What is the Right Amount of Frustration?

By March 20, 2014 Article

Frustration has been on my mind a lot. We don’t often talk about it directly, but when it comes to therapy, it underlies almost every discussion, i.e. “things are this way, but I wish they were this way” or “my partner is this way, but I wish they were this way.” It got me thinking about the flavors of frustration.

Some frustration hurts and humiliates, e.g. “I wish my partner loved me more.” Some frustration challenges and drives us to new heights, e.g. “I dream of getting a promotion and that drives me to succeed.” When clients first visit me it is usually because they have stumbled upon some frustration they cannot overcome alone.

A Background: Optimal Frustration

Optimal frustration is one of my favorite terms. This is the sort of frustration that challenges us, but does not overwhelm or bore us. Think of a toddler doing a puzzle. A well attuned parent will give a toddler a puzzle that is a little challenging. If the puzzle is too easy, the toddler will get bored and loose the opportunity to learn. If the puzzle is too hard, the toddler will be overwhelmed by frustration, give up and maybe feel shame. When the puzzle is “just right”, the toddler is challenged and grows. They develop a sense of efficacy and a belief that they can overcome difficulties.

Most parents intuitively understand this and make thousands of micro-decisions through a child’s life as they help them find the right middle ground between over-challenged and under-challenged. Done right, a child will learn to tolerate frustration and even enjoy the challenge of approaching and overcoming difficulties. They will even learn to enjoy the gap between desire and satiation, and use this tension to drive them forward.

Expanding Thinking

The life problems over or under challenge people, their thinking tends to “collapse”. “Collapse” is the term given when people stop being able to think fully about a problem. In a typical example, a husband and wife will come to therapy, point at one-another and say, “It’s their fault”. Obviously, the truth is more complex than that. This is a sure sign that thinking has “collapsed” and for some reason the couple’s ability to think clearly has been overwhelmed.