How to Help an Addict Develop Frustration Tolerance

No matter what they’re addicted to, all addicts lack the ability to tolerate frustration. They become easily dysregulated and are unable to self-soothe, which leads them to depend on substances, people, or processes (self-injury, cyber porn, video games, compulsive sex) to stabilize themselves. Because of this dependence, addicts don’t develop internal support and healthy coping skills. As they get older, and life becomes more challenging, they will find themselves increasingly more reliant on things outside of themselves, hoping to escape frustration and unpleasant feelings. Their inability to function in an age-appropriate, healthy manner wreaks havoc in their lives and in the lives of those around them — which just gives the addict more reason to be frustrated.

Co-Addicts Need to Develop Frustration Tolerance, Too

Anyone who has ever loved an addict knows how wrenching it is to watch him struggle. It’s natural to want to shore up her tattered self-esteem and prevent her from making bad choices by making all her decisions for her. Living in high-alert, those around the addict struggle to manage their own frustration. They nag, cajole, lecture, yell, and dole out ultimatums in an effort to “fix” the addict. Or they rush in to solve a problem that they worry will overwhelm the addict. Although the urge to protect and help a loved one is instinctual and understandable, when help turns into codependence, it’s dysfunctional. While family members may feel they have to do what they do for the addict, in reality they are often doing what they do for themselves. Refusing to cede to an addict’s demands, or letting them deal with the consequences of their own behavior can create conflict and frustration for those around the addict. In order for the addict to recover, the co-addict must learn to tolerate her own anxiety when she can’t control circumstances, people, or things. In order for the addict to recover, both he and his loved ones must learn to develop frustration tolerance. Here’s what constructive help looks like:

  • Don’t match their intensity with your intensity. Addicts turn little things into dramas. Unless there is a serious safety risk (imminent threat to harm self or others), most problems can wait. Instead of responding to their urgency with your own urgency to fix the problem, try being patient and calm. By modeling how to “pause” between feelings and action, you are not only demonstrating how to tolerate frustration, but you are also showing them that their drama tactics don’t work.
  • Set limits. With the intensity level at Defcon 5, it’s tempting to accommodate the addict in order to maintain equilibrium, or to engage in a power struggle to keep the addict from acting out. But doing these things, it signals to the addict that he’s running the show. Instead, set firm limits and stick to them. “No, I will not give you money, but I will fix you a meal.” “I understand that you’re upset because I confiscated your paraphernalia and I will be happy to drive you to a meeting.” “You will get your computer back tomorrow morning; if you are bored you can read a book or take a walk.”
  • Don’t accept the “guilt card.” Addicts, particularly adolescent addicts, manipulate family members by playing the guilt card. But what they must learn is that their unhappy childhood/parents’ divorce/feeling that they don’t fit in doesn’t justify their demands, unrealistic expectations, and bad behavior. Empathize and explain that if they choose to drink, use drugs, have sex with strangers while in a monogamous relationship, they will have to deal with the consequences of their choices. Then you have to resist your own urge to manage their lives so they don’t act out, which you can’t control anyway.

Learning how to change the entrenched way you interact with your addict takes time and discipline. But if you really want them to stop wreaking havoc in their lives, you must trust their ability to manage difficult feelings and hard times. If you can learn to tolerate your own frustration, the more likely it is that they will, too. By Virginia Gilbert, MFT Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT

Scroll to Top