Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Tolerating Frustration: Key To Mental Health

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 3, 2013

Being depressed, feeling blue, feeling anxious, all feelings which create unease, are part of the human condition. The meaning we give to these feelings, and the tolerance we have for these internal expressions, are one way of understanding the hierarchy of mental health. For some, uncomfortable feelings cause an immediate need to distract, by healthy means like exercise, or unhealthy means, like alcohol. Living with the feelings takes the courage, and the faith, that feelings are the journey of life, and like all journeys, the scenery changes, even if one is not sure when that will happen.

Stacy, twenty-four, comes to mind. She is a bright graduate student, enthusiastic, and well-meaning, and yet, when her date goes South, she immediately feels the urge to call an old boyfriend and be reassured of her desirability. She knows that calling Ko, will ultimately lead to a battle where they both accuse the other of using them, but “I just can’t help it,” she tells me, again and again. “Maybe it is so hard to tolerate disappointment, particularly disappointment in the dating arena,” I say, helping her to be more conscious of her urge to call Ko. “Yes, I hate it when I get all excited for a date, and then the guy is not what I think he is,” Stacy says, with an endearing honesty. “Yes, I can see how hard that would be, but I don’t see how calling Ko helps you out.” I say, wondering aloud if she can see that short-term gain is not worth the long-term pain. “Yes, but it is hard for me to sit with the feelings that I may never meet someone,” Stacy says tearfully. “You are scared, and I understand that, but I wonder why you jump from a bad date to you will never meet someone.” I say, reminding her that the present disappointment does not necessarily mean future disappointments, but at the same time, understanding that given her family background, she has suffered so many disappointments, it is hard for her to have hope. ‘I think a bad date brings up painful memories of how your dad disappointed you, and that is why you feel compelled to call Ko,” I say, reminding her that her past upset with her father gets reignited with every unfortunate internet date. “Yes, I feel that,” Stacy says, “I feel that intensely.” “The more  you can sit with your feelings, rather than taking action, the better things will be for you,” I say, in a clear maternal way. Stacy understands, but feels doubtful she can change. “See you next week,” she says, remarkably cheerfully. “Yep,” I say, heavy-hearted, but optimistic.

7 Responses to “Tolerating Frustration: Key To Mental Health”

  1. Shelly said

    What does Stacy’s past disappointments by her dad have to do with her compulsions with calling Ko? Is she reenacting these events? Perhaps she still feels close to Ko and wants him to empathize with her bad date? Similar to a girlfriend calling a girlfriend whenever she needs an emotional boost?

    Also, I wanted to draw your attention to your third sentence, “For some, uncomfortable feelings cause an immediate need to distract, by healthy means like exercise, or unhealthy means, like alcohol.” I wonder if you realized that you placed value on how some people deal with uncomfortable feelings–this sentence was before the next sentence where you say that it takes courage to deal with the feelings that come up. Not everybody deals with frustrations in the same way–some with exercise, some with talking it out, some with working harder (at a job), and some with drink or drugs. I don’t think it’s fair to place a value system–your value system– on how people deal with their frustrations: they are all reactions to the human condition.

    • The theory is that strong bonds, early on, create a template for hope, such that Stacy’s weak bond with her dad, leaves her feeling pessimistic every time her expectations are not met, such that she then engages in an activity, which at first feels good, like calling Ko, but over time, leaves her in a worse emotional place, because Ko ultimately does not treat her well. If Stacy could see this pattern, she could make better choices for herself. She seems to continue to grieve over her lack of a strong bond with her dad.

      As for your second point, I partially agree with you. Coping mechanisms which promote health are admirable, whereas coping mechanisms which are self-destructive are problematic. Alcohol is a dose-related issue, as in small amounts, it can soothe, but in large amounts it can destroy one’s liver and one’s brain. So, I am not imposing my value system, as much as I am thinking about coping in terms of maintaining health and maintaining relationships. Thanks, as always.

  2. Ashana M said

    We learn skills for managing emotions from other people. Parents who form weak bonds with their children usually have limited skills for managing emotion (and impulsivity) and teach only those limited skills to their children. Some people seem to pick these skills up more easily than others–just as some people are more verbally or mathematically inclined than others. Stacy has a small tool box, but it has some good beginnings. She knows to reach out to others for comfort–which is actually a considerably more positive response than using alcohol or self-harming–but she may lack suitable relationships to turn to for comfort.

    • Yes, Ashana. As I prepare for my class on Wednesday, we are going to discuss your point. Affect integration, or learning about different feelings, depends on a caretaker that can do more than just help a child “use your words.” These sophisticated caretakers need to help a child understand his internal state of being, like “you are so angry,” and in so doing, the child comes to understand himself. Without this level of emotional sophistication, the child grows into an adult with confusion and shame over his internal world. This will be the springboard for our discussion, so thanks for adding to it.

      • Ashana M said

        Naming mental states is one helpful coping skills. It’s interesting here, because distraction is the most common coping skill parents teach to young children. Indian toddlers rarely tantrum (I have yet to see it) because caretakers are so skilled at using distraction. Many caretakers unconsciously (or deliberately) teach using breath to regulate emotions, and people innately turn to social and relational connection to help them–but that goes sour if parents aren’t accessible

        • Hi Ashana,
          I am having trouble understanding why Indian children never tantrum. It seems that children work to increase their frustration tolerance over time and distraction only works some times. Having said that, I can certainly imagine how cultural expectations influence a child’s behavior. Thanks.

          • Ashana M said

            We generally expect children to develop greater levels of autonomy much sooner in life, which means our children are often flooded by emotions they can’t manage at very young ages. Collectivist societies don’t have that expectation, and so children are not left alone to manage emotions too intense for them to deal with. They are given more help, or the situation is altered before it becomes too much. So they don’t become so overwhelmed that they just start screaming. They also never say “No,” the way American toddlers incessantly do, because adults aren’t constantly saying it to them.

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