How To Manage Diminishing Tolerance

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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 it, 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.

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  • For years, when dealing with unpleasantness circumstances, I tried to live by a maxim, “If you can’t change your situation, change your attitude. If you can’t change your attitude, change your situation.” Now that I’m old, I find I have both less ability and fewer options to change either one.

  • With age, we are supposed to be (according to some though I doubt it is/should be across-the-board) older and WISER which hopefully gets us a modicum of success.

    Whether it does or not is an individual question and in any case subject to rebuttal/debate.

    Anyway to make a long story short (not something I’m famous for BTW) on this and/or that it is society who has a decreasing tolerance of US as in me n. you.

    Which is just another nail in our coffin. I’m afraid I have failed miserably in adjusting to this bit of knowledge.

  • A child loves winter in ways adults don’t: put on my snowsuit and go out and play in the wonderful white stuff, for example.

  • Your ideas resonate with me. I’m thinking of my elderly mother and her friends who so annoyed me with their gossip and unkind, judgmental remarks about people. Often I reminded myself that I would only be subjecting my ears to this for a couple of years, at most.

    I also discovered the value in finding ways to quickly turn around icky statements instead of getting so irritated. “So did you ever wear anything that shocked older people?” “What’s the best thing a stranger ever did to help you?” “What was your favorite music when you were a teen?” “I like that purple. What’s your favorite color?”

    I’ll add that I thought chronic pain (at some level) made these people more grouchy at all times. Their days were about fighting their pain by being verbally assaulting. (And if I had to live in Chicago winters, I wonder if I’ve just described the behavior I’d exhibit.)

  • I can’t underscore the importance of setting expectations. It always, always helps to manage the irritation/frustration. So I totally agree with your strategy. The only issue is that it is incredibly hard to tell yourself to temper your expectations.

    And, oh, yes. With age, tolerance ceases to be a word in our dictionary!

  • Boy, did I need this today. I am presently leaving my home in northern WI to spend four days a week in Chicago, each week, with my aging mother who is gradually slipping into dementia. I am giving myself pep talks regularly to be patient. As a retired middle school teacher I have deep reservoirs of tolerance, but this is the most challenging think I’ve ever done. I’d love to see more columns on dealing with dementia from the caretaker’s perspective.

  • To put it simply, you’re saying if we are stuck, we should try and rotate the things that frustrate us, so as not to get too frustrated with the current frustrating thing?

    How frustrating…

    Ariel: Yeah…


  • I’ve never been a patient person, so I don’t have much to say about tolerance in general. However, as I get older, I do let a lot more things go that used to irritate me. Something about aging gives you more perspective—you realize that in the larger scheme of things many formerly irritating things really aren’t very significant and not worth even thinking about. Wouldn’t this act against the tendency you’re describing?

    Nomi: I think what you say is true. But I also find my tolerance for things that still irritate me has diminished.


  • One of the hardest aspects of getting older, for me, is that all the coping skills one acquires end up dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of things one must learn to accept, or “tolerate.” The longer you live and the broader your experiences, the greater the chance that frustrations/irritations will increase!

    It sometimes seems—from a totally unscientific perspective—that the people who have an easier time of it are those who cultivate a vague or forgetful nature. Kind of like what some folks say is necessary for a successful marriage. You remember the positives and let the negatives fall into oblivion.

    Those of us who try to pay attention (be mindful) can get tangled up in the distinctions between what can be changed and what ought to be changed, what can be changed but should be tolerated, what ought to be changed but cannot be, etc. I do, at any rate. In other words, what becomes troublesome are questions relating to agency. (When do you fight like a lion? When do you realize the fight is pointless? When do you conclude that endurance has more lessons to teach you than either fighting or escape?)

    Another side of this is that what you need to support yourself as the burdens of life increase can change. I lived in a basement studio apartment with bugs and mice when I was nineteen and it didn’t seem so bad. I was looking forward to better things in the future. Forty years later, the prospect of a “better future” is not there to carry us over whatever our present frustrations might be. Partly because we have already turned our possibilities into history and partly because we have become more discerning about the lasting effects of the “supports” that are available to us. Maybe you have to move to a warmer place in the winter because a cup of hot cocoa in your mom’s warm kitchen just doesn’t have the effect it once did.

    What does work for me pretty reliably, however, is knowing that some folks appreciate how hard life can be. Thanks for that, Alex.

    rdp: Great comment, thanks.


  • My grandmother called that “getting on my last nerve.” Change is required. These essays have been so amazing.

  • Alex,

    Marvelous essay. I agree with your suggestion that we must “think carefully about how we allow our expectations to change.” It is an effective way to come to terms with and to manage the tradeoffs we once made that may no longer seem worth the cost.

    Also, examining one’s diminishing tolerance for anything may require leaning into “the awareness that something in one’s perception or preference has altered” and viewing the awareness as this glorious challenge: to do the work of deconstructing, as best we are able, the frustration so we can consider whether or not we are truly singularly frustrated about that “one” trigger, or if there are compounding factors. A creative solution that didn’t seem visible may then begin to take form as compounding factors emerge; it may no longer then be about “managing” the frustration but rather “taking action to remove” the frustration. My move from Washington, D.C. to sunny Long Beach, Calif. (after having lived in ten other states), makes me so grateful I finally got here. I wholeheartedly suggest you seriously consider that move to a more hospitable climate asap! You too may find your writing becomes even more pleasurable as the temps rise and the palm trees sway.


  • Lack of tolerance for winter has more than just the chill to be irritated about. There is the bother of heavy coats, hauling on boots (bad backs/achy knees), the slip factor (falling and # fears), cardiac problems (shoveling/clearing off the car). It is a chore to get outside. Add the risk and fear of driving—I’m surprised any of us are left in the north! It’s a lot of work!

    It seems as we age some things are just not worth that amount of work anymore.

    Heavy use of distraction helps me—if the pain in my neck bothers me too much, I ignore it and start to pay attention more to my back pain! 🙂

    My 94-year-old mum has been my “testing ground” for patience, tolerance, frustration and any other words you can think of. I have learned that with her and any situation that gives me irritating, agitated restlessness (which makes me short-tempered) I just excuse myself and take a quick break. My bathroom breaks or “just taking a peek at the weather” might become legendary!

    I have convinced myself that the things that are really REALLY worth arguing about, I will argue, if not—I walk….

    absolutely NOT>>> that getting older makers one wiser. Pppfffttt.

  • Patricia, I sympathize with you. I have been in a similar situation with my elderly sister for 10 or 15 years. After years of traveling from Illinois to North Carolina several times a year, I moved her to live with me a year and a half ago. She is 96 and has a mild vascular dementia that will only get worse.

    I have found the New York Times blog “The New Old Age: Caring and Coping” a helpful resource. If you aren’t already familiar with it, I suggest you give it a look. You can read it online. Jane Gross, who started the blog, also wrote a book about her experiences with her mother during her mother’s final years: “A Bitter-Sweet Season /Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves.” It might be useful to you

    Caring for my sister has been a major source of frustration. I know it won’t go on forever, but I’m 80, and she is using up most (all?) of my remaining active years. I have followed Alex’s earlier advice and reminded myself of the many things she did for me that enriched my life. And I find it helpful to touch her physically and tell her I love her when she is doing something annoying (needing to use the bathroom—again!—when I’m in the middle of something I don’t want to interrupt; moving at a snail’s pace when I’m in a hurry; spitting in her wastebasket; telling me some story—again!—when I don’t have time to listen, etc, etc. etc.) It reminds me that I do love her when I’m feeling otherwise.

  • I like this and agree. The romance of late night calving and colics wore off and the phone became very irritating even though if it didn’t ring you didn’t eat. I got rid of the problem by quitting and retiring. Great solution. Hope you can try it some day.

    As for the cold, try long johns. Worked for me. I used think grandpa was wimpy but later decided he was smart.

  • Alex, a wonderful piece of thinking and writing again. Thanks. I enjoy reading and thinking through your essays, whenever I find a quiet moment, which is not all that often.

    Although I am at a different stage in life than some of the other commentators, I feel I can relate and emphathize—my kids are entering their teens (son 13, daughter 10) and I find myself every day gathering the last shreds of my patience and keep being the “reasonable adult.” I feel that patience is a skill and can be trained, but a growing age certainly does not help. I vividly remember my parents telling me for the umpteenth time to turn down the volume of my talk, and my bewilderment because I felt I was talking as loudly/quietly as everybody else. What a contrast to today when I return home longing for a moment of silence only to be hit by a barrage of happy/angry shrieks, yapping and other annoying noise produced by my kids!

    I’m gradually becoming more of a practicing Buddhist and it helps a lot—the loving kindness meditations, the constant self-reminding that I don’t have to listen to and obey what my mind makes me feel, think and do … What also helps is the instruction I often hear in the Buddhist podcasts that I listen to—to stay with the present moment.

    And finally, a piece of crazy advice concerning the cold and its annoying effects. I live in the temperate climate of the Czech Republic and our winters vary from mild (with temperatures around zero degrees Celsius) to harsh (with temperatures reaching -30 degrees Celsius). This had led to the emergence of a unique and crazy kind of sportsmen/women—people who swim in the open all year round. We have a special word for them “otuzilci” but I haven’t found an English equivalent yet. The closest would be “cold-endurance swimmers.” They swim in lakes and rivers and as those freeze as winter progresses, they gradually converge to rivers with dams. These never freeze.

    And last autumn, I joined their ranks. I like to swim and there is no pool around where I live, but there is a river. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it has considerable benefits. And one of the benefits of this activity is that you become inured to cold. As I found out last winter, I no longer suffered any nasty colds, and snow and cold have become only mild annoyances. You have to start in summer, swimming regularly in some outdoor water reservoir. And as the weather gets colder, your organism gets used to the cold water, and sooner or later you’ll find out, Alex, that cold is no longer a problem for you 🙂

    Ondrej: I thought you were going to translate “otuzilci” as “crazy people.” 😉 Thanks for the suggestion!


  • Hi Alex,

    As my name suggests I do a lot of web surfing and can be considered to be addicted. There is a great amount of dross and garbage out there, but every once in a while I strike a diamond. Your website site is one of those rare diamonds, I am so fortunate I chanced upon it. Thank you deeply and keep up the good work.

    Now for frustration…I have been cowed by this emotion most of my 52 years and am yet to find any form of solution. An opportunity arose 17 years ago for me to move from the city to a regional town of about 100,000 people. I grabbed it with both hands as traffic was one of the main bug bears in my life. I found life moved slower and calmer in the country which was great, but then I found that traffic moved slower as well (when there was no need to!). It frustrates me so much when on a dual lane road posted at 70 kph in perfect weather people are driving at 50 kph…parallel in both lanes!…and you can’t get past them!
    People said to me I would get used to it, but here it is 17 years later and frustration is eating me up alive.

    Meditation hasn’t really helped, probably because I was too impatient to get results in a hurry.

    Is it time I went down the medical drugs path I wonder.

    Webwanderer: So glad you like my blog. Glad you have you here.


  • I’m struggling with younger people at work. It is a small office of 5 people. My frustration is the lack of office etiquette—loud phone conversations to the point I can’t hear my own conversation; foul or crude language; even bathroom etiquette. If you say something to someone, they don’t speak to you—freeze you out of all conversations. I have walked out several times because of the frustration, but at my age and with this economy it would be difficult to find another job. Also, I love the actual work aspect of my job—I just can’t focus well on it.
    Any suggestions?

  • Hi Erica,

    What you are experiencing is called mobbing—which is what happens when a majority in a team bully a minority (of one in your case). I feel your pain, I have been there before, and there is no easy way out of your situation. I have seen people complain to superiors in such circumstances—and it leads only to more aggression because it is the weapon of last resort and it only makes the conflict more acute.

    In my experience, there are only two good ways out. And neither is easy. One is to find a new job no matter what. The other is to find ways to harden against/block out what bothers you. For instance take an mp3 player/smartphone full of music and a good headset and you won’t hear anything that bothers you. And if you use a smartphone with a speaker/headphone set you are OK even when you make your phone calls 🙂

    And there is one more way—the most difficult one—if you meditate long enough, you’ll come to understand that you are not your mind (sounds crazy but makes sense if you understand the Buddhist view) and this will allow you to sympathize with the hardship your mind is going through … and you will no longer feel under direct attack. (I, for one, ain’t “there” yet either but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel …)

  • “The longer we work at anything, the less we seem to want to continue to have to.”

    True in a lot of circumstances, but having goals, sub goals and planning ahead for being able to take a break, a timeout is super important for staying motivated, be it work or family.

    In my experience, stress and badly defined goals in life leads to a lot of frustration.

  • Hi Alex,

    When you mentioned your son, I am reminded of my own son who is nine years old. Mornings he’s not too good at staying on task so we have to rush to get him ready for school. I used to constantly scold him about it. But then I realised what he really wanted was to amuse me and make me laugh. Scolding him made him unhappy because he failed to entertain me. I had failed to be present in the moment with him. So I wake him up a little earlier in the morning to give him a little time to be ‘off task.’ We’re both in a better mood and we both appreciate each other more—and he stays on task better.

  • I have ZERO tolerance for a stupid drugged-out wannabee who hides behind some sort of device. Can’t smile back, be nice, talk with intelligence, keep your distance, we will be fine.

    Buyer Beware: Jobs, People and life long friends. Also the occasional former “fair-weather” friend or just the town idiot.

    Again. Buyer Beware! Cause I’m 42 and tired of 20-somethings who don’t even know how to carry a human emotion without being so disrespectful to people who know more than you and lived through life experience. And have a conversation without a technological device. WTF?