How experimenting with building up your tolerance for dealing with frustrating situations will increase your resilience

A question I am asked on a regular basis: “How do I make myself more resilient and confident?” Although it would be great to be able to tell you that there is a magical ‘quick fix’ solution that will enable you to build your resilience overnight without putting in much effort, it doesn’t work that way – despite many claims to the contrary! Real achievement doesn’t happen overnight.

It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to build up our tolerance levels and become better equipped to deal with challenging situations as they arise, we need to experience some level of discomfort. Often the prospect of change or achieving our goals is much more appealing than putting in the hard work necessary to get there. However, what we learn along the way to achieving our goals is often more important than achieving the goal itself.  For example, persevering with a task that you didn’t want to do or which you thought you couldn’t do, can help you to see yourself in a different way and reveal strengths that you never thought you had.

One of the strengths that underpin resilience and which is important to develop if we want to develop more helpful habits is referred to by psychologists as ‘High Frustration Tolerance’. Simply put, this refers to the ability to get through challenging situations without continually complaining about how difficult things are or falling into a negative spiral of self-pity every time something doesn’t go your way.  The theory goes that if you face the task, you will initially feel anxious and maybe a bit frustrated, but if you persevere and build up your tolerance to small amounts of frustration, your overall level of anxiety will steadily decrease over time as you achieve the goals you had been avoiding.

This means facing up to tasks that frighten you or which you perceive to be boring – even though you know that they are important for your development and continuing to put them off is going to be detrimental in the longer term. We all have work tasks that keep on falling to the bottom of our to-do list. This can be down to time constraints, but quite often it is because we can’t motivate ourselves to do them – either we ‘can’t stand it!’ or are just plain disinterested. As an example, let’s say you need to write a strategic work plan for your department. However, even though you know that it is necessary and will benefit both you and your organisation in the longer term, you keep putting it off because it either doesn’t interest you, or you don’t know where to start and don’t want to ask for help because you feel that will weaken your authority. The aim is to move from an attitude of ‘I can’t stand feeling like this’ to ‘I can stand feeling like this without liking it in order to finish the project’.

I often hear people say that they will do something when they feel more confident about tackling it. However, the only way to build confidence in an area which we would like to develop is to get on with doing it. In order to build confidence in our ability to do something, we need to first have the courage to start and then build up our competence in that area. Self-confidence builds when you challenge yourself, experiment with taking small steps towards your goal, build competence over time and see yourself making progress.

If you find yourself procrastinating and continually putting off tackling a task, take the time to reflect and ask yourself the following questions. You may find it helpful to write down your answers to these questions:

“How do I feel when I think about this task?”

A few examples of feelings that you may be experiencing when avoiding a situation include: fear, embarrassment, anger, irritation, frustration, shame, anxiety. You may also recognise a physical reaction in your body that feels uncomfortable. If you are feeling a number of emotions, which one is causing you the most discomfort?

“What thoughts are going through my head when I think about this task?”

For example, you may be thinking something along the lines of: “I don’t know where to start…if I ask for help then people will think that I can’t do my job…” Or maybe “this is so boring… why do I have to do this…it’s not fair!”

“What am I currently doing (or not doing!)?”

For example, you may be distracting yourself with other activities or spending lots of time moaning about the task or about the person who has given you the task.

Once you have identified some of the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with the task you have been avoiding, ask yourself the following questions:

How helpful are these thoughts or behaviours to me in the longer term? Are they going to help me to achieve my goals?

How logical are these thoughts? For example, how does it follow that not being able to do this specific task without any support means that your colleagues will think less of you?

What is the evidence to support this way of thinking or behaving? For example, you may think that you are no good at this task, but how do you know if you haven’t tried? Even if you tried and it didn’t go so well before, why can’t things be different this time around, especially as you have probably learnt something from the previous experience?

Actively making yourself feel discomfort by tackling the things you have been avoiding, and consciously putting yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable – even a bit distressed and frustrated – will help you to build your tolerance over time. Feeling discomfort and getting through it will help you to be more psychologically prepared to deal with difficult situations as they arise in the future.

If you found this article interesting, you may be interested in a previous article I wrote on the cognitive behavioural approach to resilience.

Do you want to develop as a resilient and inspiring leader? On my 1-2-1 Executive Leadership Coaching Programme one of the areas that we focus on is your emotional resilience. Better understanding what builds up your emotional resilience and what chips away at it, so you can cope more effectively with adversity and stressful situations, overcome challenges and build strategies for success. For more information, visit and book in a discovery call with me.

Mandy Murdoch – Accredited Coach, Coaching Psychologist and Consultant

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