Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lesson #26: Frustration Tolerance Is An Important Measure Of Character

As a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, I often work with couples who are struggling to make a relationship work, as well as single people who want to find someone with whom they are compatible.  I am often asked what factors to look for in terms of compatibility in a potential mate or a current partner.  Common interests, similar values, and sexual arousal, are always standards for building a solid foundation.  But the one extra thing I always encourage people to consider is how your partner manages frustration.  

"Frustration" is the response we have when reality conflicts with our "shoulds."  And yes, I have them too.  When a subway train breaks down, when people block the sidewalk, if there is a long slow line at Duane Reade's, then I get frustrated.  "Tolerance" is the degree to which we are willing to maintain calm and focus despite frustrations.  It is an acquired mental muscle that takes discipline and focus.  It is the ability to choose to stay centered and serene even in the midst of an event that is frustrating.

When confronted with conflict, someone with low frustration tolerance will act out, make a scene, blurt out passive aggressive statements to strangers, and even sometimes start arguments and fights with people around them.  It is the cause of a great amount of traffic accidents, and in the extreme, can lead to battering and domestic violence.   The underlying delusion behind the behavior is, "If I can change you then I will be less upset."  This is a common yet dangerous belief.

Someone with high frustration tolerance will breathe, go within, recognize they have a choice how to manage the situation, and decide how to react based on what is most useful.  They recognize that even when circumstances are not ideal, they can be acceptable, and move on.  They may choose to be proactive resolving a conflict, or may walk away. But with either option there is the  knowledge that inner serenity is completely their own responsibility, it is not based on other people's actions.

When two people with vastly different levels of frustration tolerance are trying to be together, it can often lead to resentment and anger on both ends.  When one person is invested in practicing health and serenity, while the other is attached to practicing conflict and unhappiness, it makes for a turbulent union at best.  This is why I encourage couples and individuals to look closely at this issue, and if possible, use counseling as a way to build communication, support, and resolution for the various levels of frustration that exist inside and outside of the relationship. 

Knowing this when I was younger would have saved me a lot of time, energy, and sorrow. I had several relationships with people who had no frustration tolerance, blamed the world for their problems, and struck out accordingly.  At this point in my life, I have no time nor interest in being surrounded by people who lack frustration tolerance.  That may have cost me a few friends through the years, but my social circle is filled with people who are responsible for their actions and maintain impulse control. 

How do you react to frustration? Which response would you prefer?

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at


Lily said...

Wasn't this the "Absolutely Should-less Blog"? So many of these entries just seem so judgmental.

Lily said...

Wasn't this the "Absolutely Should-less Blog"? So many of these entries just seem so judgmental.

Belkis said...

This post was very helpful thank you.

Jennifer said...

This article didn't strike me as judgmental at all. I found it insightful and helpful.