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French: frustration


The English term "frustration" came into increasing prominence in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory in the 1950s, together with a shift in emphasis from the Oedipal triangle to the mother-child relation.

Biological Need

In this context, frustration was generally understood as the act whereby the mother denies the child the object which would satisfy one of his biological needs. To frustrate a child in this way was thought by some analysts to be a major factor in the aetiology of neurosis.

Sigmund Freud


"Frustration" is also the term which the Standard Edition uses to translate Freud's term Versagung. While this term is not extremely prominent in Freud's work, it does form part of his theoretical vocabulary. At a first glance, indeed, it may appear that Freud discusses frustration in the way described above. For example he certainly attributes to frustration an impor­tant place in the aetiology of symptoms, stating that "it was a frustration that made the patient ill."[1]

Jacques Lacan

Hence when Lacan argues that the term "frustration" is "quite simply absent from Freud's work,"[2] what he means is that the Freudian concept of Versagung does not correspond to the concept of frustration as described in the above paragraph. Lacan argues that those who have theorized the concept of frustration in this way have, by deviating from Freud's work, led psychoanalytic theory into a series of impasses.[3] Thus in the seminar of 1956-7 he seeks a way of reformulating the concept in accordance with the logic of Freudian theory.

"Lack of Object"

Lacan begins by classifying frustration as one of the three types of "lack of object," distinct from both castration and privation.

Demand for Love

Although he concedes that frustration is at the heart of the primary relations between mother and child,[4] he argues that frustration does not concern biological needs but the demand for love. This is not to say that frustration has nothing to do with a real object capable of satisfying a need (e.g. a breast, or a feeding bottle); on the contrary, such an object is certainly involved, at least at first.[5]

Symbolic Function

However, what is important is that the real function of this object (to satisfy a need, such as hunger) is soon completely overshadowed by its symbolic function, namely, the fact that it functions as a symbol of the mother's love.[6] The object is thus valued more for being a symbolic gift than for its capacity to satisfy a need.

Legal Order

As a gift, it is inscribed in the symbolic network of laws which regulate the circuit of exchanges, and thus seen as something to which the subject has a legitimate claim.[7] Frustration, properly speaking, can only occur in the context of this legal order, and thus when the object which the infant demands is not provided, one can only speak of frustration when the infant senses that it has been wronged.[8] In such a case, when the object is eventually provided, the sense of wrong (of broken promises, of love withheld) persists in the child, who then consoles himself for this by enjoying the sensations which follow the satisfaction of the original need.

Refusal of Love

Thus, far from frustration involving the failure to satisfy a biological need, it often involves precisely the opposite; a biological need is satisfied as a vain attempt to compensate for the true frustration, which is the refusal of love.

Psychoanalytic Treatment

Frustration plays an important role in psychoanalytic treatment. Freud noted that, to the extent that distressing symptoms disappear as the treat­ment progresses, the patient's motivation to continue the treatment tends to diminish accordingly. In order, therefore, to avoid the risk of the patient losing motivation altogether and breaking off the treatment prematurely, Freud recommended that the analyst must "re-instate [the patient's suffer­ing] elsewhere in the form of some appreciable privation."[9]

This technical advice is generally known as the rule of abstinence, and implies that the analyst must continually frustrate the patient by refusing to gratify his demands for love. In this way, "the patient's need and longing should be allowed to persist in her, in order to serve as forces impelling her to do work and to make changes."[10]

Jacques Lacan

While Lacan agrees with Freud that the analyst must not gratify the analysand's demands for love, he argues that this act of frustration is not to be seen as an end in itself. Rather, frustration must be seen simply as a means to enable the signifiers of previous demands to appear.

"The analyst is he who supports the demand, not, as has been said, to frustrate the subject, but in order to allow the signifiers in which his frustration is bound up to reappear."[11]

The aim of the analyst is, by supporting the analysand's demands in a state of frustration, to go beyond demand and cause the analysand's desire to appear.[12]


Lacan differs from Freud in the way he theorizes the rule of abstinence. For Freud, the rule of abstinence primarily concerned the analysand's abstinence from sexual activity; if a patient implores the analyst to make love to her, the analyst must frustrate her by refusing to do so. While Lacan agrees with this advice, he stresses that there is a much more common demand that the analyst can also frustrate -- the analysand's demand for a reply. The analysand expects the analyst to follow the rules of everyday conversation. By refusing to follow these rules -- remaining silent when the analysand asks a question, or taking the analysand's words in a way other than that in which they were intended -- the analyst has a powerful means at his disposal for frustrating the analysand.


There is another way that the analyst frustrates the analysand which Lacan mentions in 1961. This is the analyst's refusal to give the signal of anxiety to the analysand - -the absence of anxiety in the analyst at all times, even when the analysand demands that the analyst experience anxiety. Lacan suggests that this may be the most fruitful of all forms of frustration in psychoanalytic treatment.

See Also