“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.”
I used to say, “Patience is a virtue I don’t have.” So, of course, that is how I lived my life. Hurried, exasperated, impatient, and stressed out.
Not only was I a creating a world where I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off—because everything had to be done now, and anything that got in the way of that had to be removed immediately—but I was creating this world for those around me.
My children often bore the brunt of my impatience. If they didn’t get dressed fast enough, or show up at the dinner table as soon as I called them, or get into the car when it was time to go, they met my wrath. And, I had a wicked tongue.
I was constantly haranguing them to stop “being lazy,” “quit dawdling,” etc. Somehow, their lack of speed equated into being lazy or “less than.” Where did I pick up such a mentality?
Do you find yourself constantly speeding to work, rushing through the grocery store, and generally snapping at people who can’t keep up? How does this make you feel inside?
For me, it made me feel wound up like a tight ball. I felt a constant sense of anxiety. And, it didn’t make me feel good about myself—certainly my best self was not shining. Mostly, it made me feel chronically stressed out.
Researchers have recently been able to prove through MRI scans of peoples’ brains under stress that stress causes certain areas of the brain to shut off. This means there is less activity in the brain—which leads to a depressed brain. This also leads to an angry brain because there is less neurological activity happening to process things that are going on in your day-to-day life. It’s like a traffic jam in your brain happens because you don’t have enough snowplows to clear the road.
This frustration can lead to a trigger-happy mouth—one that blurts out frustrations and snaps angrily at people. Because, the brain is thinking so hard, it hurts!
This used to be my life: constant impatience and its ensuing anxiety > chronically stressed brain > chronic depression > inner rage and anger.
The thing with not having any patience is it clouds your entire life. You are so busy rushing from one thing to the next, expecting immediate gratification, that you are often not only disappointed but also emotionally and physically depleted.
What happens when you yell at your children to hurry up? You’re met with resistance, that’s what happens. They yell back—more stress. Or, they go even slower!
Does this resolve the issue in the end? No. It only makes matters worse. And, what was the issue in the end? I believe the issue was you had an attitude problem.
The attitude is this: I have so much to do I can’t possibly get everything done in the day. So, I must rush about doing everything so I can make good progress on my to-do list. If someone or something impedes my progress on my to-do list, I get angry because I can’t possibly get everything done.
Sounds like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? The thing with being impatient is it is intimately tied to the judgmental and critical sides of ourselves. This is because whatever is happening in the moment is deemed not good enough in some way shape or form.
In this case, it’s not happening fast enough. The moment and what’s happening in it has been judged! And it has been criticized.
Once this occurs, suddenly you find yourself trying to control the situation and making it happen faster. When this doesn’t work—for example, if the person in front of you is driving really slowly—you get angry, which causes your cortisol stress levels to rise. And, we all know stress isn’t good for us.
So, how do you stop this vicious cycle and where do you find patience? I was at a loss, myself. I didn’t even realize I had a patience problem, because I was telling myself the story that I didn’t have any patience to begin with. From this point of view, why bother since I didn’t have any?
Well, we believe what we tell ourselves, and if I keep saying I don’t have any patience, well then I won’t.
The first thing I needed to do was look at the story I was telling myself and change it. I began by saying to myself, “Patience is a virtue I practice daily.” It was a way to shift my mindset. Maybe I couldn’t jump straight to “I am the world’s most patient person” immediately. So, I found a middle group that shifted my old thinking into a different kind of habit.
I had to write this down. And, whenever I found myself a) telling myself I am not patient or b) in a situation where I was feeling impatient and starting to get frustrated, I’d repeat the mantra “Patience is a virtue I practice daily.” Thus, I could accept the situation as a learning experience for practicing the virtue of patience.
The other thing about patience is it allows you to slooooow down and actually experience the world. I used to be so concerned about getting to the next wherever I was going—finish a project at work, order off the menu, find a parking spot—that I never actually lived.
I mean, I certainly wasn’t paying attention to where I was in the moment, or even being in the moment. I was too busy focusing on something else. It’s like I was not living at all. I was simply doing.
There is a huge difference between doing and living. Many of us wind up confusing the two. This is especially true in western cultures, where output of an action, product, or thing is given so much value. It seems it is given much more value than say, actually sitting there in the parking lot waiting for the person to pull out and enjoying the moment—like noticing the birds chirping in the trees, or the sun in the sky.
Sometimes we need to realize we have a patience problem and challenge the assumptions that got us there in the first place. Otherwise, we live a lesser life. We live a life in constant stress, we act a diminished version of ourselves, and most importantly, we don’t actually live and enjoy our lives.
Here’s an exercise for you to try:
What is the story you tell yourself about how patient you are? If you realize you say to yourself you’re the most patient person in the world, that’s wonderful! If you realize you often tell yourself you’re not patient at all, then consider a different statement you could be telling yourself instead.
One of the other stories I used to tell myself that was absolutely sabotaging was “I don’t have time for this.” I would think I had to hurry to make the yellow light, because I don’t have time to wait at the red light. So, I’d rush ahead.
I used to say “I don’t have time for this” when a slow person was entering a store, so I’d rudely rush right past them instead of even considering if there was a way I could help them.
Or, I’d say I don’t have time to make small talk with my colleagues in a meeting and would just focus on the work at hand. Needless to say, this didn’t help me develop strong bonds with people if I didn’t have time to talk with them and learn something about their day or what’s going on in their life.
I realized after a while that I had a patience problem. The way I realized this was because I was so stressed and anxious all the time. And, I was constantly angry. This is not an enjoyable way to live your life.
So, one day I did a thought experience on that “I don’t have time for this” story I was always telling myself. When I was sitting at a light saying I don’t have time for this, I replied back to myself “Yes, you do have time for this.” And so it went all day. Every day.
I challenged that story I was telling myself and I rebutted it. You know what happened? One day I found out all that time I was trying to save in a day by rushing around everywhere, maybe added up to ten whole minutes at the of the day.
Was all that angst to get it done so quickly or all that pressure I put on other people worth a whole extra ten minutes? Who even notices an extra ten minutes in the day? Nobody. That’s who. So, what exactly was all this getting me for being so impatient and driving so fast and furious? Nothing. Well, actually it was getting me miserable, that’s what.
Now, when I’m feeling a little impatient I realize I actually do have time for it. And, this makes me calm and relaxed instead.
It’s okay if I didn’t make the light and have to wait at it for a minute. I have time for this. It’s okay if my kids arrive at the dinner table when they get there. I have time for this. It’s okay if I spend some time to connect with my co-workers before we begin the meeting. I have time for this. In fact, I have an embarrassment of riches of time! And so do you.
The last thing I’ll talk about here is a little exercise that I like to do to bring myself off the ledge whenever I am having “a moment.” It’s called count backward from five.
I know most people have heard of just count to ten if you’re upset about something and that will help. I never did find that very helpful. It was like I was just counting up on my frustration! Then, one day I learned the count backward from five technique. Just start counting: five – four – three – two – one.
It has a strange calming effect. It is as if whatever it is that is bothering you is dissipating as you count backward. Usually, when I start counting backward from five I notice even by the time I get to three that something has lifted. I feel a shift in my agitation. By the time I get to one, I’m kind of over it. Try it. You may find it really helps you get through a moment.
In the end, learning how to change your story and your habits when it comes to patience will help you heal from unnecessary anxiety and stress in your life. Will life still be stressful? Sure. But, at least you aren’t inflicting more of it on yourself with a patience problem.
Surprisingly, when I learned to finally create healthy habits around patience, I began to get a lot better at compassion too. That’s because compassion requires patience.
That crying child that you wish would stop? Having patience with that and slooowing down enough, makes you pause just enough to consider this child is in pain or frightened. You’ll realize you were once a child and when you felt pain or were frightened, you wished for comfort.
Maybe instead of scowling at the child wishing they would shut up, you smile at them instead and say, “It will be okay.” In a way, you are also saying this to your inner child in some small fashion. It will be okay and you are okay.