Developing and Improving Tolerance

See also: Developing Resilience

Tolerance is defined as being able to deal with, put up with or accept the opinions and actions of others, even if you find them unpleasant or annoying. Tolerant people are able to either accept others’ opinions, or disagree with others politely, and in a way that doesn’t offend anyone or lead to any difficulties.

Anecdotally at least, we are all becoming less tolerant of differences in opinions. The social media ‘echo chamber’ has been blamed for our opinions becoming more polarised over time. It is, therefore, important to learn to listen to others, and understand that there are many points of view, and that differences of opinion are not necessarily bad.

The Importance of Tolerance

Tolerance—the ability to endure other people or situations that you find annoying, irritating or downright unpleasant—is a crucial part of living and interacting with others.

Inevitably in this life, there will be people or situations that you find irritating or unpleasant. However, very little will be improved if you are unpleasant in return. Instead, the wheels of social interaction are oiled by people who are tolerant. These people are able to accept others as they are, rather than as they ‘should’ be.

For these people, tolerance is about them, not other people.

In showing tolerance, they may be practising patience, or showing good humour: both long recognised as virtues. Tolerance is also a form of resilience, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity.

Of course there are situations when tolerance is not correct (see box). However, for most situations, it is the right approach, and should be cultivated.

When should you NOT show tolerance?

Aristotle said that people who are good-tempered—that is, who cultivate an even temper and are easy to get on with—should nonetheless be ready to show ‘righteous anger’. In other words, they should be angry at the right things, and at the right times. There is, therefore, a time and a place for tolerance.

For example, it is neither necessary nor desirable to tolerate bigotry or discrimination—either against you, or anyone else.

There is more about Aristotle’s advice on this subject in our page on Being Good Tempered.

Developing Tolerance

There are several steps to developing tolerance. They generally involve changing how you think about people and situations.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The first step is to recognise that if someone annoys you, that is your problem, not theirs.

Nobody should be expected to change how they behave, or what they believe, just because it annoys you. You have no control over them.

However, you do have control over yourself and how you feel. Use that control to master yourself. There is more about this in our pages on Emotional Intelligence, and especially the pages on Self-Regulation.

You may also like our page on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which offers strategies for changing how you feel in particular circumstances.

It is also important to examine why you are annoyed or irritated.

Self-awareness is another important element of emotional intelligence. In this case, it is about more than recognising your emotions. You also need to consider and understand why you feel that way.

For example:

  • Are you irritated because you would like to behave like that, but don’t feel able to do so for some reason?

  • Has your flow been interrupted?

  • Do you feel that this person has (incorrectly) taken the focus off you/turned it onto you for some reason?

  • Are you just hungry, or otherwise cross with the world?

Looking at the reasons why you are annoyed—and this needs to go deeper than just ‘because they are so annoying’—is key to making the right response. If the other person is being biased or intolerant themselves, then it is reasonable to be at least a little angry. However, if you are just hungry, it’s time to get something to eat, and stop being unreasonably cross with everyone and everything. Sometimes, it really isn’t them, it’s you.

If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole.

Raylen Givens, in Justified, written by Elmore Leonard.

Everything is Temporary

The next step is to remember that everything, even annoyances, are temporary.

Almost nothing lasts forever. Even a really annoying colleague or coworker will not be in your life forever. An irritating relative is probably only visiting for a while. Your friend may be going through trying times which is making them more focused on themselves than usual.

We live in a life in which change is fundamental, and usually imminent.

It is therefore helpful to cultivate your awareness of this. Focusing on the temporary nature of the situation can make it easier to manage. One way in which you can do this is by practising mindfulness.

Mindfulness is, fundamentally, awareness of the moment as it happens.

It can therefore be thought of as the ability to live in the moment. It is useful as a way of developing tolerance because it helps you to appreciate the temporary nature of most situations.

Some people recommend meditation as a way to build your mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation can help you to develop a stronger awareness of the moment, which can in turn help you to become more tolerant of minor irritations. There is more about this in our page on Mindfulness.

You may also find it useful to try some relaxation techniques, such as those described in our page Learning to Relax.

You’re probably annoying too…

We’d all like to think of ourselves as beacons of light and popularity, the kind of person who is never annoying or irritating.

However, realistically, we all know that’s not really true.

When you are annoyed by someone else, it is helpful to remember that you too can be annoying. Indeed, the person who is annoying you may well be finding you annoying right now.

Take a moment to stop being irritated and simply smile and apologise for your bad temper. You never know, it might even improve the situation…

Sometimes You Just Have to Accept Things…

Finally, it is worth saying that sometimes you just have to accept that things are annoying—and that this is the very definition of tolerance.

Sometimes there is absolutely nothing that you can do about the situation, the person, or how you feel. It is, or they are, simply annoying to you.

You will know that you have reached a high level of tolerance when you can simply shrug and say ‘Oh well…’ when something happens. You may also find that this is easier to do on some days than others. It is, however, what you are aiming to achieve.