The feeling when you want to achieve something, but find your action blocked. Nevertheless, you keep trying.

Frustration is the unpleasant experience when things are not working the way you want them to work1. The key in frustration is that it happens when you are trying to achieve something – print a document, convince a friend to go see a movie with you, or catch a train – but you run into problems – e.g., a paper jam, an unwilling friend, or sloppy planning on your part, respectively. The event becomes an obstacle – something that get into the way of achieving what you want2. Unlike some other anger-emotions, there is not a clear candidate for blame in a frustrating event – except possibly oneself. The printer is not too blame, although perhaps the manufacturer or your colleagues are, but that is not the focus in frustration. Neither is the friend, who has every right to organize her evening as she pleases. In some people, especially those that find it difficult not to blame others for their misfortune, frustration often leads to anger. Someone who misses their train can blame the rail company, even if the train ran exactly according to schedule. He could grudgingly argue that the trains are always late, except when he is late himself.

The obstacle in frustration can take several forms – it can be physical (e.g., not being able to thread a needle), mental (e.g., not being able to solve a crossword), or social (not being able to impress someone). Frustrations can be very short-lived (e.g., not getting the toaster to pop down), or growing for years (e.g., being unable to maintain a relationship). Frustration is often related to our own inability to do things. The objects you interact with could be faulty, but it can also partially be blamed on your own clumsiness, ignorance or incompetence3.

As long as it is not pushed too far, frustration can drive people to become more determined to solve the case, so that they are not ‘beaten’ by the obstacle. If they eventually succeed, this will be accompanied by a sense of satisfaction that would not have emerged without the obstacle. This is the underlying pleasure in puzzles and games. However, if after repeated attempts the obstacle is not overcome, the energy that had been building up over the course of the attempts can then be expressed in less constructive ways.

In the comic, Murphy is trying to start a presentation while everyone is waiting. He keeps running into problems and it seems that every action makes it worse.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Why doesn’t this just work?!”

“Come on, do this for me!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Frustration & Annoyance

Frustration and annoyance can seem very similar, and certain situations will evoke both emotions. For instance, if you are trying to solve a crossword puzzle but you get stuck halfway, you can feel frustrated and annoyed – annoyed with yourself or with the creators of the puzzle. The difference between the emotions is that frustration is always about a goal you are trying to reach, a focus that annoyance does not have. Annoyance on the other hand always needs an object: you are annoyed with someone or something. So, in a frustrating situation like the puzzle example, you only feel annoyance if you attribute your being stuck to something – i.e. your own abilities or those of the puzzle creators. Otherwise you just feel frustrated. On the other hand, you can feel annoyed in a situation where there isn’t a goal you are trying to reach, but not frustrated. You can be annoyed with an off-color remark of a friend, but most likely not frustrated.

Frustration & Anger

Frustration and anger can both occur when something stands in the way of achieving your goals. For example, if you are trying to put a child to bed but she refuses and makes a big scene, you can feel both frustrated and angry. In this situation, the frustration is evoked because your goal is being blocked (finishing the bed ritual) and the anger is evoked because you blame this one someone (the child for throwing a tantrum). However, there are numerous situations in which there is someone to blame for something bad that happens, without a goal being blocked. For example, when someone insults or hits you. Similarly, there are situations in which a goal is being blocked, but there is no one to blame: for example, when you can’t convince your colleagues to adopt one of your ideas. Sometimes people’s frustration irrationally turns to anger, for instance when they blame and punish objects for the inability to reach a goal, such as when someone hits the computer monitor when a program is not working well.

Frustration & Desperation

Frustration and desperation are both emotions about not being able to reach a goal. For example, if you are at the station and have to find the right platform before the train leaves, you can first get frustrated that you cannot find it, and subsequently desperate when the train is about to leave and you still haven’t found it. The most obvious difference between the two emotions is one of intensity: frustration means a person encountered an obstacle while trying to reach a goal, but achievement is still possible. In desperation, it is questionable if he is able to reach the goal at all. Secondly, frustration can be concerned with the specific way in which you reach a goal, whereas desperation is really only concerned with reaching a goal, regardless of the means. For example, you can be frustrated if the printer is malfunctioning and you have to get your typed notes on paper. However, since there are also other, less convenient ways to achieve your goal (e.g., writing your notes down manually), there is no incentive to experience desperation.

Sources and further reading