Tolerance: a fine art

Tolerating others’ behaviour involves endurance, but also the ability to self-manage. Photo by Crystal Kwok on Unsplash

Tolerance is the ability to endure dissatisfaction without negative reaction.  If we could endure it when other people did not do what we hoped, then we would not need tolerance.  Equally, if we were free of negative reaction, we would also not need tolerance.

Being tolerant is, therefore, a two-stage process.  Firstly, we need to improve our powers of endurance when others do not do what we wish.  And secondly, we need to improve our ability to manage our anger, fear, hostility – whatever we want to call our negative reactions to others.


Endurance mustn’t be confused with assent.  We can endure some really horrible behaviour from others, without agreeing with that behaviour.  We might choose, in the moment, not to confront them… but this does not mean that we are condoning what they are doing.  We retain our moral freedom, even if we are able to endure others’ negative actions.  We do not need to be always reprimanding foolishnesswherever we see it.  That might turn us into insufferable prigs.

How do we improve our endurance?  Exposure can be a good lesson.  Many children with awfully-behaved parents, grow up to be lovely, tolerant adults.  This is because they have had an excellent training in how to live with awful behaviour!  They went on a survival course – ‘How to Live with Dreadful Behaviour’ – and survived.  Everything that happens to us, even the irritating stuff, is a call to learn.  By being mindful when we encounter annoyance and disturbance, we can develop our ability to tolerate it.


If we can endure bad behaviour and bad experiences, then we are well on the way to tolerance.  But what if our endurance isn’t up to scratch?  What if we still feel acutely irritated when others behave a certain way?

Our second layer of tolerance, is our ability to self-manage.  Plenty of parents have to do this all the time.  A child may push and push, seeking out the boundaries of a parent’s tolerance.  When something finally breaks, the parent has to find a way of behaving which manages the somewhat explosive feelings that have arisen.  Parents who can’t manage this become cruel and abusive.  Parents who can manage this, can sublimate their awkward feelings into some action that lets off steam in a harmless way.

We are like pressure cookers.  Irritation is like the steam, and self-management is like the valve.  Both are part of a fully working pressure cooker.


Tolerance is a two-stage process.

Firstly, there is endurance.  We can learn to endure other people’s awful behaviour, for longer and longer times, without having an ‘allergic’ reaction in our bodies.  We are not condoning others’ bad behaviour – we are just learning not to let it bother us.

Secondly, there is self-management.  If we do have an ‘allergic’ reaction to another’s behaviour, then we find a way of behaving that converts that allergic reaction into something manageable and harmless.  That way, we break the chain reaction so common to bad situations.

If you are tolerant, you are like a pressure cooker.  Not only are you are strong enough to handle the pressure; but you also have a good valve to help you let off steam if you need to, without causing harm.