Things must be the way I want them to be – otherwise life will be intolerable.

We all want life to be organised according to our preferences. This surely makes sense! What then is the problem? Unfortunately, we often go beyond just wanting – we believe that things must be our way. This reflects a human tendency called ‘low frustration-tolerance’.I suspect that this tendency is one of the most common, underlying causes of distress in human beings. Paradoxically, it seems to be the one of which people are most unconscious! A concept developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, low frustration-tolerance (LFT) arises from believing that frustration is unbearable and therefore must be avoided at all costs.

What is low frustration-tolerance?

Low frustration-tolerance (LFT) is caused by catastrophising about being frustrated and demanding that it not happen. It is based on beliefs like:

‘The world owes me contentment and happiness.’
‘Things should be as I want them to be, and I can’t stand it when they are not.’
‘It is intolerable to be frustrated, so I must avoid it at all costs.’
‘Other people should not do things that frustrate me.’

LFT is closely related to low discomfort-tolerance (LDT), which arises from catastrophising about discomfort (including the discomfort of negative emotions), with an internal demand that it be avoided. The two types are similar and closely related. Frustration is uncomfortable, and discomfort is frustrating. Often one expression is used to refer to both types.

Low frustration-tolerance arises from demands that things be as we want, usually coupled with awfulising and discomfort-intolerance when this does not happen.

The problem with low frustration-tolerance

Low frustration-tolerance creates distress in many ways:

Anxiety results when people believe that they should or must get what they want (and not get what they don’t want), and that it is awful and unbearable (rather than merely inconvenient or disadvantageous) when things don’t happen as they ‘must’.

Short-range enjoyment, a common human tendency, is the seeking of immediate pleasure or avoidance of pain, at the cost of long-term stress. Examples include such things as alcohol, drug and food abuse; watching television at the expense of exercising; practising unsafe sex; or overspending to avoid feeling deprived.

Addictive tendencies. Low frustration-tolerance is a key factor in the development of addictions. To resist the impulse of the moment and go without is ‘too frustrating’. It seems easier to give in to the urge to misuse alcohol, take drugs, gamble, or exercise obsessively.

Negativity and complaining. Low frustration-tolerance may cause you to become distressed over small hindrances and setbacks, overconcerned with unfairness, and prone to make comparisons between your own and others’ circumstances. Negativity tends to alienate others, with the loss of their support.

Anger. LFT leads to hostile anger when someone does something you dislike, or fails to give you what you want.

The alternative: high frustration-tolerance

High frustration-tolerance means accepting the reality of frustration and keeping its badness in perspective.

To accept frustration is to acknowledge that, while you may dislike it, there is no Law of the Universe says you ‘should’ be exempt from it (though you may prefer to be). You expect to experience appropriate negative emotions like annoyance and disappointment. But you avoid exaggerating these emotions (by telling yourself you can’t stand them) into depression, hostile anger, hurt, or self-pity.

Changing what you tell yourself about frustration

See the list of typical frustration-intolerance thoughts below. Alongside each is a more realistic alternative.

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