Why we tolerate more than we should and how attention bias stops us from changing for the better!

When things become ordinary, no matter how uncomfortable they are, we simply adapt to tolerate them. So what happens when you decide enough is enough?

Have you ever felt yourself frustrated by something only to shrug your shoulders and resign yourself to the idea that that’s just how it is?

Even when we shouldn’t, human beings tolerate a lot!

The funny thing is, we simply don’t realise how much we allow to happen to us even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Just think about the people that live near a highway or train line as an example. If that level of noise is something you just couldn’t bare, have a chat to someone that does live there. You’ll be amazed to discover that not only do they no longer hear the noise but if they were to move somewhere quieter, they’d convince themselves that they actually missed it!

In feeling helpless and unable to change the physical situation, we’re left in control of only one thing – how we perceive it. This psychological recalibration is the result of a necessary attention bias. Unable to influence the outcome, if we constantly dwelled on how frustrating/annoying/infuriating something is, it would drive us mad and we’d never get anything done. And so, because it becomes something that we’re continuously exposed to, we start to reduce the amount of attention it gets until it’s simply a normal part of life.

This seems almost fine if we leave it with the above example. But what about the following:

  • continued weight gain leading to obesity
  • staying in unhealthy relationships

And it’s not just in our personal lives that we do it either. Tolerating things just because it’s how they’ve always been is a serious problem in work environments as well.

Here are just a few examples:

  • having a bully (boss or colleague) who berates and criticises people
  • following processes at work that are inefficient, time consuming and annoying
  • staying in a team or company that doesn’t support, nurture or invest in you
  • having one person dominate conversation in a team so other ideas are not heard
  • accepting the gender pay gap or progress limitations because of the company/industry you’re in

The problem is that because it’s not something BIG, something attention grabbing, unusual and unexpected, it simply doesn’t stick in your mind the same way as a monumental life event might. Whether something exciting and new (ie a new baby, wedding, graduation) or absolutely horrifying and shocking (ie 9/11, a tsunami), these unexpected events stay salient in your mind for that much longer because they’re so out of the ordinary and so demand much more attention and desire to do something to change the outcome.

The reality is, we don’t often change unless we’re forced to. There’s a reason that we see familiarity as being so comfortable. It’s a survival mechanism where your brain knows what to expect and so doesn’t need to worry about unforeseen dangers. For this reason, in order to move, you often need something more enticing that you see as being worth the risk of venturing into the unknown. Either it’s gotten to the point where anything is better than the crap you’ve tolerated until now or there’s something you want more than the level of comfort you’ve received in exchange for tolerating that crap.

So how do you change things when you’ve gotten so used to having them in your life?

Firstly, you need to choose not to tolerate the behaviour any longer.

In order to do this, there are three simple things you need to work out:

1. Why have you put up with it for so long to begin with?

  • Was it necessity (ie you had to meet basic survival needs and this was the only way to do it)?
  • Was it fear (of the unknown, of losing part of your identity or something to hide behind)?
  • Was it another narrative


2. What’s different now?

  • Is it something that you genuinely don’t mind living with or can you not stand it any longer?
  • Is there something or someone more important to you that makes you want and need to change?

3.  How you might be able to change the situation?

  • What ways did you try to change the situation before?
  • Is there something you didn’t consider last time or something that may work now because circumstances have changed (ie there’s a new boss, you have more money/access to help and support)?
  • Can you physically change your environment so that the problem is no longer there?

So whether you’re battling a health problem like obesity/diabetes, a toxic work environment or unhealthy relationship, take a step back and look at it objectively. Just because you’re used to it, doesn’t mean you deserve to suffer. The ultimate question is whether you think you deserve to suffer or whether you think you deserve something more.

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