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Frustration is, preeminently, the realm of the demand or claim, except that there can never be any possibility of obtaining satisfaction. Indeed, in the case of frustration the lack takes the form of imaginary harm. The object of the frustration, however, is itself entirely real. The penis is the prototype of such an object, and it is certainly with frustration that the little girl ex-periences its absence. More generally, the child experiences the mother's lack of a penis as a frustration.

In privation, on the other hand, it is the lack that is real. Lacan designates this type of lack as a hole in the real. But the object of privation is a symbolic object.

Finally, in castration, the lack involved is symbolic, since it concerns the incest taboo, the symbolic reference par excellence. It is this that makes the paternal function operative in governing the child's access to the symbolic order. The lack signified by castration is above all, as Lacan puts it, a symbolic debt. But in castration the object that is lacking is radically imaginary and can never be a real object. This imaginary object of castration is, of course, the phallus.

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 you—castration 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.


Frustration is generally understood as the act whereby the mother denies the child the object which would satisfy its biological needs.

Freud attributes to frustration an important place in the aetiology of symptoms, stating that "it was a frustration that made the patient ill."[1]


Lacan classifies frustration as one of three types of "lack of object," distinct from both castration and privation.

Lacan argues that frustration is at the heart of the dual relation between the mother ad child.[2]

Lacan argues that frustration does not concern biological needs but the demand for love.

The function of an object (to satisfy a need, such as hunger) (e.g. a breast) is soon completely overshadowed by its symbolic function, namely, the fact that it functions as a symbol of the mother's love.[3]

The object is thus valued more for being a symbolic gift than for its capacity to satisfy a need.

As a gift, it is inscribed in the [[symbolic[[[ network of laws which regulate the circulate of exchanges, and thus seen as something to which the subject has a legitimate claim.[4]

Frustration, properly speaking, can only occur in the context of this legal order, and thus whne the object which the infant demands is not provided, one can only speak of frustration when the infant senses that it has been wronged.[5]

In such a case, when the object is eventually provided, the sense of wrong persists in the child, who then consoles himself for this by enjoying the sensations which follow the satisfaction of the original need.

(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.)


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."[6]

See Also


  • 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.
  • 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.