Self-Denial: An Exercise in Tolerating Frustration

Self-Denial: An Exercise in Tolerating Frustration
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 16 January, 2023

It might seem strange to talk about self-denial in a world devoted to immediate gratification. Moreover, you might wonder what the point is of voluntarily limiting or depriving yourself of pleasure. After all, isn’t the goal to avoid any discomfort instead of looking for it?

However, stoics believe that self-denial makes a great deal of sense. Stoicism is a philosophical doctrine that promotes tolerance and self-control as ways of achieving a pleasant and balanced life. Self-denial would be one way of achieving these laudable goals.

Stoics believe that one of the keys to happiness is moderation. They also argue that this premise leads to virtue and that virtue makes life happier. They claim that excess is the source of pain. Moreover, they point out that self-denial helps us achieve the kind of moderation and virtue we need to live well.

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?”

-Seneca-

man thinking
Depriving yourself of certain pleasures encourages self-control.

Self-denial

Self-denial consists of imposing some type of restriction on yourself. It could mean consciously putting yourself through a demanding situation or difficult experience. People who participate in certain kinds of reality shows where their access to resources is restricted could be said to be practicing self-denial.

The old Stoic thinkers, like the famous philosopher Seneca, recommended reserving certain moments for facing uncomfortable experiences. For instance, eating an unpalatable dish, walking barefoot, sleeping on a hard bed, or wearing rough clothes. So, what was their aim?

They claimed it was a way of training in the unpopular art of knowing how to avoid discomfort. Many times, throughout your life, you have to go through difficult situations. The better you’re able to tolerate shortcomings and frustrations, the better equipped you’ll be to manage these situations smoothly. Moreover, you won’t have to suffer too much.

Experiencing self-denial

Self-denial not only allows you to prepare yourself to face demanding situations but also helps you to identify and value the resources you have at your disposal in your daily life. Consequently, it’s a practice that makes you more realistic, prudent, and cautious.

There are two ways of carrying out this practice. The first is in deliberately putting yourself through uncomfortable experiences. The second lies in periodically renouncing the experience of pleasure. In neither case, should you carry out any heroic actions but merely some simple daily procedures.

Here are some recommended uncomfortable experiences:

  • Not immediately covering up when you feel cold.
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Waking up earlier than usual, even if you feel tired.
  • Eating or drinking something unpleasant, especially if it’s nutritious.
  • Showering in cold water.

Of course, you must always carry these practices out on a reasonable basis. You shouldn’t ever put your health or well-being at risk. If you want to practice self-denial in respect of the restriction of pleasure, you could try the following:

  • Turn off your cell phone for a day.
  • Fast.
  • Go out without paying any attention to your personal appearance.
  • Skip wine or coffee at dinner.
  • Stop smoking for a few hours or days.
  • Refrain from indulging in a trivial, but enjoyable activity.
Woman turning off the mobile
Self-denial trains us to tolerate frustration.

Frustration tolerance

At the end of the day, self-denial is a way of training your frustration tolerance. This is the ability to adequately manage difficult or extremely demanding situations. It means not letting yourself be carried away by feelings of despondency or anxiety or a lack of confidence. In fact, it’s a characteristic closely associated with resilience.

We all need to develop some margin of tolerance for frustration. After all, throughout our lives, we all experience certain desires that’ll never materialize. We also make mistakes and often face restrictions.

Self-denial is a way of increasing your tolerance to frustration. Although subjecting yourself to deficiencies or discomforts is unpleasant, in the long run, it helps you suffer less and enjoy more of what you have. Therefore, it’s well worth carrying it out in a moderate way, just as the Stoics advised.

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