Building Frustration-Tolerance

Not long ago, in my online meanderings, I ran across a phrase: “low frustration-tolerance.” Even though I’d never heard this phrase before, I knew right away what it meant. And, that it described me.

The other day was a prime example. I needed to repair the rooftop garden box on my Little Free Library; the box (a discarded desk drawer) had come apart at the corners, and if I didn’t fix it, soil and plants would be falling out in short order. Well, nothing was going right. My fingers felt as nimble as lead baseball bats; the scrap wood was super hard to saw and drill holes in; the nails and screws were rusty and/or just too soft for the wood. I was furious with myself and the physical universe in turns.

Over the course of my life, and particularly in recent years, I have been amazed to find out that certain qualities I had always thought were indelible character defects, obnoxious personality attributes, or moral failings on my part, were actually just a lack of certain skills in the emotional realm. Skills that could be learned and practiced. Skills such as … learning to tolerate frustration.

I actually think our modern consumerist society, collectively, suffers from low frustration-tolerance. It sort of goes with the whole “instant gratification” thing. So it’s no surprise that this phrase would have come into the lexicon of popular psychology in recent years.

Anyway, in case some of you might have experienced this too, here are some things that have helped me build up a bit of frustration-tolerance:

• Notice that this is what’s going on. And saying to myself, “You’re not stupid or inept; you’re just experiencing low frustration-tolerance.” Surprisingly, this by itself often helps.

• Also, responding to negative self-talk with matter-of-fact reminders about the physical universe. For example, if I chide myself for being weak or feeble for taking so long to saw a board or breaking a drill bit in the board, I’ll respond, “You knew this batch of old fence wood is super hard, maybe it just wasn’t the right choice for this project.” Or if I call myself a dumbass who can’t even hammer nails in straight, I might respond, “Next time we’re at the hardware store, we could ask for a recommendation of nails and screws that are good for super hard wood, and buy a few of those to have on hand.” And so on.

• Also: allowing myself to take breaks when I get really overwhelmed with frustration. Taking breaks, as opposed to quitting. For me, a break could be taking a walk, or eating something (hey! I forgot to eat lunch! maybe that’s part of why I got so frazzled!). Another break for me is engaging in some totally easy but useful task. (The other day when I got frazzled by the library repair, I took about a half hour breather by cleaning my art paintbrushes, straightening out my paint containers, and tidying up my landscaping tool bucket. It was very soothing and restorative.)

In the end, my library’s rooftop garden box ended up repaired, though not as squarely and tightly as I might have liked. And let’s just say some baling wire and old bicycle-tire innertubes were involved (two of my favorite fastening materials when nothing else is working)! Part of building frustration-tolerance, for me, is being able to leave a task at an OK stopping point when it really feels like I’ve done all I can for that day — and knowing that I can go back in later on another day when my mind and hands are fresh.

Further Exploration:

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance; book by Angela Duckworth. I read this book a couple of years ago and loved it! Also check out her gem of a 6-minute TED Talk by the same title.

• “Not Always Easy” ( “Some of our goals and dreams come to fruition so easily that it is as if an unseen hand has done much of the work for us. When this happens, we say it must have been meant to be. On the other hand, when dreams and goals require a tremendous amount of effort, we may interpret this to mean that our dream is not meant to be. However, difficulty is not necessarily a sign that our hopes and plans are ill-fated. … There is a unique satisfaction that comes to us when we succeed at something that has been a challenge. Our sense of self-reliance expands, and our ability to endure and keep the faith is stronger for having been tested. We learn that we are capable of confronting and overcoming the obstacles in our path, and this empowers us to dream still bigger dreams, knowing that we will not be daunted by the challenges inherent in birthing them.”

“Dr. Becky Doesn’t Think the Goal of Parenting Is to Make Your Kid Happy” (David Marchese; (Often I have found parenting articles useful in my ongoing work to understand my own mind and retrain it as needed): “Is happiness the goal of parenting? No. Anybody who had a childhood in which happiness was the goal would be predestined for a lifetime of anxiety — life is full of distress! What’s something that’s distressing as a kid? It could be, ‘My tower fell down.’ If happiness were the goal then my behavior would be, ‘Look, we fixed your tower, it’s fine.’ What would I be wiring into my child by doing that? The more we focus on becoming happy, the less tolerance we have for distress and the more we search to feel any other way than how we’re feeling — which is the experience of anxiety. So what’s an alternative response to ‘My tower fell down’? It wouldn’t be me saying, ‘Tough, things happen.’ It’s the accumulation of feeling alone in our feelings as kids that gives us adult struggles. So how would I not do aloneness? Through presence. My kid’s tower falls down? I would try to say: ‘I’m not going to rebuild it. I’m going to stay here with you’; and maybe it’s [sings] ‘Towers fall down and that really stinks.’… [P]arents almost have to think, Where is frustration built into my kid’s life? So that when those frustrating moments come, the kid’s body says, ‘Oh, this is part of living; I know how to do this’ instead of, ‘This should not be happening; I have no skills to deal with it.’ Which is actually very sad.”

Low frustration tolerance (Wikipedia article). “Low frustration tolerance (LFT), or ‘short-term hedonism,’ is a concept utilized to describe the inability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations. It stems from the feeling that reality should be as wished, and that any frustration should be resolved quickly and easily. People with low frustration tolerance experience emotional disturbance when frustrations are not quickly resolved. … Behaviors are then directed towards avoiding frustrating events which, paradoxically, leads to increased frustration and even greater mental stress. … Ellis said the path to tolerance consisted of many roads, including unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance and unconditional life-acceptance.”