Any discipline will have its set of jargon—catch words or phrases that are familiar to the insiders but can be confusing and off-putting to outsiders. Mental health professionals are sometimes accused of such “psychobabble,” and at times rightly so. Yet there are some jargony psychological phrases which are quite clear and meaningful if we take just a moment to think about them. Here are three such phrases which, together, describe a fundamental mental health skill set: impulse control, frustration tolerance and delay of gratification.

Hold your horses

Impulse control is just what it sounds like, the ability to control our impulses, the ability to pause and not act when we have the urge to do or say something. Life goes a lot better when we are good at this. This is the ability to say “No” to ourselves when we want to eat a second helping of a favorite comfort food, have a drink when we shouldn’t, light up a cigarette when we’re trying to quit, make a nasty comment to someone we love. This is putting on the brake when the light turns yellow instead of hitting the gas. And it’s better to anticipate the light turning yellow rather than being surprised by red lights all day.

I definitely don’t like this feeling

Controlling such impulses often leaves us with a feeling of frustration. This is why we need the related skill of frustration tolerance. This is, as we would expect, the ability to tolerate the feeling of frustration. We like to prevent feeling frustrated when we can, but when we can’t we need to know that it’s possible to simply have the feeling. We would love to get rid of the feeling immediately, but it is possible to tolerate the discomfort, to relax with it, allow it to dissipate over time and eventually to problem solve and generate ideas for solutions. The key is training ourselves to regard frustration as a feeling which is tolerable versus intolerable.

Are we there yet?

Impulse control and frustration tolerance help us with the third skill—delay of gratification. This is the ability to postpone pleasure, comfort or relief until a later time. We choose to forgo the immediate gratification and wait for the right time. This involves some trust and faith that things will work out, or we will make them work out—later.

It’s unfortunate if we say, “I can’t do any of that because I just don’t have any impulse control, frustration tolerance or delay of gratification.” There are two flaws in this all-or-nothing thinking. First, it implies that there are two kinds of people—those who ‘have it’and those who don’t. Second, it implies that the skill is a discrete rather than a continuous variable, either all present or all absent. In order to be successful with these skills, it’s far more productive to assume that we all have these abilities to varying degrees and we can all improve them significantly. Just as with any skill set, the more we understand how it works and practice repeatedly, the better we become at it.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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