Tolerance and Acceptance: What is The Difference?

By Lisa Ernst

Tolerance – the willingness to endure, to put up with
Acceptance – the action of consenting to receive something offered

What is the difference between acceptance and tolerance? Sometimes the line is blurred. We may think we’re accepting an experience, a feeling, a pattern or cluster of persistent thoughts when we’re actually only tolerating them. Knowing the difference is essential in our practice if we want to reduce our suffering.

In his beautiful poem “The Guest House,” Rumi encourages us to welcome and entertain all of the visitors that come our way. The visitors are metaphors for what arises in our experience: joy, depression, meanness, even a crowd of sorrows. At times we will struggle to welcome them all with open arms and that’s ok. Sometimes we can only muster tolerance. When we know the difference, we can navigate our challenges more skillfully.

Staying with the guest analogy, imagine a relative is visiting over the holidays. Someone you tolerate yet you always feel relieved when they leave. Let’s say this year your relative is in the midst of a messy divorce and asks to extend their stay. Compelled by compassion, you agree. But accommodating this guest is challenging and after several weeks your tolerance is stretched thin. You do your best to extend patience and conceal your internal strain. But gradually this arrangement presses you down, it has weight. This “pressing down” is the entomology of depression. Tolerance of the unpleasant, when extended for long periods and not met with awareness, often leads to depression.

I suffered with untreated clinical depression for many years. Unconsciously, I developed tolerance for grief and loneliness while my truest, most intimate experience of depression went unexamined. I lived with it like a guest who overstays their welcome. I mistook this tolerant attitude for acceptance rather than recognizing my resistance. Like the guest overstaying their welcome, I said, “I will tolerate you for a while because I expect you to leave.” But when the guest didn’t leave the depression grew deeper along with hopelessness and uncertainly.

Gradually, though my dharma practice I came to know the depression experientially, how it showed up in my body and thoughts. I also learned how to hold it in loving, compassionate awareness. Though this intimacy, space opened that allowed me to find my way through depression’s dark tunnel.

Intimacy is quite difference from tolerance. When people say to me that they are “with” their suffering, often they are just tolerating it. Yes, they definitely feel it, but still kept it at arms length, held only in truce. When they practice tolerance only in order to feel better, the visitor won’t budge. Prolonged tolerance leads to inaction, resentment or abrupt anger. True acceptance, on the other hand, paves the way for skillful action. This is what many people overlook – they believe acceptance is resignation or passivity. But authentic acceptance opens our heart to what is true and this clarity reveals a wise path.

Engaging your visitors with awareness, knowing them intimately is the acceptance that brings peace. You may need time and patience but gradually the sense of self entangled in the depression begins to lighten up and even dissolve.

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.