Yesterday while picking-up lunch, I heard two coworkers discussing their workday. It sounded like it had been a pretty rough week, and one of the men was exclaiming, “I CAN’T STAND ERIC!  I LITERALLY CAN’T STAND LISTENING TO HIM IN MEETINGS ANYMORE. HE NEVER SAYS ANYTHING USEFUL!!” I immediately started laughing to myself because I thought, “You say you LITERALLY CAN’T STAND listening to Eric, but you are LITERALLY STANDING behind me on the line! So, I guess you LITERALLY CAN stand listening to Eric?”

Frustration Intolerance

This type of thinking has a name, and it’s called Frustration Intolerance (FI). FI is a phrase that was coined by Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT is an evidence-based treatment that has been around since the 1950s []. In a nutshell, REBT rests on the premise that we feel how think, so by changing the way we think about situations, we can change the way we feel and react. You can recognize FI beliefs by the phrases- “I can’t stand it!,” “I can’t tolerate it!,” or “It’s too much!” In other words, FI beliefs expressly state that you are incapable of tolerating some sort of frustration or challenge. Even though we make these statements all of the time, this type of thinking can actually be detrimental. Since our self-talk influences our actions and reactions, the more you tell yourself that you can’t possibly tolerate a situation, the more you are going to start believing it. Let’s take a look at an example:

Sarah is an attorney at a very large law firm, and she has been part of the litigation team for 5 years. The job is always demanding, but becomes worse the month before a trial. Sarah has excelled at the firm, and she was recently promoted from Associate to Of Counsel. However, whenever her boss calls all hands on deck, Sarah can’t help but to think, “This workload is too much! I can’t stand working these crazy hours!” As the hours become longer, these thoughts become more pervasive, and Sarah becomes angrier about the situation. As a result, Sarah finds that she is constantly venting about work to her friends and family, and she also stresses herself out to the point where she procrastinates. Before we delve into Sarah’s difficulties at work, let’s be clear- I totally get where Sarah is coming from. This sounds like a truly exhausting and stressful situation, and my goal isn’t to prove it otherwise. That being said, can you see how Sarah’s thinking is leading her to make a stressful situation even more stressful?

What Sarah is saying to herself is that she can’t possibly tolerate the amount of work she is being given. However, we know that Sarah has been at this firm for 5 years, and she has been managing this workload the whole time. She has even performed well enough to earn a promotion. Sarah is not only tolerating the workload, but also thriving! So, we can see that Sarah’s thought, “I can’t possibly tolerate the amount of work that I am being assigned,” is not actually realistic, logical, or based in evidence. In actuality, Sarah has been TOLERATING the workload quite well. However, the more Sarah rehearses her FI beliefs, the more she believes these thoughts. Then, Sarah becomes angry, procrastinates, and spends her free time venting to friends and family rather than finishing her work at a reasonable time.

Build Up That Frustration Tolerance

The REBT model proposes that we change our  FI beliefs to more helpful beliefs called High Frustration Tolerance (HFT). HFT beliefs express that while we may not like a situation, or feel extremely frustrated or stressed about a situation, we are still capable of tolerating and withstanding the frustration and challenges. In other words, we can survive the situation. Thinking of my friend at the deli, maybe I’m being a bit literal by saying that he could stand listening to Eric because he was standing right next to me, but that’s really the truth! If he really couldn’t stand Eric’s comments that would mean he couldn’t survive the situation! Maybe he really dislikes dealing with Eric in meetings, but he is (and has been) able to tolerate his frustration about Eric. For Sarah, it would be much more helpful for her to realize that, “Yes this workload is insane, and I really really hate working this much, but I know that I can tolerate this workload. I’ve been dealing with this sense of urgency before every trial for the past five years, and I always get myself across the finish line.” Sarah definitely wouldn’t feel happy; but, at least she wouldn’t feel even more stressed by convincing herself that she can’t handle the workload that she has been managing for years.

That being said, just because we are capable of tolerating stressful and difficult situations, it doesn’t mean we can’t look for a way out. Perhaps this lifestyle is not one Sarah wants to lead anymore. Or, maybe it’s time for Sarah to talk to her boss about how burnt out she is feeling. Either way, what we do know is that if Sarah continues to make herself angry about the work, she won’t be able to effectively problem solve. Instead, she’ll continue to feel angry, vent to anyone who will listen, and procrastinate on her assignments…none of which help to improve the situation.

What Does This All Mean For Me?

Often times, we tell ourselves that we can’t tolerate or we can’t stand a situation, but that often isn’t true. We tolerate and cope with very frustrating and challenging situations each and every day. We may not want to (or like to) deal with negative and stressful situations, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing so. By practicing High Frustration Tolerance, we are better able to deal with frustrations, stresses, and challenges and less likely to self-sabotage by telling ourselves, “I just can’t even!”

Originally published at


  • Brooke Wachtler, Psy.D.

    Licensed Psychologist, Founder/President BEW Consulting & Training LLC

    Dr. Brooke Wachtler is a New York State licensed psychologist and the founder/president of BEW Consulting & Training LLC. BEW is a specialized professional development consultancy service that offers companies a psychologically informed approach to professional development training. BEW's unique approach focuses on (1) delivering concrete skills and strategies to enhance professionals’ day-to-day performance, productivity, and profitability, and (2) teaching professionals how to support and develop emotional intelligence skills that are critical for career success and growth. Dr. Wachtler loves applying her knowledge and understanding of motivation, behavior, and personality to business, specifically to leadership development and innovation. She is passionate about helping people change their thought processes, actions, and behaviors to assist them in reaching their goals.