The Power of Patience ~ The Emotions Series
“Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.”
There’s an emotion that can make big changes in your life. It’s the emotion that many people I work with identify as the most desirable – in themselves – and in others. This emotion doesn’t have the transcendent quality of awe and wonder – it works more quietly to soothe your anxiety and help you to see yourself and your surroundings with more clarity. It’s the mouse that roars. Yes, it’s patience.
Before I make my pitch for more patience in your life, let me offer you some bona fides on my journey to developing more patience in mine. If you tend towards more impatience, like me, you probably noticed these energies in yourself as a child.
Are you familiar with the marshmallow test, (a study where children were asked to delay their gratification by giving them a choice – one marshmallow now or two if you wait)? The study, which measures and predicts self-control, is important because it alerts us to our natural tendencies towards patience or impatience. I imagine I would have been the kind of kid who not only ate the first marshmallow but went outside to get the teacher to give me a reason why I couldn’t have them both right now!
Patience, famously described as “virtuous,” is both an emotion and a skill. Our impatience is usually triggered by external stimuli that is outside of our control. Some of these “triggers” are classics: long lines, traffic jams, airline delays, unresponsive customer service – all very “first world,” issues.
If you experience impatience, perhaps even chronic impatience, you have your own list of items that trigger you. It’s wise to know what they are (this can be a long list) and to understand what you do when your buttons get pushed.
The reality is that very few of us aren’t impatient – the question is what do we do when that happens. Like all emotional triggers, there are usually behavioral outcomes, often unhelpful. It comes down to self-control and a term I like much more – self- mastery. Writing in INC magazine, John Baldoni explains, “Patience unfairly is perceived as a passive act. In reality, as we know from the Buddhist tradition, it is all about self-mastery, and that requires absolute control over one’s thoughts, words and deeds.”
While few of us are able to master absolute self-control, we can do more to be less reactive. Baldoni accurately points to a common perception of patience as soft or even, weak. This is not uncommon in cultures that tend towards aggression. In fact, it takes great self-awareness and skill to choose patience over irritation or frustration when faced with our idiosyncratic emotional triggers.
Impatience, like many other emotions, becomes habituated. Our repeated responses to external (and internal) stimuli become our default neural networks when we get triggered. When things are not going the way we want, or expect, our thoughts signal our brain to activate a particular emotional response. This often precipitates limbic arousal which can, unchecked, escalate into anger. In other words, impatience can become a very slippery slope.
What’s Helped Me to Cultivate Greater Patience
I’ve been impressed by many teachings along the way that have supported me in developing patience – Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron is one such helper. Pema has written about the continuum of impatience, anger and aggression. Pema believes that patience de-escalates aggression which she equates to a form of pain. “In some sense this would apply to any strong feeling that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution.”
Pema gives an example of being very angry at a colleague (she can’t remember why – and isn’t that often the case in our own experience?) Despite her considerable skills at meditation and self-awareness she found herself calling him in the middle of the night to air her grievances (impatience and anger sometimes can’t wait) understandably triggering his concern. Chodron reflects on the experience, “That’s what its like with aggression; you can’t speak because everyone will feel the vibes. No matter what is coming out of your mouth, it’s like you are sitting on key of dynamite and vibrating.”
Patience, especially in the grip of a triggered “emotional hijacking,” requires self-restraint. But as Pema points out, it also requires complete and total self-honesty about what you are feeling. “Patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don’t feed your discursive thought, you can be honest about the fact that you are angry. But at the same time, you can continue to let go of your internal dialogue.”
Our impatience may seem to be about the little things: bad service or a co-worker who speaks in a way that pushes our “hot buttons” but impatience is always about our frustration with limited control. Although impatience seems to be a “now” experience, typically we are in the future (how long till I get what I want?) or the past (this always happens to me).
With so much buzz about mindfulness these days, it‘s important to remember that when we are impatient we step out of the present moment. Mindfulness – which is a state of objective, nonjudgmental and nonattached awareness – is the polar opposite of impatience. It allows a more expansive range of emotional choices to respond to any external stimulus. While impatience closes us down, limits our perspective and options, patience opens the field of awareness and possibility
The Gifts of Patience
I started this article with a confession. Patience has always been a challenge for me. While there are so many incentives for cultivating greater patience, here are some of the benefits I experience:
- Peacefulness. What once seemed elusive, captured mostly in rare moments and long vacations, peace is now a daily gift.
- Greater Clarity. Impatience robs attention, focus and perspective
- Becoming a better listener. This merits an article on its own, because impatience with others, their habits, style, wants and needs triggers enormous impatience for people. It also blocks listening, which means we’re less inclined to allow ourselves to get to know others more deeply
- Easier on myself and others. There’s a direct correlation here – the nicer and easier I am on myself – the more I extend this to others. I haven’t taken a survey, but I am sure this makes being with me more pleasant.
- Greater Kindness – Being kinder to everyone is a big incentive to my practicing patience. The more impatient I am – the less kind I seem to be. Care and consideration for others goes hand-in-hand with increased patience.
Impatience is a form of chaos we bring upon ourselves. No matter which child you were in the marshmallow study, impatience does not have to rule your responses to life’s inevitable challenges. Everything you want is on the other side of impatience: peace, calmness, rest and equanimity. Every time you practice the act of patience, you relinquish your attempt to grasp what you can’t control. Paul Wilson, author of Finding the Quiet expresses this eloquently, “Whenever you try to exert control over the natural ebb and flow of life, you end up either frustrated or disappointed – because it can’t be controlled. Whenever you apply effort to trying to relax and slow down, you produce the opposite effect.”
And so it is.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants