Do you feel more tightly strung lately?  Do you find yourself being less patient than usual?  How long is your fuse when you feel that slow, incompetent, uncaring people and/or situations block you?  Patience may be a virtue, but does impatience also have an upside?

Over the past months we have been called on to be patient as we have waited for the outcome of the election, the availability of a safe and effective vaccine, the ability to emerge from social isolation.  As the pandemic drags on and economic, political, and social stresses rise, I’ve been hearing from more and more people that their patience is being tried.  Those who admit to having limited patience in the best of times describe “losing it” more often these days, and even those who pride themselves on their ability to remain patient express greater impatience.  And some people have even questioned the efficacy of patience – they argue that excess patience leads to inaction.

So, what makes you impatient?  Is it long lines at the grocery store (or waiting to get into Costco)?  Is it the extended hold time when you want to speak to customer service representative?  Do you get steamed when your partner is late getting ready or the computer takes forever to reboot?  Is getting stuck in traffic your hot button?  Or are you stressed by having to wait for test results from the doctor or to hear about your job or a promotion?  Or do you lose it when someone (a co-worker or family member) is unable to grasp something that you see as simple, no matter how many times you explain it to them?

According to research by psychologist Sarah Schnitker, there are three main sources of impatience:

  • Interpersonal Impatience with other people, their demands, and their failings. People exhibiting this variety of impatience may consider some people to be slow learners, hard to understand, or unreasonable, or feel that others have bad habits that drive them crazy.  Losing patience in these cases is not likely to be of any benefit, and may make matters worse.  Cultivating patience in these kinds of situations is an active process:  listening skills and empathy are vital.  Interpersonal impatience can be overcome by increasing self-awareness and developing emotional intelligence in order to understand how one’s words and actions affect the situation.
  • Life Hardship Impatience brought about by a serious setback in life (waiting for the long-term outcome of a lawsuit or medical treatment) or the need to work toward a long-term goal (professional or personal) in the face of prolonged obstacles – like what so many of us are experiencing during the current pandemic. Managing impatience in such cases requires determination,  perseverance and focus.  The challenge is keeping emotions that can lead to demotivation such as eagerness to get done or anger at frustrations under control throughout the journey.
  • Daily Hassles Impatience that arises from circumstances beyond one’s control. Responding to “life hassles” calls for the ability to maintain self-discipline.  Research suggests that people who can stay calm in the face of these constant petty frustrations are more likely to be more empathic, equitable and suffer less from depression.

Regularly becoming impatient with colleagues, family members or yourself is both counterproductive (it is detrimental to positive relationships) and can be injurious to one’s own mental and physical health.

Patience is actually a developed skill – we are not born with it!  Think about a hungry infant, red-faced and shrieking, his/her little body rigid, impatiently demanding immediate satisfaction.  Like any skill, developing patience requires practice.  We need to pay attention to what is happening around us and to us when we are not patient, and to cut ourselves slack when we are not already adept at it.  It is helpful to train ourselves to respond with patience to little pains and irritations so that when the big ones arise we will have developed the “patience muscle” we need to cope with real adversity.

Building the “Patience Muscle”

Here are some strategies for managing the symptoms of impatience and for building the “patience muscle.”  It may even be helpful to put ourselves in situations that typically try our patience – and to experiment with some of the following strategies to keep calm and patient.  Figure out your triggers.  What are the things that trigger your loss of patience  (a co-worker does something irritating?  Spouse leaves dishes in sink? A child doesn’t clean up mess?)  Focus on things that occur most frequently and look for a trigger that only induces mild impatience – not something that gets your blood boiling.  Once this is under control use what you learned to focus on the next trigger.  Keep practicing.  Think of each situation as an opportunity to practice patience.  Like any skill, practice is what it takes to become more patient.  Remember that change takes time!

Practice Mindfulness

One can’t really practice patience without mindfulness – being aware of the situation and your reaction to it.

 Recognize the physical signs of impatience, irritability, or anger.  There is a mind-body connection, and our physical responses often precede our emotional ones.  In her article in Jane Bolton (Psychology Today) notes that emotions such as anger, irritation, blaming and shaming often begin with slight discomfort and tensing in stomach area or shoulders.  Sometimes, though, we do not pay attention to the onset of the pain or irritation – or what is going on when it appears.  It can be helpful to get curious about what is happening inside you and to focus on what external events or situation is related to these sensations.

Notice what’s making you feel impatient and ask yourself:  Do I have control over the situation?  If not, what do I have control over in this moment?  Is the feeling of impatience helping or exacerbating the impact of the situation?  What emotion or mood would be more helpful, instead of impatience?

Understand the addictive nature of anger, irritation, outrage.  The reptilian part of our brain is programmed to assure our physical and emotional survival.  Our emotional survival side is designed to help us get our way and achieve our goals, look good.  And these feelings are self-reinforcing.  So when we start feeling  discomfort and tensing in stomach area (which we interpret as “things are not going our way”)  we tend to create story line:  “I have never seen such incompetence…how could they…don’t they realize…did they do it on purpose or are they just stupid…”   The main point is to stop the story!  If we attend to our internal vulnerability rather than fueling it with our story about how wrong it all is, how wrong they are, how wrong we are,  we can regain control of the situation and move forward in a positive manner.

Be intentional.  Spend a few minutes in the morning thinking about the importance of being patient at home and in the workplace and how this can affect your day.  Set an intention of patience.

Use visualization to prepare yourself for situations that you know may cause impatience.  This works best if you do it before a frustrating situation comes up.  When you are alone and in a quiet place, visualize how you want to react the next time the trigger happens.  How do you handle the situation? How do you look?  What do you say?  How does the other person react?  How does it help your relationship, your life?  Visualize the perfect situation and then try to make it happen when the situation comes up.

Manage the Physical Symptoms of Impatience

Take deep slow breaths and count to 10.  This will slow your heart rate, relax your body, and distance you emotionally from the situation.  Repeat.

Impatience can cause you to tense muscles involuntarily, so consciously focus on relaxing.  Force yourself to slow down (speak, move more slowly).  In addition to changing your internal state, this will cause you to appear calm to others.  Acting patient makes you more patient.  (You have choice about how you react).

Challenge your Negative Assumptions

Reframe the circumstances in a more positive light.   Take the perspective of others:  Practice empathy to defuse impatience.  Think about other plausible causes of the frustrating situation.

Get Some Perspective About the Situation

Accept that some situations ARE stressful and difficult.  Consider taking time away from a project or task that causes you to feel impatient to work on something else for a while.

You may need to become more conscious of your own abilities and limitations.  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that something makes you uncomfortable and reflecting on whether you can tolerate the discomfort.  This may be an opportunity to challenge your “growing edge” and ask for assistance or admit that things are not going as you planned.

The past months have underscored the fact that there are some things beyond our control, and reinforced the need to work within the constraints of the situation and even find “silver linings” and discover our hidden strengths.  Realize you cannot change people or some situations, you can change your reaction to them.  Wait before reacting.

Communicate Your Feelings to Others

When impatience is directed toward others (especially family members, partners, colleagues) it can be beneficial to share your feelings with them, in a non-judgmental way.  Just as it is important to understand and acknowledge their perspectives, sharing your feelings and your understanding of why you react/behave as you do can lay the groundwork for productive conversation about how you might work together in mutually beneficial ways.  Be motivated by finding effective outcomes, not assigning blame or punishment.

Striking a Balance Between Patience and Impatience.

Impatience is not always bad.  It can serve us well at times by motivating us to positive action, to advance new ideas, to cut through red-tape or bring about positive change that has been stymied by inertia.  But too much impatience can lead to rash decisions with negative consequences just as excessive patience can waste stretches of life pursuing wrong goals.  On one side are rocks, on the other side a vortex – and we must guide our ship of life between the two.

People fall on the spectrum between impatient and patient.  Some are consistently more impatient than they should be, becoming visibly more agitated than others in face of unexpected delays.  They are more like to abandon an existing course of action for a new plan.  But some are overly patient – sticking to existing courses long after it makes sense to do so.  Some people are too impatient at some times, and too patient at others.  It can be argued that on balance, impatience is more rewarded today than 50 years ago – but at the cost of greater agitation and more irrational choices.

Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life.  It is based on the idea that by cultivating inner virtues (middot), we improve ourselves.  In this view, human traits exist on a continuum, in this case:  Passivity – Patience – Alacrity – Impatience.  The goal is to find one’s appropriate balance on the spectrum – neither leaning toward impatience which can be a short step to rage nor succumbing to passivity.