general feelings about the
defeat. As for Cornwallis, he felt so frustrated by his defeat that he refused to turn his sword over to George
Washington, the leader of the rag-tag Colonial Army, claiming instead that the French had defeated him.
The history books brim with tales of frustration for one and victory for another. Cornwallis's misadventure
portrays but one of thousands of frustrating endings.
We all experience frustration every day of our lives. Some, like Cornwallis's great frustration, we have little
control over. Most others, however, we can control.
In Part I we will look into how we contribute to the development of our own frustrations and what we can do
to manage them. In this section we look closely at low frustration tolerance, because unless we can deal with
our frustrations with reasonable tolerance, we will befuddle our own best interests, cause ourselves to feel
emotionally distressed, and dramatically water down the quality of our daily activities.
In Chapter 1 we will consider how our frustrations tie us down and how we can start to build emotional
muscle using our frustrations for a psychological workout. Chapter 2 spotlights low frustration tolerance and
describes how this condition can have a disrupting effect on our emotional well-being. Chapter 3 gives us an
opportunity to test our frustration tolerance and to consider ways to begin boosting it.
THE FRUSTRATION TRAP
In Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver woke up one morning and found himself tied to the ground by thousands
of small threads attached the night before by tiny people called Lilliputians.
The story of Gulliver's encounter with the Lilliputians suggests a universal human experience. Many of us at
times feel like Gulliver— bound by restraints and frustrations. While no one "thread" can tie us down,
collectively they can. And while major life frustrations, such as the loss of a valued relationship, can prove
especially frustrating, research has shown that the little frustrations of life, such as running out of clean
shirts or missing the train, can accumulate and affect our physical as well as our emotional well-being.
Most people will discover as they read this book that they do a better job than they thought they did in
managing their frustrations. Indeed, we should give ourselves credit for meeting the frustrating challenges in
our lives. By improving our ability to tolerate and to manage the inevitable frustrations that enter our lives,
we increase our chances for having more time and energy to do the things we most want to do: to build a
sense of relaxed self-confidence and to feel a sense of command over the course of our lives. But if
frustrations inhibit the enjoyment of sex, for example, or the ability to think clear-headedly to resolve
problems alternative ways of coping need priority treatment.
In How to Conquer Your Frustrations, we will look into some of the mental and environmental traps that
provoke our frustrations, understand how they arise, figure out how we can remove them, and eliminate both
the major and the minor "Lilliputian threads" that tie down our potential. We will learn three major ways to
1. Build the body to withstand the stress of multiple frustrations. We will review this concept in this
chapter under the topic on stress.
2. Liberate the mind so that we can remain alert to opportunities and use our resources to take advantage
3. Change the pattern(s) that promote needless frustrations. Don't stay stuck in a rut or repeat
While we can't always control the environment and other people, we can apply the three principles to
However, many of our frustrations have value in that they act as motivators, impelling us to face challenges
and take corrective actions. We don't want to vanquish the sensations of frustration forever (an impossible
task), but rather to respond effectively to them. So first, we'll look at some examples of frustration, then define
frustration, look into how frustration differs from related emotions, and discuss frustration tolerance training.
Frustrations come in many forms. For example, do you find yourself bogged down in your career or marriage?
Do you think your future looks uneventful and uninteresting? Have you ever looked forward to a vacation trip
only to have rain spoil it? Do you lose weight, then gain it back? Have you a habit, such as smoking, that you
can't seem to break? Do you find it difficult to get organized, let matters slip, and helplessly watch your work
pile up? Do you think some people get the breaks in life that you deserve but don't seem to get? Have you ever
tried to put a simple child's toy together and found the instructions unclear and confusing? Have you ever
had someone push ahead of you in line? Do people you feel close to argue with you and resist you? Do you
have more than your share of unpleasant routines, such as household chores? Do you feel dissatisfied with
your financial status? Has your automobile ever failed to start when you had to get to a meeting? If your life
goes like that of most of us, you'll answer yes to some of these questions.
Frustrations abound—you experience them daily. Most do not present overweening problems. Some seem like
glue—you feel stuck to them. Clearly, each has the capacity to elicit frustration. How you interpret the
experience determines if you will feel frustration. As the sixth century B.C. philosopher Heraclitis noted, our
eyes and ears prove poor witnesses; the mind must interpret their evidence. However, the mind can also
promote frustrations based upon the meanings we give to our sensory information.
The items mentioned only scratch the surface of potential frustrations. The following frustration inventory
asks you to identify some frustrating circumstances in your life.
Frustration Inventory I designed the following twenty-item true/ false test as a frustration-awareness task.
Read the following statements. If you think the statement seems true or mostly true, circle the T next to the
statement. If you think the statement seems false or mostly false, circle the F.
1. I feel satisfied with my career. T F
2. I have at least one poor habit. T F
3. I get to meetings on time. T F
4. I keep my life so well-organized that I have very little stress. T F
5. I don't manage my finances well. T F
6. I often want to get away from it all. T F
7. I feel frustrated when I can't find something. T F
8. I remain calm if I can't find a parking place. T F
9. I feel frustrated when I can't find something interesting to do. T F
10. Lateness doesn't bother me. T F
11. I rarely get into conflict with my neighbors. T F
12. When I'm stuck in traffic, I make constructive use of my time. T F13. I usually get my work completed on schedule. T F
14. I get bugged by delayed deliveries, confusing instructions, and other matters that slow me down. T F
15. I get frustrated when I have to wait in line. T F
16. I feel tolerant of people who borrow items and don't return them. T F
17. I feel frustrated if I don't know the answer to a question. T F
18. I feel unhappy with my usual daily routine. T F
19. I have a quick temper. T F
20. I don't get bogged down by detail. T F
If you circled T for numbers 1, 3, 4, 8, 11, 12, 13, 16, and 20, and F for numbers 2,5, 6,7,9,10,14,15,17,18,
and 19, you probably bought this book to help a friend, as you have few, if any, frustrations. Or perhaps you
have not answered the questions honestly.
The inventory results may provide some clues as to whether you experience ongoing frustrations in important
sectors of your life. If you answered true to any of situations 2, 5, 6, 10, 18, or 19, and false to any of
situations 1, 3, 4, 11, 13, or 20, you may have identified an ongoing frustration problem worth exploring. The
remaining items reflect your tolerance for normally frustrating circumstances. If you answered true to items
7, 9, 14, and 17, and false to items 8, 12, and 16, you feel frustrated by events that most people find
frustrating. If you dwell upon such frustrations and regularly feel intolerant about them, you may causeyourself double troubles. The double-trouble principle states that you can double your frustrations when you
feel frustrated about feeling frustrated!
At different times you may react to frustrations in various ways: You may see the frustration situation as a
challenge, you may try to dodge the frustration, you might fight against the situation, or you may give up. At
least part of your response depends upon how you perceive and define conditions so as to promote your own
To liberate the mind, learn to take responsibility for creating frustrations. After all, we do not respond as
robots do to electrical signals except reflexively, as when we touch a hot burner. In most cases, as the
experimental psychologist Robert S. Woodward pointed out, we process what we experience, as the
accompanying diagram shows.
Thus, we do not mindlessly respond to most stimuli. If, for example, we get stuck in traffic, the traffic
(stimulus) does not cause our response (frustration). Instead, we create our frustrations based upon what we
think about the traffic. We will look into self-generated frustrations later on in this chapter when we consider
how our attitudes and expectations provoke feelings of frustration.
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines frustration as "a deep chronic sense or state of insecurity and
dissatisfaction arising from unresolved problems."
Frustration, a complex emotional state, erupts when we face an impediment. However, to define frustration
adequately requires expanding the meaning of this concept through the use of a process definition. The
following generally describes the frustration process:
1. Frustrations exist when our wants, wishes, and desires get thwarted or interrupted. The feeling results
from disparities between what we want and what we find available. For example, when our level of
aspiration exceeds our level of achievement we will likely experience frustration.
2. Frustrations can range from imperceptible to powerful.
3. Frustration starts from a feeling of discomfort.
4. We cause our own frustrations because of what and how we think about our impediments.
5. Strong frustrations result in mixed emotional states that have a disorganizing effect on memory and
6. Depending upon how we interpret our feelings of frustration, they can stimulate positive change,
aggression, regression, complacency, or compulsive behavior.
We can expand our definition by segmenting frustration into two new categories: process and episode
Process and Episode Frustrations A process frustration occurs when a person continuously feels blocked in
a major area of life, such as learning, work, or love. An episode frustration consists of a temporary impeding
problem or condition. Almost all frustrations fall into these two categories.
In a school situation, schoolchildren routinely experience frustrations that may prove debilitating. For
example, if a child thinks she cannot master academic tasks, she could find herself entangled in an ongoing
frustration from which she cannot escape except through fantasy, disruptive behavior, or apathy. She may
turn to drugs. She may find herself spending time in detention at school due to her misconduct. She may
burn out and demonstrate symptoms similar to adult burnout victims: sickness, depression, anxiety,
lateness, and truancy.
Careers can serve as process frustrations. For example, a person who works at a job he does not like will tend
to find the work routine frustrating because it represents what he does not want to do.
An unsatisfying marriage can serve as a process frustration that overflows with disappointments, boredom,
and senseless power struggles.
Episode frustrations come from transient events: missing a bus, finding a part missing from a self-assembled
bicycle, or putting your keys down and forgetting where you put them. Episode frustrations typically get
resolved quickly and normally don't cause lingering problems. They become lingering problems when you
dwell upon them to evade the real frustrations in your life. Process frustrations, however, can prove more
damaging. Often we require a radical shift of perspective to break such patterns.
A RADICAL CHANGE IN OUTLOOK
You may want the body of an athlete or a model, yet avoid the effort to exercise and build your body the way
you want it. If you continue to expect magical change, you will continue to frustrate and distress yourself.
If you expect effortless or magical growth, you can expect to cloud your consciousness with unrealistic or
irrational concepts. To get realistic you need to adopt a radical change in outlook— effort can save effort.
CAN WE ISOLATE OURSELVES FROM FRUSTRATION?
Some process or episode frustrations can feel so uncomfortable that we want to avoid them. But in order to
rid ourselves of frustrating feelings, we must also rid ourselves of all wants, wishes, and ambitions—an
Of course, we might consider self-isolation as a solution for avoiding frustrations. But isolation can add to
tensions and frustrations. For example, in sensory-deprivation studies at McQill University, research
psychologist W. Heron paid students to do nothing. Although the students initially liked the idea, they all got
bored and tried to find ways to amuse themselves. Few stuck with the experiment beyond twenty-four hours,
despite the fact that they had originally volunteered to stay longer. Evidently, the students' attitudes about
getting paid for temporarily living in isolation changed significantly as a result of the experience.
FRUSTRATION: A MATTER OF PERCEPTION
We think that situations frustrate us, but situations only have the potential to evoke thoughts and feelings of
frustration. For example, we get a flat tire on the way to work and we think that makes us feel frustrated. The
flat tire serves as the catalyst. It does not cause the frustration. The feeling of frustration arises when the flat
tire prevents us from achieving our objective. For example, we may want to get to work on time and not have
to remove and replace the flat tire. If we didn't want to get to work on time and didn't mind changing flat tires,
we would not feel frustrated.
When our wants, desires, and goals get thwarted, we normally feel frustration, which reflects an attitude
about the unwanted condition. Frustration does not get provoked by circumstances but results mainly from
mental processes: our ideas about people, events, concepts, and feelings. In other words, we stir up our own
frustrations based upon our interpretations and expectations of life events. As Mark Twain reputedly said:
"I've had a lot of trouble in my life. Most of it never happened."
FRUSTRATION AND RELATED EMOTIONAL STATES
Frustrations and emotional states such as irritations, annoyances, stress, aggression, threat, and conflict
often overlap. In this section, we will examine these relationships.
Frustrations, Irritations, and Annoyances We get annoyed when something noxious recurs or somebody
repeats a behavior we find offensive. This behavior also frustrates us because it impedes our wish for freedom
We also see irritations as provoking. We feel frustrated and impatient or angry toward such motivators—some
driver blocking the intersection when you want to drive through, or a coworker who needles you about your
appearance—you might feel annoyed by this person's behavior and also feel irritated, impatient, and angry. If
it continues you might perceive the whole work atmosphere as exasperating.
Sometimes recurrent stresses and tensions build up to a boiling point, and we observe a paroxysm (a sudden
violent outburst of emotion) directed at the source of annoyance, irritation, and frustration.
While annoyances and irritations involve frustration, you can feel frustrated and not annoyed or irritated. For
example, in learning to play a video game, the invaders from space knock out your home base and you play
the game again, only to lose to the computer a second time. Charged up with new strategy, you confront the
invaders for a third time and this time hold your own. Although you might feel frustrated while you learn to
play the game, you don't feel annoyed or irritated.
Stress and Frustration According to biological scientist Hans Selye, stress—a generic term for mental
tension—refers to the consequences of any demand made upon the body.
When you feel stressed, the sympathetic branch of your nervous system gains dominance. Your system
releases glucose from the liver and adrenaline from the adrenal gland into the blood stream to prepare you for
a burst of effort. In this process, your respiration increases, hairs stand on end, and chemicals that allow
blood to clot more rapidly flow into your blood stream. If your system repeatedly charges up in this fashion,
eventually this reaction may cause physical damage such as ulcers or coronary heart disease, or pain in the
form of stress headaches. Selye points out that certain emotional states like frustration "are particularly likely
to turn stress into distress." Clearly, process frustrations will increase a person's risk of what Selye refers to
as the irreversible physical damage caused by the consequences of continuing stress. Such stress he sees as
resulting from "distresses" caused by frustrations stemming from a lack of purpose, boredom, unpleasant
activities, and dissatisfactions with life—especially from a sense of lack of accomplishment. Indeed, research
with both adults and children suggests that people who often feel frustrated and distressed, on the average,
live shorter lives and experience more physical ailments than those who learn to master frustrations and
stresses. So aside from improving the quality of your life, effectively managing life's stresses and frustrations
may extend your life. In addition, if you can view frustration and stress as growth signals challenging you to
join the high adventure of self-discovery, your body will probably respond positively by maintaining
plasma-free fatty acid and systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels associated with reduced stress and risk
for coronary heart disease.
Your ability to manage frustrations and eliminate distress also improves, according to physician Nedra Belloc,
when you practice good health principles. Belloc, who conducted research on the relationship between the
health practices and mortality of a group of about 7,000 men and women over the age of 45 found that those
men who prepared their bodies to withstand stress lived an average of eleven years longer. Women who
prepared their bodies to withstand stress lived an average of seven years longer. The health practices seem
sensible and possible to implement. They include
2. Weight control
3. Moderate drinking (about one drink per day)
4. Adequate sleep (8 hours for men and 7 for women)
5. Regular breakfast
6. No in-between-meal snacks
7. Physical fitness activity, such as jogging, working out, or swimming (20 or more minutes every other day)
These good health practices in combination with body relaxation methods (stretch exercises, muscle
relaxation, yoga, meditation, listening to pleasant music, warm baths, singing, pleasurable images,
biofeedback, and so forth) helps prepare you to achieve a state of relaxed alertness and works as an
inoculation against frustration's harmful effects.
Frustration and Aggression Up until the early 1960s, psychology researchers and clinicians actively
studied the relationship between frustration and aggression. The prevailing view during that period that
frustration led to aggression had many supporters.
Other researchers saw the frustration-aggression model as both too sweeping and too simple. Leonard
Berkowitz, for example, proposed that we need to focus on other considerations to understand the
relationship between frustration and aggression. These include
1. Motives the aggressor ascribes toward others
2. The person's attitude toward the problem area
3. Past learning
4. The person's interpretation of his emotional reaction to the frustration conditions
Frustrations: Threat and Conflict Threat and conflict overlap with frustration. In threat conditions,
something challenges the individual's integrity or basic drives. In conflict, the person faces opposing forces.
Whichever way he moves, he risks unwanted consequences. For example, a person who dislikes her mate but
fears living alone has a conflict she will have trouble resolving. Thus, she will frustrate herself whatever she
Psychological theorist Kurt Lewin described several conflict conditions. These include conflicts between two
desirable alternatives (a young woman can marry only one of the two men she feels attracted to); conflicts
between two undesirable alternatives (an impatient employee waits in line to pick up theater tickets for his
employer; he hates to wait in line, but also cringes at the thought of his employer's reaction if he fails to get
the tickets); and conflicts between simultaneously desirable and undesirable alternatives (a hypoglycemic
person wants a piece of strawberry cheesecake but will feel depressed, sweaty, and anxious after eating the
cake; she wants to avoid the symptoms but wants to eat the cake). Thus, conflict has the potential for
producing frustration because each conflict situation contains both an obstacle and a choice.
FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE TRAINING
Aesop told a frustration tale that became a classic. A boy stuck his hand in a jar of filberts and filled his hand
with the nuts. When he tried to withdraw his hand it got stuck in the neck of the glass. He did not want to let
go of the filberts, but he could not withdraw his hand while he held onto the nuts, so he burst into tears of
Like the boy with the filberts, when we attempt too much at once or refuse to face reality, our tolerance gets
tested and we often fail the test. In contrast, frustration tolerance blends with mental flexibility and acts as a
swiveling base that allows us to turn, move, and grow in many directions. When we think flexibly, we take
half as many filberts and get both our hand and the filberts out of the jar.
While we may categorize frustration-tension (a feeling) as neither positive nor negative, how we create and
respond to the tension may prove beneficial or dysfunctional. For example, an optimal and realistic
frustration or tension can motivate positive action. On the other hand, a vague negative attitude can cause
tension, promote intolerance, and lead to dysfunctional behavior such as confusion.
If frustration tolerance seems so pivotal to mastering challenges and coping effectively, then we need to define
frustration tolerance to better understand it. I define frustration tolerance as the capacity to manage
frustration, delay gratification (when required), and face problems. It can involve a decision to delay actionsthat can momentarily increase tension. For example, a dieting person who develops a craving for sweets but
avoids eating a chocolate bar temporarily lives with the tension of not satisfying that craving. The investor
who feels tense about the ambiguity of the stock market does research and watches trends until he has the
data to make a knowledgeable decision about investing.
We can train ourselves to tolerate and master our frustrations. Frustration tolerance training derives from a
common-sense observation: We have greater tolerance for frustration when we think of ourselves as effective
and efficient in facing and resolving frustration problems. In effect, frustration tolerance training involves
learning to clearly define our frustrations, setting a course to manage or master them, then following that
Stoically tolerating frustration has limited value, however, unless coupled with learning ways to master our
frustrations. While we will probably never bat 1,000 in our encounters with frustrating conditions, we can
learn to get the upper hand over most of them by learning and practicing frustration management skills.
We can live with a certain degree of unresolved frustrations, ambiguities, and inconveniences in our lives, so
we don't have to face and resolve every frustration we experience. However, we should learn to recognize and
deal with the relevant ones. For as all sailors know when confronting high waves, heading into the waves
provides greater safety than allowing the waves to get astern.
To head into the waves of life we can use a frustration tolerance training process that involves
1. Recognition of the frustration
2. Analysis of the frustration
3. Development of frustration management skills
4. Application of frustration management concepts
5. Utilization of feedback to improve coping skills
In this process we learn an awareness of the scope of our frustration problems; the implications of our
actions; personal competencies that we can use to deal with the frustration; the coordination between how we
think, feel, and behave; self-inquiry; delaying gratification; and adding fresh ideas to our frustration
management skills. We will consider these seven points throughout the book.
YOUR NEXT STEP IN CONQUERING FRUSTRATIONS
In the next chapter we will look into low frustration tolerance. We will also explore what the psychologist
George Ainslie terms specious reward—going for the short-term counterfeit solution to our frustrating
problems. We will discuss this human tendency to go for the easy (not necessarily best) solution when we
consider low frustration tolerance and discomfort dodging.
People often give in to impulse because they don't want to tolerate discomfort. To deal effectively with our
frustrations, however, requires that we develop a certain tolerance for them. Our low frustration tolerance can
thwart our efforts at the outset unless we develop an awareness of it and learn to manage it.
LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE
Two hours after Bernard Green awoke that morning he wished he had stayed in bed. Several things had gone
wrong. First, he couldn't get his key out of the door as he tried to lock his apartment. Next, he got into a
traffic jam and crept along the highway at a frustratingly slow pace. Arriving at work one hour late, he found
a note from his employer, Mac Ryan, that read: "See me immediately." Worried that he might get fired for his
lateness, he rushed to see Mac. He felt panicked as he prepared to defend himself. Alas, Mac had left the
office to go on a trip. Now Bernard would have to wait several days before he found out what Mac wanted.
However, the more he thought about Mac's note, the more he worried, the more urgently he wanted an
answer, and the faster his troubled thoughts flowed. At this point Bernard shouted to himself: "Damn,
nothing is going right! I can't stand it. I feel like quitting. Mac is a lame brain—he doesn't care if a person has
a good reason for being late. Why do these things always have to happen to me ... it's unfair."
Although we could hardly blame Bernard for feeling frustrated, we also can see that he blows things up in his
head. For example, he made up the things about his boss not understanding, about getting fired, and so
forth. Furthermore, we know nothing about Mac's intent when he wrote the note—he may have had to leave
unexpectedly and wanted to let Bernard know. Aside from his troubled fantasies, Bernard told us about his
perception of those events when he said "I can't stand it." He told us that he really couldn't stand the
inconveniences, hassles, and accompanying feelings of frustration tension and would pay any price to rid
himself of distress.
This willingness of desperate men and women to pay any price to override the frustrating ravages of the mind
probably inspired Goethe to write Faust.
In Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles (the devil) convinced Faust, an aging doctor of philosophy, that he could
become young again and have Gretchen, the maiden of his dreams. To obtain this, Faust had to serve him
after death. Faust, on the brink of suicide, agreed. Faust got what he wanted for a little while, but as the
poem ends, the devil gets his due and drags Faust down to the underworld, condemned to spend eternity in
Goethe's poem echoes a classic message: the expedient way often proves hardest.
People who feel impatient and can't tolerate inconvenience often overreact when they feel a strong urge to
throw off the feeling of frustration. This strong urge to vanquish frustration, without much forethought, we
call low frustration tolerance—a sometimes debilitating condition that practically always interlocks with
In this chapter and the next we will examine low frustration tolerance—its causes, forms, and solutions. By
learning to recognize and manage low frustration tolerance, you can do much to minimize its destructive
WHO HAS LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE?
We exhibit low frustration tolerance when we avoid our problems instead of facing them. For example, when
we party to avoid necessary work or cheat on a diet, we exhibit low frustration tolerance (LFT). This LFT
problem takes on many disguises. It occurs when we refuse to discipline ourselves so that we can reach an
important goal. It occurs when we think we can't tolerate inconvenience and use escape routes to avoid
hassle. It shows up when we exhibit poor listening skills, finish other people's sentences for them, and keep
ourselves distracted. It surfaces when we constantly want things to come quickly and easily. Consequently,
even though an understandable human response, low frustration tolerance often leads to poor results.
The following cases illustrate LFT.
Sally hates waiting. She always wants to hurry the process, so she impatiently turns the oven up to broil and
unwittingly produces a dry unappetizing casserole for herself and her guests. However, the casserole incident
only scratches the surface. Sally often feels rushed and impatient when getting ready for work, writing
reports, reading the newspaper, waiting for a phone call, and so forth. She feels so rushed and impatient that
she generally finds it hard to concentrate on most activities. Sally's behavior illustrates one form of low
Sandy has a weight problem. She fasts to lose weight, then nibbles and overeats when she feels frustrated.
She wants to lose forty pounds and maintain a svelte 118-pound curvaceous figure, but she continuously
thwarts her intent. Consequently, she frequently feels flustered, frustrated, and angry, and eats to avoid
thinking about her sorry emotional and physical state.
Vic acts like a menace on the highway. Whenever another driver blocks his path, Vic will blink his lights and
ride the other motorist's bumper. If the other driver does not respond according to Vic's demands, he will pull
sharply in front of him. He thinks that will teach "the creep" not to mess with him. Fortunately, Vic has yet to
get into an accident. On occasion, however, some aggressive drivers take offense and retaliate by veering in
front of him. Vic invariably feels shook-up during such combat and feels relief when it ceases, but still repeats
this foolish pattern.
Luther can't tolerate sloppiness. If his wife or children fail to keep things in place, he gets furious, shouts, and
calls them names. Inevitably he feels baffled when he meets staunch resistance. "After all," he thinks, "I ask
only for a reasonably clean and neat home." While Luther feels quite justified in his demands, his family
reports: "He's driving us crazy with his pickiness." Indeed, his son can't wait to grow up so he can leave the
house, and his wife feels driven to have affairs in order to feel a sense of worth. Luther's wife's compulsion to
have outside affairs also proves irrational when viewed under the psychological microscope. Why should a
person have to have an affair to feel worthy?
Luther feels so compelled to keep things in order that a minute scarcely passes that he does not complain and
blame. While we might agree that maintaining an orderly environment has advantages, we might also agree
that the intense, urgent manner in which Luther seeks to maintain order fosters added interpersonal
problems and symbolizes an emotional disturbance.
Bif, a physician, rarely arrives on time for work or for his appointments. His chronic lateness results from
poor time management: he waits until the last possible minute to dress and gather his materials and
consistently underestimates the time it takes to deal with details. Even though many of his patients have
adjusted to his lateness, the long delays have resulted in a shrinking practice. His lateness in arriving for his
hospital tour has become a joke among his colleagues. They comment that his patients get well and walk out
on their own before he arrives. Despite the embarrassing consequences arising from his chronic lateness, Bif
remains oblivious to the solution to the problem, but not to the frustration it creates.
Sally, Sandy, Vic, Luther, and Bif exhibit different forms of low frustration tolerance. Underlying the different
symptoms, however, we find common threads. For example, each hates hassling himself and feels rushed,
impatient, and frequently dodges frustration even at the cost of repeating unwanted patterns. Our low
frustration tolerance gang has much in common with the Type A personality syndrome group.
THE TYPE A PERSONALITY AND LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE
The Type A personality, whom Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman described in their popular best-seller Type
A Behavior and Your Heart illustrates the principle of low frustration tolerance.
According to Friedman and Rosenman's report the Type A person operates "under the gun." He or she feels
driven by a strong sense of urgency to accomplish objectives and often chases about trying to get things done.
Strained by impatience, this individual risks a coronary. Thus, the pressured and busy manner in which he
approaches life's challenges can ultimately prove not merely self-defeating but fatal.Research on modifying the Type A coronary-prone behavior pattern conducted by Jeffrey Levenkron, Jerome
Cohen, Hiltrad Mueller, and E. B. Fisher suggests that anger and impatience "are useful treatment targets
and that change in them may not require more generalized personality modification." Anger grows from low
frustration tolerance and gains propulsion from concepts such as self-righteousness and demandingness that
fuel dysfunctional impulses to punish others who stand in one's way. Even when the angry person triumphs
through punishing others, he loses because his chronic anger and impatience put him at risk for coronary
Type A personalities can change by developing a philosophy based upon concepts of tolerance and correction
rather than intolerance and condemnation. This book describes many approaches in which to accomplish this
LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE, A BIDIRECTIONAL PROCESS?
In some cases, low frustration tolerance promotes organized and productive action. For example, some Type A
individuals operate efficiently in their work because of actions directed to avoid frustrations. Low frustration
tolerance could act as a helpful signal that impels us into productive action. For example, the individual
might get charged up to act then settle into an organized and purposeful response pattern. Generally,however, low frustration tolerance results in decreased efficiency, especially if it leads to disturbed thinking
and impulsive, overly restrictive, or self-defeating actions.
LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE AND DISCOMFORT DODGING
Low frustration tolerance coupled with disturbing thoughts about those uncomfortable feelings can lead to
discomfort dodging—escaping frustration tensions or seeking to avoid circumstances that might elicit
Not uncommonly, those who routinely try to dodge their frustrations and tensions limit their experiences and
restrict their potential to handle problems effectively.
WHAT FUELS LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE?
Some of us come into this world with a short fuse or a natural LFT tendency. Albert Ellis, psychologist and
founder of The New York Institute for Rational Emotive Psychotherapy, has suggested that we may well have
an inborn tendency to develop an LFT reaction pattern. According to Ellis, "virtually all human beings have a
strong biological tendency to defeat themselves by being short term hedonists and going for immediate and
not long term gains."If we have strong intolerance for tension, we may have more to feel frustrated about because fewer things
seem right or perfect. We activate this tendency when we magnify our frustrations, sometimes to the point of
feeling psychologically disorganized.
HOW WE LEARN TO AVOID FRUSTRATIONS
Somewhere along the line, some of us get the impression that we need to avoid frustration and embrace
comfort. We get help in this from many sources: advertising, the educational system, parents, and especially
Advertising specialists have glorified products that pretend to ease frustrations and discomfort, such as pills
to take away minor tension and stresses. The advertisements for those "tension reducing" products imply that
people should not have to tolerate discomfort and can take pills to alleviate the tension. This same
propaganda finds expression in advertisements for people who want quick and easy weight loss. People
persist in buying these products in spite of questionable proof of their effectiveness and clear evidence of their
negative and sometimes dangerous side effects.The educational system often inadvertently fosters frustration avoidance. Procrastinating students make up
excuses for failing to turn work in on time and sometimes have those excuses accepted. Some learn that they
can occasionally get away without working, so they try to duck assignments.
Parents contribute to their children's discomfort-dodging skills when they allow them to avoid reasonable
frustrations simply because the children say "1 don't want to" or "I don't feel like doing it now."
You can readily see that occasional successes in avoiding effort increases the likelihood that such avoidance
efforts will continue. Fortunately, occasional successes in mastering frustrating circumstances also increase
the probability that those behaviors will continue. The type of effort that dominates—avoidance or confrontation—
depends upon the person's perception of where the reward lies for any given action.
While we can fix blame on many outside influences, people who avoid frustrations contribute to their own low
frustration tolerance. The more effort we put into avoidance, the more likely we will create the self-fulfilling
prophecy that we cannot handle tension.
FRUSTRATED EXPECTATIONS AND FRUSTRATION DISTURBANCESWhen "comfort" expectations get frustrated, as they inevitably will, LFT people may try to evade hassles by
adopting a perfectionistic outlook. They establish unrealistically high standards and, of course, fail to meet
them. Such standards evolve partially through training and partially through the hope that perfection will
compensate for imperfection and will result in the elimination of discomfort.
The idea of perfection compensating for imperfection to avoid discomfort seems perfectly absurd. How can a
fallible and imperfect human ever expect to achieve the level that his natural imperfections prevent him from
achieving in the first place? For example, too many conditions exist over which one simply has no control:
daily variations in ability, unanticipated changes in the environment— all contribute to unpredictability in
This mental parody of avoiding discomfort through perfection contains a message—the person fears she will
break down and collapse unless completely in control of the situation. Indeed, any person who fears intense
feelings such as frustration or fear could disturb himself by panicking at the thought of experiencing strong
negative emotions. And thus, the need for control contributes to a loss of control.
THE FRUSTRATION DISTURBANCE PROCESSP
eople who expect to have complete control over themselves and their environment and/or who fear tension
will inevitably feel frustrated. The following describes and defines this frustration-disturbance process.
1. We perceive that we can't have what we want when we want it and feel frustrated, or our expectations
fail to materialize, or our assumptions don't match reality.
2. We tell ourselves that we can't stand getting thwarted, and this form of self-talk starts the
frustration-intolerance process rolling.
3. We repeat this message and become fixed to the idea that we should not experience frustration
4. We preoccupy ourselves with thoughts of how onerous frustration feels and limit our chances to
5. We overreact by withdrawal, aggression, rigidity, or impulsivity.
6. We rarely learn from the experience, because the high level of emotional interference disrupts
short-term memory, and so we later repeat the pattern.
The process can happen quickly when we interpret potential frustrations in terms of LFT-evoking mental
symbols or code words. For example, a person who first reacts to an impediment by exclaiming "Oh no!" may
almost immediately feel a surge of tension shooting through his body that he becomes sensitized to,
magnifies, intensifies, and tries to escape from. This process catapults him into a frustration
disturbance—confusion, misery, a sense of loss of control, and so forth.
The frustration-disturbance process can also start slowly, as we frustrate ourselves by dumping more and
more frustration-avoidance ideas into our emotional stew.
Most "normal" individuals periodically suffer from low frustration tolerance, as you will realize by reading this
book. However, many people suffering from serious psychological disorders often suffer from chronic and
intense low frustration tolerance. In reviewing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)—the "bible" for
psychiatric diagnosis—I found that most of the functional disorders and many of the organic disorders have
low frustration tolerance implied (but not stated or spelled out) in their symptom descriptions.
So you can see that we would be wise to consider frustration management a serious business and an
important goal if we want to avoid disturbance and develop our competencies.
LFT LANGUAGE STYLES
Perception, thought, and language serve powerful directive functions. As neurophysiologist A. R. Luria has
noted: "We have seen that speech enters integrally into the structure of mental processes and that it is apowerful means of regulating human behavior." In other words, a person who tells herself that she cannot
endure something she doesn't like and believes it will intensify her frustration.
Specific self-expressions seem to relate to low frustration tolerance and/or frustration disturbances. These
expressions include expletives to express exasperation, avoidance phrases (I don't want to, I can't do it),
extrapunitive phrases (except for me, everybody and everything starts trouble), distress phrases (I feel
overwhelmed), intolerance phrases (I can't stand it), imperatives (things should, ought, must, have to work
out as I wish), self-reference phrases (I hate myself, I have no value), and helplessness phrases (1 can't do
anything right, I feel trapped).
By defining circumstances in terms of demands and distress, the frustration-disturbed person maintains a
warped sense of reality. Unfortunately, the erroneous and overgeneralized language he uses perpetuates low
LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE AND SELF-CONCEPT
People with low frustration tolerance tend to perform below their capabilities and negatively distort their
self-view. Such sophistry includes ideas that one has no value because of weak performances. The combinedforce of these self-defeating ideas and discomfort-avoiding tendencies causes these individuals to act
incompetently, reinforcing their negative self-view and producing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The vicious circle of self-downing followed by problem avoidance leads to more self-doubts and feelings of
inadequacy. People trapped in this pattern often involve themselves in a mountain of distractions, presumably
to maintain a sense of comfort and security. Caught in this web, they fail to use their minds constructively to
overcome false ideals and change painful patterns.
LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE AND PROBLEM HABITS
The philosopher Socrates said, "all our faults arise from confusion and ignorance." While he exaggerated the
issue, he seemed on the right track. If we can learn to identify and defuse the impact of our LFT language and
false beliefs, we will spend less time confusing ourselves and have more time to develop our competencies and
build quality into our lives.
Sometimes in attempting to abort the impact of our LFT distresses we develop self-defeating habits that
temporarily divert attention from our LFT problem. Thoughtlessly following our LFT habit urges gratifies our
wish to alleviate tension, and thus reinforces the habit. As we will see, however, LFT habits ultimately
backfire.The following five cases describe LFT habits and show the varied forms in which they appear. Following the
descriptions, I outline a nine-point LFT-habit-breaking program.
June's problem habit, obsessive ruminations, causes her to feel emotionally upset. She wants to stop thinking
about her troubles but can't. Kathy wants to lose weight but can't stay away from cakes and ice cream. Carl
wants to quit smoking but keeps reaching for a cigarette. Will has a serious drinking and gambling problem.
At the first sign of tension, he heads for the bar, then on to the racetrack. Selma feels an enormous urge to
wash her hands. She fears going far from home—"What if I have an urge to wash my hands?" She gives in to
the urge to wash her hands about thirty times a day.
Though their symptoms differ, June, Kathy, Carl, Will, and Selma all have compulsive problems. These
problem habits seem to grow from seemingly irresistible urges that demand immediate gratification.
Most problem habits, including compulsive nail-biting, hair-pulling, or gum-chewing stem from a natural
tendency to acquire habits in combination with stress and the erroneous belief that one must engage in the
activity to get rid of tension.
You have many ways to break a low frustration tolerance habit. The following describes a nine-step
habit-breaking approach:1. Educate yourself about your problem habit.
2. Face facts and avoid excuses.
3. Try to look beyond the habit symptom to the problem.
4. Set reasonable and achievable goals.
5. Use your imagination to visualize the steps to your goal.
6. Make the habit a hassle by first doing something onerous before engaging in the problem habit.
7. Substitute something constructive for the habit.
8. Don't expect fast results.
9. Get help when you've tried hard and can't make progress.
You can break unwanted problem habits on your own. Despite the pessimistic statistics about the high failure
rate of people who try to break habits through therapy and the high failure rate of those who join special
groups, such as weight reduction and smoking cessation groups, millions of people on their own breakproblem habits. Those who don't often fail to work to develop effective frustration management skills or fail to
execute the skills they possess.
In an influential article in the American Psychologist, Stanley Schachter reported new research on presumably
difficult-to-control addictions. Based upon his research, he concluded that the prevailing professional and
public beliefs that obesity, nicotine addiction, and heroin addiction "are almost hopelessly difficult conditions
to correct is flatly wrong." He found that millions of people can and do clear themselves of destructive habits
for long time periods, permanently in many cases. But to succeed, one must intend to succeed and work to
break the habit.
THE ADVANTAGES OF OVERCOMING FRUSTRATION DISTURBANCES
Practically everyone suffers from frustration-related distresses and disturbances at various times, thus
making them very normal problems. Conceivably, most of us could live with normal LFT problems as well as
we could coexist with a hornet's nest in our back yard. But ridding ourselves of the hornet's nest reduces the
number of painful stings we might receive. Analogous to getting rid of a hornet's nest, developing frustration
tolerance and reducing frustration disturbances should provide us with some of the following advantages:
1. We more directly attain our goals.2. We experience less emotional distress.
3. We tend to develop more constructive habits.
4. We experience greater emotional freedom.
5. We eliminate artificial barriers hindering our advancement
6. We decrease internal stress.
7. We keep more focused upon our priorities.
8. We improve the quality of our judgment.
9. We improve our interpersonal relationships.
10.We remain more task-focused.
11.Our mental processes get clearer.
12.We shrink our destructive habits, such as overuse of medications, drugs, alcohol; smoking; compulsive sex;
compulsive buying; pickiness; and overeating.
13.We improve the quality of our communications.
14.We upgrade the quality of our chosen life work.
15.We develop a wider range of personal, emotional, and action options.
LFT AND LAZINESS
Low frustration tolerance often gets confused with laziness. When I think of laziness, I think of a person who
lacks ambition and has little interest in exerting himself. In contrast, I view low frustration tolerance as an
active state, because the LFT-primed person expends considerable effort avoiding tensions. The lazy person
has an apathy toward activity; the LFT person has an aversion toward discomfort.
People often use laziness as an excuse for withholding action. In most cases, "lazy" individuals actually suffer
from LFT and lock themselves into this pattern by disclaiming responsibility. So, in this book, I will assume
that most people who describe themselves as lazy actually use laziness as an excuse.
WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW TO MASTER LOW FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE
One of the main difficulties we have in mastering low frustration tolerance involves recognizing the process, as
it does not always surface in the same way. For example, sometimes we react intolerantly to small matters,
such as forgetting to buy toothpaste, and with great thought and tolerance to major life issues, such asdivorce, death, and so forth. Sometimes we skirt major issues to avoid tension and obsessively ruminate over
moderately important matters and inflate their importance beyond reason.
Low frustration tolerance also has the quality of an enigma. Sometimes the process follows a recognizable and
predictable course. At other times the classic symptoms do not appear or don't appear in an expected pattern.
Frustration tolerance and low frustration tolerance do not constitute an all or none dichotomy. On some
tasks, a normally high frustration tolerant individual may show a loss of efficiency due to low tolerance with
that particular type of situation. Sometimes a person who tends to give up easily shows great tenacity under
conditions others would have long abandoned. Therefore, if we can act tolerantly under some frustration
conditions, we can learn to use this ability to change conditions where low frustration tolerance and
Low frustration tolerance impels both productive as well as self-defeating actions. It probably links to our
genetic predispositions, but gains direction from our perceptual and thinking processes. Although people who
feel intolerant toward certain frustrating conditions may take appropriate steps to resolve these conditions,
more often low frustration tolerance leads to poorly considered actions and to discomfort-dodging behaviors.Lastly, LFT can serve as the emotional catapult to frustration disturbances characterized by emotional
oversensitivity and negative thinking.
Our ability to master frustration depends upon our ability to channel our frustration-motivated actions. If we
bring our tolerance for frustration to a high level, this will help us to maintain a healthy perspective, an
objective outlook, and a problem-solving focus. In contrast, low frustration tolerance may impede this
process, because the person with a low threshold for frustration easily can spoil the results of her own efforts
through nonreflective and expedient actions.
In Chapter 3 I will present a frustration tolerance inventory that will give you an opportunity to measure your
frustration tolerance, isolate potential problem areas, and learn strategies for expanding your positive