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  • Natasha J. Thomas, MD

Understanding Frustration: 3 Lessons Your Obstacles Want to Teach You

Updated: May 13, 2021

How well do you manage your frustration? If you're like most people, dealing with this emotion is one of the more difficult aspects of life. Born when we run into unexpected or stubborn obstacles in our path, frustration itself can sometimes be profound enough to not only interrupt our plans for the day, but even derail our goals and approach to life.

The point of today's post is to help you develop a different relationship with the emotion of frustration. We can move from "managing frustration" to truly understanding it - and the powerful things it can show us about ourselves.

In every new patient intake I do, I make sure to observe a person's ability to tolerate frustrations. That is because those who struggle greatly in this area are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, temper outbursts, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness - and I want us to change that.


Take the next 60 seconds and list as many things as you can think of that make you feel frustrated. Don't worry, I'll make a list too. Ready? Start!

After 1 minute, I could think of EIGHT different things that frustrate me, and I was just starting to get into my groove! How many issues did you list? And why is it so EASY to find things that frustrate us? More importantly, though, what are these things trying to tell us?


Every day, we are trying to reach a destination. It may be a physical destination like work or school. It may be an emotional destination, like trying to remain calm or peaceful. Or it may be in pursuit of any goal that we want to attain. Common goals are to exercise, eat well, be more responsible with our money, or in relationships, to only invest time in positive people.

Interestingly, though, the road to our destination is nearly always interrupted by some sort of obstacle. There are the obstacles we expect, and the obstacles we don't. Perhaps on the way to school or work, traffic is just ridiculous. Or in trying to maintain our emotional evenness, we run into the obstacle of unexpected bad news or conflict with a loved one. And maybe instead of feeling inspired to go exercise, eat well, spend wisely, or be kind, an obligation from out of the blue comes and throws off your schedule or your attitude - leaving you to abandon your personal goals for the day.

Lesson 1: Live Each Moment

Yes, all of these situations can be exceedingly annoying - because, well, you're trying to get somewhere! But generally, your frustration is telling you that you are preoccupied with your plans and are not living each moment. Life's beauty is in the present - and in the in-between experiences. Many things you may need, and that can only be found in the present moment, are being left behind in the dust of your rush to the next destination. And chances are you're leaving your loved ones behind, too.

Why it Matters: As we age, life begins to feel like it is passing extremely quickly. The present moment is all we have. When you live a life that negates the present moment, eventually you will look up one day and feel like life completely passed you by. You may also find that your family and friends missed truly having you around. This leads to regret, sadness, and complicates the developmental milestone of aging with pride and grace.

Lesson 2: Search, Find and Waste Nothing

What are the opportunities obstacles and frustration present to us? They are many and varied. From one of our earlier examples we see several. Getting stuck in morning traffic might give you the opportunity to:

  • Hear an interesting podcast that enhances your life

  • Enjoy your favorite song

  • Develop your patience, an invaluable trait

  • Surrender the need to control things that are truly out of your control

  • Reflect on your morning routine and determine if it is serving you in meeting your goals (do you need to get up earlier, skip the trip to Starbucks, stop surfing social media, etc.)

  • Reevaluate your nighttime routine if you find you're always rushing in the morning(should you be getting your things ready at night, eating lighter, abstaining from alcohol, turning off electronics earlier, etc.)

It may even whisper to you that you need to visit your doctor to discuss why you're always tired and dragging in the morning. In this way, getting stuck in morning traffic might one day be the very thing that saves your life.

Why it Matters: Whenever you feel frustrated, you are given an awesome opportunity to stop and search. Look for the gift in the slowing down of your progress. Most likely, life is trying to give you a hint about something very important on your journey. Glean everything you possibly can from the frustration you feel. Waste nothing.

Lesson 3: GROW in the Flow

Your frustration tolerance (or intolerance) is a mirror. The way you respond when your plans are waylaid by inconvenient or formidable obstacles shows you a great deal about your maturity, character, and maybe even level of faith. And it offers you the opportunity to grow into the best version of yourself.

If in the face of frustration you become angry, rude, panicked, dejected or aggressive, you have an open invitation to pursue those things in life that lead to self-mastery. Perhaps you would benefit from friendship, spiritual development, individual or group counseling, meditation and exercise, or any other vehicle that will take you toward maintaining your peace in challenging times. Being able to control situations and other people is not true power - but being able to control yourself is.

Consider spending time to reflect on your typical response to frustration. If your responses are unkind, ugly, overblown or otherwise unflattering, you may want to work on it.

Why it Matters: Because the separation between emotions, thoughts and eventual action is so thin, not being able to control your responses to the unexpected can ruin your dreams. Lack of self-control can destroy relationships, career opportunities, and reputations. And again, when you can master yourself, you are living in the power you were intended - because very few things will be able to knock you off your axis. And THAT is what is needed to keep you moving toward the completion of your life purpose.


If you have been struggling with frustration tolerance and it is starting to impact your relationships or your ability to perform at work or school, it may be time to seek help. If your experience of frustration is leading to any of the following symptoms below, please use Psychology Today to find a counselor.

  • Insomnia

  • Persistent Sadness or Loss of Joy

  • Anxiety attacks or feeling panic

  • Loss of appetite

  • Loss of confidence

  • Relationship conflict or threat of divorce

  • Academic failure

  • Embarrassing temper outbursts

  • Physical symptoms like headaches, chest pain or upset stomach

  • Substance misuse (i.e., drugs and alcohol)

There are resources available to help! Now that you know what frustration is, start developing a different relationship with it today. It can be an excellent teacher, friend and the most clear mirror you'll ever encounter. Embrace it!

* If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, please call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, or call 1-800-273-TALK

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