Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How to Manage Diminishing Tolerance

How expectation affects our ability to tolerate frustration.

Photo: Esparta
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Every year around December, my in-laws, who live in the north, do what thousands of other people do: move to a warmer climate (in their case, Florida). And though for years I never thought I would do the same, recently the idea has begun to appeal to me. I'm finding for the first time that my tolerance for cold weather is decreasing. I grew up in Chicago, where the brutality of the winters is matched only by its dwellers' ability to handle them, and for decades I counted myself among those who were indifferent to the wind and the cold. But no longer.

Of course, I don't mean my physical tolerance has declined. I don't find 32ºF colder than I once did. But my willingness to endure it? It's now a fraction of what it used to be. And it's not just the cold. It's all things unpleasant to which I'm repetitively exposed: temper tantrums, rudeness, anger, over-entitlement, and so on. Though research shows we habituate to events both good and bad over time, it also shows one thing to which we don't habituate is pain. And though I couldn't find any studies to prove it, I've observed that our tolerance for at least one kind of pain actually declines over time: frustration.

Or perhaps I should say our willingness to tolerate frustration. It's as if we have only certain reserves of tolerance for frustrating or annoying things that can and do regularly get used up. Further, we seem to have both short-term and long-term reserves that get used up at different rates. Sometimes my tolerance for something is exhausted by the end of the day only to be replenished by the next morning. But if I'm exposed to that something for too many days, weeks, or months, I begin waking up with no tolerance for it at all. I posted recently about using the strategy of gratitude to manage the frustration that others often cause us, but even that strategy's effectiveness may diminish as our tolerance diminishes with time.

Though I have no evidence to support it, I have a theory about why this happens: our tolerance is at least partially affected by our expectations. If we expect something frustrating or annoying to continue to frustrate or annoy us, we can prepare for it and therefore more easily tolerate it. But if we can't predict the date by which it will cease or at least begin to improve, we can't gauge how long we need to tolerate it and therefore can't ration our reserves of tolerance. And when we can't match our tolerance to our level of frustration or annoyance, we begin to resent being frustrated or annoyed. We soon stop being willing to accept that our frustration or annoyance will continue and begin to expect it to end. And when we expect to end and it doesn't, our ability to continue tolerating it diminishes dramatically.

We must, therefore, think carefully about how we allow our expectations to change. For example, I find I can more easily manage the frustration I feel over my son's (mercifully rare) temper tantrums by purposely overestimating when I think I'll have seen the last of them (I'm currently telling myself eighteen). Of course, this may be easier to do with some things than others. For example, frustrating or annoying things about relationships may not have expected end dates at all and may be things we've simply decided to accept about our friends, partners, or employers. We lose our cool over these things mostly when we transiently start expecting them to change even when we know intellectually they almost certainly never will (like our boss's tendency to micromanage us or our friend's constant need for validation). Of course, we can always quit our job or end a friendship to escape the frustration inherent in staying in them. On the other hand, few worthwhile things in life don't also at times frustrate or annoy us. When we want something good, we must invariably accept something bad along with it. Learning tolerance for frustration is clearly a necessary ingredient for an enjoyable life.

Even so, as we age we seem to desire life to get easier. The longer we work at anything, the less we seem to want to continue to have to. Sometimes the only answer to this apparently inevitable decreasing tolerance for frustration or annoyance is to make a change: to actually move to Florida in the winter, or to actually find another job or even sometimes another spouse. But when you can't, or when you consider the cost of such a change too high, you need to find a way to look at old circumstances with a fresh eye. To find new value in what you've been doing or in the relationship you've been having. For the best way to replenish our ability to tolerate frustration, besides finding gratitude for that which frustrates us, may actually be to focus on a new frustration to tolerate.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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