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The word frustration, now in common usage, refers to the state of someone who denies himself, or who is denied, drive satisfaction.

Beginning with "Heredity and Aetiology of the Neuroses" (1896a), a paper written in French, Freud identified sexual frustration as conducive to anxiety neurosis. In "My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neuroses" (1906a), to refer to frustrated excitation, he used the word "frustrane," a word probably formed from the German verb "frustrieren" (to frustrate), which was in everyday usage. The German language has no equivalent to the substantive form "frustration," which was later used in English and the romance languages to translate "Versagung," the word used by Freud in a slightly different sense from the meaning it then had of renunciation and sometimes refusal to describe frustration. Freud was aware of this difficulty and did not neglect to discuss it.

In his article "Types of Onset of Neurosis" (1912c), Freud used the word "frustration" (Versagung ) for the first time to describe both internal and external factors that cause neurosis. He wrote, "Psycho-analysis has warned us that we must give up the unfruitful contrast between external and internal factors, between experience and constitution, and has taught us that we shall invariably find the cause of the onset of neurotic illness in a particular psychical situation which can be brought about in a variety of ways" (p. 238). In essential particulars he continued to hold this view, going on to write, for example, about a narcissistic form of frustration.

The concept of frustration seems to cover the idea of privation, while sometimes going beyond it. Freud was aware of a conceptual difficulty here, and he attributed its resolution to psychoanalysis rather to the innate genius of the German language. In The Future of an Illusion (1927c), he wrote, "For the sake of a uniform terminology we will describe the fact that an instinct cannot be satisfied as a 'frustration,' the regulation by which this frustration is established as a 'prohibition' and the condition which is produced by the prohibition as a 'privation' " (p. 10). Later in this work he specified the drive urges subject to frustration, prohibition, and privation: incestuous, murderous, and cannibalistic wishes.

In the view of English-language authors, Melanie Klein in particular, frustration incites the reality principle and modulates psychic functioning. "Neurotic children do not tolerate reality well, because they cannot tolerate frustrations. They protect themselves from reality by denying it. What is fundamental and decisive for their future adaptability to reality is their greater or lesser capacity to tolerate those frustrations that arise out of the Oedipus situation" (Klein, 1975, pp. 11-12). Here the feeling of frustration appears to complement the idealizing impulse pointed out by Jean-Michel Petot (1982), who also suggested that the English term "deprivation" was closer to the German Versagung.

The connections made by Freud among frustration, prohibition, and privation form the basis for Lacan's discussion of the connections between castration, privation, and frustration in his seminar on the object relationship (1994). Frustration there appears as an imaginary formation caused by the symbolic mother but related to the real breast; it prevents the subject from entering the symbolic dialectic of giving and exchange. Lacan writes, "Frustration essentially belongs to the realm of protest. It relates to something that is desired and not possessed but that is desired without reference to any possibility of gratification or acquisition. Frustration itself constitutes the realm of unbridled and lawless demands. This core of the concept of frustration as such is one of the categories of lack and an imaginary damnation. It exists at the imaginary level." And later, "The early experience of frustration is only of importance and interest insofar as it leads to one or other of the two levels that I have set out for youcastration or privation. In truth, castration is simply that which accords frustration its true place, transcending it and establishing it within a law that gives it another meaning."

Frustration for Lacan is nonetheless more than a mode of object relationship; it extends from an object relationship to the very organization of speech and the ego. There is an inherent frustration in the discourse of the subject, and the feeling of frustration is a basic characteristic of the ego (Lacan, 1994). These propositions can be connected with Kleinian theories of the genesis and organization of the psychic apparatus.

It should be mentioned that on two occasions Lacan made Freud's use of the term frustration unnecessarily problematic. He asserted that it was of marginal importance in Freud's thought, whereas in fact it is central to his thought and Lacan himself deploys it as such (1994 [1956-1957]). Ten years later, far from correcting this viewpoint, he went so far as to assert that there was not the slightest trace of the term frustration to be found in Freud's works (1966). Lacan's persistent slip suggests that the expansion of the concept of frustration in psychoanalysis is the result of a misunderstanding or a translation error not only among German and English and the romance languages but above all between psychoanalysis and psychology, which at the time essentially based its observations, experiments, and theories on the conflict between frustration and gratification.

Luiz Eduardo Prado de Oliveira

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Active technique; Anxiety; Archaic mother; Child analysis; Deprivation; Negative Capability; Primary need; Privation; Projection; Protothoughts; Psychological tests; Realization; Relaxation principle and neo-catharsis; Splitting; Splitting of the object; Subject's castration, the; Symbolic realization; Thought-thinking apparatus; Want of being/lack of being.


Freud, Sigmund. (1896a). Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 141-156.

. (1906a [1905]). My views on the part played by sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 7: 269-279.

. (1912c). Types of onset of neurosis. SE, 12: 227-238.

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). The psychological foundations of child analysis. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 2: The psycho-analysis of children ; Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.

. (1977).Écrits: A selection (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Norton.

. (1994). Le seminaire. Book 4: La relation d'objet (1956-1957 ). Paris: Seuil.

Petot, Jean-Michel. (1982). Mélanie Klein. (Christine Trollope, Trans.). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Siboni, Jacques. (1996). Les mathèmes de Lacan: Anthologie des assertions entièrement transmissibles et de leurs relations dans les écrits de Jacques Lacan. Paris: Lysimaque.

Further Reading

Bacal, Howard. (1988). Reflections on 'optimum frustration.' Progress in Self Psychology, 4, 127-131.

Lowenfeld, Henry. (1975). Notes on frustration. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 44, 127-138.

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287. Frustration (See also Exasperation, Futility.)

  1. Akaki poor government clerk saves to buy a new overcoat, only to have it stolen. [Russ. Lit.: Gogol The Overcoat in Magill II, 790]
  2. Angstrom, Harry Rabbit former basketball star frustrated by demands of adult life. [Am. Lit.: Rabbit, Run, Magill IV, 10421044]
  3. Barataria dishes removed before Sancho tasted them. [Span. Lit.: Don Quixote ]
  4. Bundren, Addie family continually thwarted in 9-day attempt to bury her. [Am. Lit.: As I Lay Dying ]
  5. Catch-22 Air Force captains appeal to be grounded for insanity not granted because desire to avoid combat proves sanity. [Am. Lit.: Joseph Heller Catch-22 ]
  6. coyote foiled in attempts to enjoy prey. [Am. Ind. Folklore: Mercatante, 7778]
  7. Henderson the Rain King characters frustration shown by his continually saying, I want, I want. [Am. Lit.: Henderson the Rain King ]
  8. Joseph K accused of a mysterious crime, fails in his attempts to seek exoneration, and is executed. [Ger. Lit.: Kafka The Trial ]
  9. K . continually hindered from gaining entrance to mysterious castle. [Ger. Lit.: The Castle ]
  10. Old Mother Hubbard foiled at all attempts to care for dog. [Nurs. Rhyme: Baring-Gould, 111113]
  11. Raven, The answer for quests of longing: Nevermore. [Am. Lit.: The Raven in Hart, 656]
  12. Sharpless frustrated in attempt to prepare Cio-Cio-San for disappointment. [Ital. Opera: Puccini, Madame Butterfly, Westerman, 358]
  13. Sisyphus man condemned to roll up a hill a huge stone which always rolls back before he gets it to the top. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1006]
  14. Tantalus condemned in Hades to thirst after receding water. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1062]
  15. Three Sisters, The sisters live dull, provincial lives, yearning to return to the gay life of Moscow. [Russ. Drama: Benét, 1005]
  16. Watty, Mr. bankrupt; waits years for court action. [Br. Lit.: Pickwick Papers ]
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In the law of contracts, the destruction of the value of the performance that has been bargained for by the promisor as a result of a supervening event.

Frustration of purpose has the effect of discharging the promisor from his or her obligation to perform, in spite of the fact that performance by the promisee is possible, since the purpose for which the contract was entered into has been destroyed. For example, an individual reserves a hall for a wedding. In the event that the wedding is called off, the value of the agreement would be destroyed. Even though the promisee could still literally perform the obligation by reserving and providing the hall for the wedding, the purpose for which the contract was entered into was defeated. Apart from a nonrefundable deposit fee, the promisor is ordinarily discharged from any contractual duty to rent the hall.

In order for frustration to be used as a defense for nonperformance, the value of the anticipated counter performance must have been substantially destroyed and the frustrating occurrence must have been beyond the contemplation of the parties at the time the agreement was made.

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frustration The motivational state which results when the consequences of behaviour are less satisfying than previous experience had led an animal to expect. Often it leads to more determined attempts to obtain satisfaction, but it may lead to irrelevant behaviour or redirected behaviour (e.g. if a foe runs away, the remaining combatant may attack a tussock of grass or another inanimate object).

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frustration The motivational state which results when the consequences of behaviour are less satisfying than previous experience had led an animal to expect. Often it leads to more determined attempts to obtain satisfaction, but it may lead to irrelevant behaviour.