I’ve been on a quest lately: to identify the themes behind why we struggle with our goals.
After a tumultuous 2021 faced with numerous setbacks and challenging emotions, I found myself at the end of the year with my self-confidence in tatters.
I had a vague inkling of what were the things that were impeding my progress, but nothing concrete. And so this research was something I needed to do for myself.
While conducting research, I came across a curious concept that surprised me: the idea of frustration tolerance.
AKA our threshold for composure before something begins to peeve us.
The something is diverse — it could be something as big as missing a milestone for a quarterly business KPI. Or something as small as your toddler releasing their inner Jackson Pollock on your freshly painted hallway wall.
Frustration is the emotion we feel when we face a setback on a goal, or something does not happen according to our ideal expectations. Our ability to process this frustration productively is known as frustration tolerance.
It’s the ability to overcome obstacles and withstand stressful events.
Psychology Today, Frazzled: High Anxiety and Low Frustration Tolerance
I was surprised by how obscure this term felt to me.
It seems so relevant as an emotional tool when it comes to completing goals. What baffles me more is how little research or information continues to be out there.
Based on the high level overview, this idea tackled me to my knees: this is something that has severely impacted my ability to complete the things I set out to do.
It hit me: my inability to effectively process frustration has been one of the key reason I’m not able to pursue and succeed at certain goals.
In the face of setbacks, over and over again I found myself either too emotionally aroused to continue, or having my frustration mutate into despair and giving up completely.
As I was reading, I was surprised by the lack of articles that outline this concept and address how to overcome it. Below is research I compiled to learn more about frustration tolerance, what causes a low tolerance, and how to improve my own.
Frustration Tolerance and It’s Consequences
From the research I could find, the ability to withstand and process frustration effectively has a large impact on achievement.
People with low frustration tolerance see their frustration mutate from low intensity anger into seething rage, as those of us familiar with road rage have experienced — the nameless driver shaking their fists, spittle flying from their mouth as you just know they are there yelling obscenities at you, muffled in their car. Whether that’s you or the other driver.
However, anger is just one path your frustration can take.
A low frustration tolerance can lead to many things:
- Procrastination or avoidance of a difficult challenge
- Anger, rage, or injustice when your expectations aren’t met
- Crippling anxiety in the face of stressful situations
- Lashing out in your relationships and creating unwanted tension
- Negative emotions like: self-pity, hurt, burn-out, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction or helplessness
More heartbreaking still, is when in the end, the frustration becomes too much to bear and we simply just give up.
I’ve fallen into all of these camps.
Moments where something did not align with my expected plan and I was suddenly blinded by uncontrollable rage or anger.
Losing patience because of rush hour traffic and taking my frustration out on my partner even though I was the one that took an hour and a half to get ready.
Frozen right before a big presentation and unable to perform.
Burn out, burn out, burn out.
And other times where I’ve thought to myself: this feels too painful. It’s easier to just stop trying.
Both of these experiences are correlated to frustration tolerance.
Frustration tolerance: it’s impact on well being
In a 2012 study on the impact of frustration tolerance on college students, research showed that frustration tolerance is a fundamental ingredient towards psychological well-being and health.
If we can better handle setbacks, we encounter less obstacles in our day to day. Or when we do, we are more likely to persevere and continue pushing with our goals.
On the other hand, if we struggle with processing frustration when encountering challenges, those feelings devolve into something worse: self-pity, hurt, burn-out, depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction or helplessness.
And perhaps fatally, the frustration becomes too much to bear and we simply give up.
One quickly sees how this becomes a problem.
Achieving goals imbued with purpose and meaning requires a lot of effort, which in turn doesn’t necessarily always guarantee success. There are often plenty of steps backward in the journey.
It is often the worthwhile and important things that require discomfort and struggle to accomplish them.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…
I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
A low frustration tolerance saps our curiosity and desire for improvement. If you’re not used to tolerating frustration your desire for knowledge and understanding will be limited by the amount of difficulty and confusion that you can withstand.
To become more curious, then, you must develop your ability to combat uncertainty. When people ask me how they can increase their creativity and productivity, my first answer is always “Increase your ability to tolerate confusion and ambiguity.”
When we think back to the moments we’ve failed or given up, or perhaps seen others give up on things they try to accomplish, we are often unaware that it is a low frustration tolerance that erodes our efforts to play a new instrument, learn a new skill, get back in the gym, or take on a new project.
And sad to say, this turns into a perpetual cycle: when we give up on something due to frustration, we reinforce our tendency to give up in future instances.
Our grit and perseverance dwindles down to zero.
When we intentionally decide to withdraw due to frustration, it becomes a part of our self-identity.
We become someone who gives up easily.
We become someone who feels inadequate.
Indeed, it looks like in order to be happy, we need to increase our frustration tolerance.
How to improve your frustration tolerance
As I continue to study peak performance, I’m fascinated by how little in life is stagnant. Almost everything can be viewed from the perspective of a muscle — the more you practice and build it, the stronger it gets.
If you spend less time developing it, it also atrophies.
The same can be applied to frustration tolerance.
It develops directly with our ability in successfully overcoming challenges. The early support and encouragement we experienced in our childhood does influence our starting line, but this can be unlearned and learned: you can shift your starting line over time.
Below are a few recommendations of ways to increase your frustration tolerance muscle. I’ve ranked them from lowest hanging fruit (in my opinion) to most difficult.
1. Increase exposure.
One of the lowest effort ways to build threshold is simply by increasing exposure to challenges and frustrations. This can be as abstract as moving beyond your comfort zone, or journaling and coming up with a list of things where you tend to get frustrated easily or overreact.
For example, some areas I’m looking to improve is not overreacting when my dogs misbehave or reducing my snacking due to boredom or cravings.
I plan on increasing my exposure by walking my pups more often through highly distracting areas. I know I’ll have to practice staying calm or riding out my frustration because they will be more likely to get distracted and not listen to me.
2. Acknowledge learning.
Whenever we learn something new or take on a challenge, it is completely natural (and expected) to experience frustration.
We simply haven’t learned the skills yet. It hasn’t become natural.
It’s like the frustration we experience as a teenager learning to drive — it’s exhausting and frustrating. But as we build the skill over time, slowly the frustration will abate until it becomes second nature.
How can we expect to master something we were never taught or knew how to do? Sometimes, we just never had the skillset.
In these cases, (as is most), knowledge is power.
We see this in managers who don’t know how to manage, yet expect to automatically know what to do and follow an unrefined intuition.
Or beginner chefs that expect to know how to julienne carrots with the finesse of Julia Child.
Instead of being frustrated, ask yourself: how can I learn to do this better?
What are recurring things you often find yourself challenged by? Make a list of what you can learn.
And when the learning gets tough, remind yourself that learning is a process. Things will get easier over time.
3. Change your mindset.
So many studies and articles reference Carol Dweck’s pervasive work related to mindset.
Mindset seems to be the panacea towards many of the struggles internalized within ourselves. When it comes to improving frustration tolerance, it also plays a key component.
Sometimes, shifting your mindset (or check your attitude, according to my mom), does wonders.
“Why won’t this work, I’m so frustrated” can turn into “I’m frustrated because I’ve been working so hard towards a goal that’s important to me.”
Frustration after all, is not failure. It is a reminder that we are working hard towards the goals we set out to accomplish.
Instead of focusing on the frustration and setback on a particular goal, shifting our mindset here refocuses us on the fact that we have a big, hairy, audacious goal. And they are meant to be tough. We are meant to struggle.
Struggle is a sign we are growing, we are learning.
“You’re only frustrated because you’re working so hard towards a goal that’s important to you”
Actionable step: What is a better way to reframe the situation to remind me why I’m doing this, instead of what’s not working?
Remember: frustration is a good sign. It is evidence that we are learning.
5. Cheer yourself on
When we struggle, the biggest thing we need is a little encouragement.
After all, the etymology behind the word literally means to strengthen the heart, to fill with courage through the “action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope.”
If you have friends, mentors, or loved ones that can offer this encouragement, that’s wonderful.
It is great to have people to lean on, to help carry the weight and imbibe you with strength.
In moments where no friend is around however, having the ability to embolden yourself is a beautiful thing.
Being our own cheerleader can be a great alternative in moments where we need a little strength.
Oftentimes, frustration builds when we doubt whether we’re capable of handling these stressors.
“I hate waiting in line.”
“I can’t stand when someone calls me by the wrong name.”
Thoughts like these can easily derail our days and increase our feelings of frustration and anger. But when we can give ourselves a pep talk, a simple ‘You can do this!’ can remind us that we are more than capable of handling challenges.
6. Accept that life can be difficult
The secret to feeling less stressed is accepting that problems are a part of life. A great life does not necessarily mean everything goes the way you want it.
Feeling frustrated or anger does not mean anything is inherently wrong in your life; that’s just how life is, sometimes. It’s not always just or fair. Just like it’s not always relentless. There are good days and bad days.
And the thing to remember is that bad days should exist. They are a part of reality. Blaming the world makes you feel good but doesn’t change anything. It’s a way of convincing yourself that things are unfair instead of accepting them.
You cannot change other people or situations that bother you; however, you can change how you respond to these annoyances by accepting them. If you’re repeatedly frustrated by an unfair situation, ask yourself if it’s one you can change or if you need to change your response. If the situation is out of your hands, then focus on acceptance.
Our beliefs about life also play a role in how well we tolerate frustration. Beliefs about how things should be or who should do what are often the root of frustration.
If a person believes, for example, that “Life should be easy,” and if that same person stubs his toe, he is unlikely to deal with the pain as easily as someone else who believes that “Life isn’t always easy,” but that “I can deal with the tough times.”
Because the belief systems of these two individuals differ, how they choose to react to and deal with their stubbed toes will also differ.
7. Manage expectations.
So much in the formula for happiness lies in the reality = expectations equation.
When we overemphasize a perception of what we expect life to be, how it should be, the bigger the difference between our expectations and the actual situation, the more intense our feelings of frustration.
Being rigid in our internal world view of how we expect the world to be will only increase our vulnerability to frustration.
Having flexibility in our thinking or reshaping our assumption that life should be easy can improve our resilience to frustration.
Instead of being frustrated at the weekday rush hour traffic because we expect traffic to be smooth and easy, we can accept that traffic is a part of life and so begin on working to mitigate this aspect of life.
onwards and upwards
And even when we experience frustration, it’s helpful to remember—it can lead to positive outcomes that move us toward new learning, innovation, or even anger that is expressed in an assertive manner. When this happens, we can become more resilient when facing life’s challenges–including traffic congestion and assembling a bookcase.
As Angela Duckworth says in her book Grit:
I learned a lesson I’d never forget. The lesson was that, when you have setbacks and failures, you can’t overreact to them.”
Frustration tolerance is perhaps just one small component to building grit.
- The consequences of a low frustration tolerance:
- Giving up easily or avoiding tough tasks
- Anger and rage
- Lashing out and impacts relationships
- Negative emotions like: self-pity, hurt, burn-out, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction or helplessness
- How to build a high frustration tolerance:
- Increase exposure
- Build problem solving skills
- Improve mindset
- Adjust beliefs
- Cheer yourself on
- Accept that life is difficult
- Manage expectations