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What's your level of tolerance?

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Today I am looking at levels of tolerance. As human beings we can get quite upset when others do not act as we expect them to. Let me give you an example of an everyday situation.

Imagine that you are sitting in your newly set up home office. The desk is yours to use. It is completely clear apart from a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

You sit down and set up your laptop.

You get a phone call and open the drawer to find a note pad and pen; you get these out and write your note. After the call you make a few more notes, pull the pages off the pad and then look in the drawer to find a stapler to fix them together.

Your partner walks by and drops a couple of pieces of post on the desk. You open them; one is a bank statement, the other some sales material. You ball up the envelopes and sales flier and aim for the bin. One goes in, the others miss by miles, but you decide you will deal with those later.

You decide that a drink and snack are in order and so get up to fetch some, on your way past you pick up the two balls of paper thrown earlier and try again, another one on target, great, but the second hits the lip and fall behind the bin, you keep walking, focused on your refreshments.

You sit back down, drink in one hand and muesli bar in the other. It does not take long to finish the drink and you place the glass on the corner of the desk, you take a bite of the muesli bar just as your phone rings again. You put the muesli bar down on the desk, dislodging a few crumbs in the process.

During the day you have also added a couple of books, pencils and numerous post it notes to your work area. You are ready to shut up shop for the day, what do you do?

A) Nothing, you will be back tomorrow

B) Pick up the bank statement and empty glass, and tidy away the crumbs from your muesli bar

C) File away the bank statement, align the books, pens and other items so they look neat and tidy, then pick up the empty glass and tidy away the crumbs

D) Put everything away leaving things as clear as they started

You may find that you would do a part of the above, or a slight variation of them, and that is fine, as this is not a test. A few of you will still be wondering about that piece of paper on the floor!

What I would like you to notice is that none of the above indicates that the actions are carried out with the intention of annoying someone else, because they are not.

If you are a D type person then living with an A type person can cause stress and tension, especially if you have already pointed out, numerous times, that such behaviour is not acceptable. The problem is, is that an A type person does not see the problem, even if they do tidy things up a bit in response to your comments, next time it will be the same. They are not responding to the messy desk problem (to them it is not messy), they are responding to the demanding person problem.

It takes a conscious effort to change your levels of tolerance, if you do live with someone with different tolerance levels it takes a certain discipline to stop and look at the desk, not as you would usually, but as you think they will. An A type person who pushes themselves to step B, is making an effort, but possibly not a big enough one for person D. When their attempt at additional action is met with further demands, they wonder why they bothered, as ‘nothing I do is good enough.’

The suggestion may be to leave things to make a point, but this does not usually work. If you are comfortable leaving a used cup on your desk, then you may be comfortable leaving two or three. We do not always know our own limits until we reach them. If you are a coffee mug collector, your limit may only be reached once you can get no more on your desk, or find no more in the cupboard.

Remember most people’s levels are not specifically set to annoy another, though if there have been snide comments, instructional notes left, or a feeling of being judged, people can feel justified in holding out to make their own point.

Person D can see the benefits of knowing where things are, it makes sense to have things neat and tidy. You are unlikely to ever convince them to just walk away and not worry about it, they can’t. They may be able to cope with level C, with only a slight twitch, but are unlikely to be able to stop themselves ‘interfering’ if the level is any lower.

So you have a choice:

  1. Live with your own discomfort for a while, hoping the other person’s level is not so different from yours.

  2. Take action, if it is a cosmetic issue then deal with it, with the understanding that you will always be dealing with it from now until eternity.

  3. Have a conversation, discuss what the issue is for you, try and gain an agreement on a new level.

    1. Changing a person’s level of normal is possible but requires work and consistency. The purpose for the change has to be accepted and acknowledged for the effort to be given to it.

    2. We are all unique and it is not until we accept that that effort is required from both sides, that any lasting changes will be made.

If you do not think this affects you? Let me tell you a real story.

On return from work one day the person coming through the door was met by a basket full of washing in the hallway. They looked at it, and stepped over it, continuing their journey to the couch and a break from the day. Their partner, who was in the kitchen preparing tea, looked up and said “Did you not see the washing by the door?”

“Yes I did, otherwise I would have fallen over it.”


“And what?”

“Are you going to hang it out then?”

“Are you asking if I would be happy to hang out the washing, of course, now I know that is what you would like me to do with it.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t know that!”

“When I got home, I was not thinking about washing, it was not on my radar, I had not put a load on this morning and I did not know who had put it there or their plans for it.”

“I would have thought it was obvious that a basket of wet washing would need hanging up.”

“That may be obvious, but who was expected to do it, and when, not so much. If you want me to help, I am happy to do so, but I am afraid you may have to ask.”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“Maybe not, but if you don’t then you are likely to continue to be disappointed, I can guarantee you that I am not setting out to do that, but as my level of tolerance for things being out of place is higher than yours, it will happen again.”

At any point this conversation could have turned into a real argument.

“Are you really that stupid?”

“Do you think it is my job to do everything?”

“I can't talk to you when you are like this, I'm going out!”

Fortunately I understand myself, and my husband pretty well and didn’t let it go there. In case you were wondering, I’m the one who ignored the washing!

Next time you are disappointed by another person, reassess the situation, try and look at things through their eyes, does their level cause a health and safety hazard? or does it just not meet your level?

The former will need some work from both of you, the latter probably just needs a request from you to make your needs clear, or for you to shut the door and walk away.

You may find your levels are pretty close for most things, but for others they are wide apart, only you can decide how much tolerance discomfort you can live with. Being aware of it is a really good start.

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