Frustration. How Much Can You Stand?
Do you get frustrated easily? If so, do you think frustration is a positive or a negative thing? For most people, the word frustration conjures up images of being caught in traffic, being bored with a relationship, trying to achieve something in your career that’s out of your reach, or even trying to change someone else’s mind.
If you think about it, on some level practically every area of your life where you’ve made progress or change has come as a result of some degree of frustration. Frustration is usually the thing that alerts us to make changes or to come up with new ideas. For example, the chair I’m sitting on was probably originally invented by someone who became frustrated with sitting on the floor.
Often career advancement is motivated by the frustration of feeling trapped at a lower level. So if there’s something that you’re frustrated about, you may want to ask yourself, “Just what is it in my life that needs attention right now?” Then take a look at whatever you’ve defined as needing change and decide if that change is within your power to effect. If so, then you may know what action to take, or perhaps determining that action can be the next step in your thinking.
You may be thinking that frustration is a negative thing because you confuse it with what we call low frustration tolerance, or LFT. When you have something that’s frustrating you, instead of constructively looking it in the eye and making the changes that need to be made or working to accept the things that you can’t change, you tell yourself that you cannot stand whatever is frustrating you.
Then you wind up at an impasse. In other words, you overreact to any kind of discomfort that you face in your life, large or small. That’s why we also call low frustration tolerance discomfort anxiety. If you think I’m talking about something that’s prevalent, you bet I am. Self-defeating addictions such as overeating, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and gambling are all to some degree symptoms of low frustration tolerance.
Procrastination is definitely a form of low frustration tolerance. Avoiding certain pleasures that also have hassles or discomfort attached to them, such as dating or socializing when you’re feeling isolated, is an expression of LFT as well. So is shyness: instead of conquering it by exposing yourself to situations that may make you feel a little uncomfortable, you avoid them completely, rather than tolerating the frustration that is inevitability part of the discomfort.
Perhaps you pick easy goals rather than ones that would be more challenging, interesting, or enjoyable, or you stay at a lower-level job rather than looking for advancement, even though working harder toward a more rewarding goal would benefit you in the long run. Maybe you give up on projects that are important to you as soon as they get a little tedious. All these are symptoms of low frustration tolerance.
Other examples of LFT include boredom, getting involved with love or sex partners who may be exciting at first but who will not be there for you in the long run, and the opposite—leaving potentially good relationships or jobs because they include some hassle or inconvenience that you would rather avoid than confront. Some people even have no frustration tolerance.
Whenever anything is frustrating, they run away, engage in some other kind of blatant avoidance, or strike like a cornered rat. So whenever you’re feeling anxious or angry, it’s important for you to look at what’s frustrating you and then face it head-on by recognizing your attitude toward it. That’s the first step toward turning frustration, an inevitability in life, into a friend rather than an enemy.
Suppose you have an important project to finish. Your children are making an inordinate amount of noise, and you find yourself reacting very angrily toward them. Is it the noise that’s making you angry, or is it the fact that you’re not tolerating the inevitable frustration that comes when you’re trying to concentrate and someone is making noise?
If you’d just kept it on the level of frustration, you’d probably find another place to work, make some other arrangements for your children, or solve the problem in another way, so that everyone could have a little piece of what they need. But when low frustration tolerance kicks in and you tell yourself, “I can’t stand this noise anymore,” or “These children are ruining my life by annoying me when I have something so important to do,” that frustration takes on a life of its own.
It makes the situation seem like a horror rather than the mere inconvenience that it really is. Suppose that while balancing your checkbook, you were to find out that you made a mistake, and you had $1,000 less in the bank than you thought. At first, you think that it’s your fault you made an error, and you become very angry at yourself.
Is it that perceived loss of $1,000 that made you angry, or is it the fact that you’re telling yourself, “How stupid can I be for making a mistake like that?” Suppose you found out it was your spouse who made the error. Would you then become angry because of the error, or would your anger come more from telling yourself, “I cannot stand it when people make stupid errors”? It’s that very belief that you cannot stand it that is the culprit here.
Think about it. Isn’t that statement “I can’t stand it” inaccurate? I would be hard-pressed to name anything about which I have said “I can’t stand it” that I wasn’t in fact standing. Instead what I meant was, “I don’t like it,” and that is merely a call for action. By saying, “I don’t like it,” you’re recognizing a problem that needs to be addressed, whereas saying, “I can’t stand it,” will trigger the painful emotions of anger, anxiety, and depression.
If you are acting from your low frustration tolerance, chances are you’re choosing a short-term goal over a long-term goal. Examples include procrastination: by putting something off at this moment, you’ll have to face the consequences later on. Addictions such as overeating, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse give you immediate short-term benefit, but as you know, they can do you considerable harm in the long run. This brings us to another major belief behind the LFT attitude—a tendency to label things that are merely difficult as too hard.
Confusing hard and too hard may sound like nitpicking, but the distinction could spell the difference between success and failure in your life. Let me tell you what I mean. Most things that are worthwhile have some level of difficulty attached to them. Accomplishing practically anything that’s difficult or hard will have some built-in frustration along the way, but the rewards will take some time to reap. Too hard, however, implies impossible.
Once you label something as too hard, it becomes something that you will probably stop seriously attempting. I have seen students sabotage their long-term goals by refusing to finish their college education because they label the endeavor as too hard, which it isn’t, rather than difficult, which it is. Try this simple exercise: Think of something that you have constantly put off because you labeled it as being too hard. It could be something like painting your house or taking the first step toward a career change.
Next, think of a reward that you really would like to have. It could be anything, even a great car or a million dollars or some form of fame. Now answer this: if you could be guaranteed that reward, as far-fetched as it may be, could you and would you complete that task on time and to your satisfaction? If you have answered yes, then you’ve proved that your definition of this task as too hard has been an illusion that you can do without.
If you can hold on to that concept when you’re up against a challenge, you’ll be able to accomplish almost anything you set out to do without being sabotaged by low frustration tolerance.
Strategies to Conquer Your LFT
Here are some other exercises you can do to conquer your LFT. Remember: this is really discomfort anxiety. Challenge that erroneous belief that you can’t stand discomfort.
- Make a list of those things that can typically trigger your being uncomfortable. On your list include all of the things you tell yourself you cannot stand.
- Come up with alternative attitudes. For example, if there’s a coworker that you thoroughly disrespect, try to reframe dealing with that person as a challenge rather than as an agony or a trap from which there’s no way out. If it’s a project that triggers your low frustration tolerance, see it as an adventure or a contest to finish rather than as an ongoing source of torture.
- Make a list of the advantages of disciplining yourself in this manner. Sure, change is hard, but the changes we’re talking about here are in your own best interest to make. See how many things in your life there are to which you can apply this principle.
- Imagine someone you care about being bothered by the thing that is triggering your low frustration tolerance. What would you tell that person? Chances are, you would give him or her lots of support in developing an attitude that would produce comfort rather than tension and stress. Or deliberately put yourself in a situation that you know you will experience as frustrating, just to prove to yourself that you really can stand it.
For example, each holiday season, clients who have recently ended love relationships tell me that being alone for the holidays is going to be a horror. Many frantically make plans so that they won’t have to spend their time alone. They believe this time should only be spent with friends and loved ones, just as it may have been during that best holiday season of their lives.
Instead, I urge them to deliberately and defiantly spend the worst day they can imagine, such as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, alone, with no contact with the outside world. In the process, they are forced to be their only resource at a time when they believe that they need others to survive it. The people who do this never again fear being alone during the holidays.
If you try this, you’ll see what I mean. Because you’ll have faced the enemy head-on and proven to yourself that you can stand it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll like it, but no longer will it pose a threat to you. Whenever you expose yourself to the things that make you most uncomfortable, you build emotional muscle.
Many have an extremely difficult time waiting in lines. They get frustrated, stressed out, and impatient about this ordeal. I often recommend that they deliberately find some long lines to wait in, just to prove to themselves that they can stand the very thing they say they can’t.
This next exercise is an imagery exercise.
- Close your eyes and imagine yourself being thrust into a very uncomfortable situation that would trigger your low frustration tolerance. Really imagine being in that situation—being around the person you don’t like, or working on a tedious task that you have told yourself is too hard. Make it one that really puts you in touch with your LFT. Let yourself strongly feel the feelings and emotions that come when you challenge yourself to the max in this manner.
While doing this, be aware of all the emotions your image conjures up. Now begin to give yourself some new affirmations, ones that will go along with a new positive attitude, such as, “I can get along without the immediate gratification that I tell myself I need, even though it would be nice to have everything I want. This is a hassle, but not the horror that I’ve made it out to be. I do have the power to get through this without causing myself upset.”
When giving yourself these new affirmations, see how differently you feel merely by changing the belief about something that has caused you frustration or discomfort. That is a new positive attitude that’s yours to keep. When you’ve accomplished this, give yourself a reward. Some people find it useful to reward themselves for making these changes, or to punish themselves in some way for slipping backward.
For example, think of something that you enjoy, some kind of special treat, something that you can give yourself as a reward for adopting a new attitude. By the same token, think of something that you dislike, a chore or something that you would rather not be exposed to. We call these negative contingencies. As we will see later on when we talk about habits, negative contingencies are very effective in keeping you on track.
Eventually, these new positive attitudes and their affirmations become second nature, just as the old, negative attitudes were, but in the meantime, you may have to exert some special and consistent effort to keep this new attitude in the forefront so that you don’t slip backward. Try to associate, if possible, with people who are more disciplined. See if they can share a secret or two with you about how they stay on track. Anytime you develop a new and chosen attitude that works for you, resolve to never let anyone pull you backward!
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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