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How To Learn Patience In Life

This Simple, 3-Word Mantra Is Helping Me Figure It Out

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What's the rush?
What's the rush?

We rush for no reason. Or at least I do. It seems to be ingrained in us, as if there’s a shared sense of pride associated with being over-scheduled and over-committed. Like having too many (now, digital) social engagements automatically means that you are fulfilled by your relationships or having way too much work to do automatically means that you are important in your job. And with a packed schedule comes many moments of impatience and frustration when things do not go as planned.

That’s why I wanted to explore this idea of how to learn patience in life. I struggle with patience a lot. It’s one of those things that I’m prepared to talk about in an interview when asked, “Can you tell us about one of your biggest weaknesses?” Because I want to achieve a lot in my life. They say you can’t have it all — happy relationship, strong friendships, good job, financial security, health and hobbies — but I’m motivated to try, for better or worse. And with time as my only true constraint, I’m constantly iterating on the number of hours in a week I give to the pursuit of each of these goals.

This balance is far from perfect, evidenced by the fact that I’m overcome by fits of impatient rage on a semi-regular basis. The rage is almost always disproportionate to the event it’s been triggered by. If you knew me, it would probably surprise you to learn that I struggle with anger at times. It’s not an emotion that I characterize myself by, but as master meditator Mary Maddux, MS, HTP, says, “Anger is a natural flow of life’s energy.” We all experience it, because it actually helps us at times.

I’ve been blessed to live a life relatively anger-free life (anxiety and insecurity, sure, but little anger), so I’m pretty new to dealing with it. In most situations, anger is a direct result of my impatience at something, so that’s my starting point for working through this uncomfortable feeling.

How to Learn Patience in Life

When I originally wrote this piece, I was sitting in a rerouted Uber because I had just arrived at the wrong location for a company volunteer event (completely my fault), for which I was already 10 minutes late. By the time I reached my final destination, I was going to be a full 30 minutes late.

This sort of thing would normally cause me to seethe, say mean words to myself, and break out in hives. The perfect trifecta of anger, anxiety and self-destructiveness. And while my mantra does not completely dissipate these feelings, it’s a fair reality check.

Before we get to the mantra, it’s important to first have a sense for what patience is and why it’s important for us to practice.

What is Patience?

To me, patience is a sense of calm about the passage of time. It’s that intrinsic feeling that everything is going to work out over time. In the dictionary, patience is defined as:

“The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.”

Tolerance and self-restraint are two of the word’s synonyms. To have patience is in direct contrast to the concept of instant gratification, which we in the technological age are so familiar with.

What Patience Is Not

Note that there is a difference between being impatient and being respectful of people’s time. If you’re overly relaxed about arriving most places 30 minutes late, it does not signal that you are a lovely and patient person. I personally find that to be a troublesome indication of selfishness or simple lack of thoughtfulness.

Being considerate is a value that I personally hold in high regard, so my desire to be respectful of other people’s time or my commitments to them can lead to an amount of impatience on my end. I will get frustrated when obstacles impede my ability to be considerate of others. I view this impatience as healthy and necessary.

Signs of Impatience

As a general rule of thumb, it’s good to be able to recognize any emotion that comes your way. For me, impatience looks like a sudden shift in mood to pure anger. My muscles tense and I actually have a hard time controlling my impulse to utter profanities. It’s crazy how linked my sense of impatience is to my anger.

But it turns out I’m not alone. Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that impatience is characterized by:

“The sense that you should be able to go ahead of someone or that your needs should be put first in any situation. You get pushy and think that you have more rights than others.”

It bothers me how profoundly self-centered the feeling of impatience is. It surely comes from some ego-driven belief that the world should revolve around me and if it dare impede on my plans, I shall be angry. I guess the joke’s on me, because the world doesn’t care if I’m mad.

Here’s another compelling look at the actual functional signs of impatience, courtesy of Jim Stone Ph.D.:

We suffer impatience when 1) we have a goal, 2) we have accepted certain costs (including opportunity costs) for reaching the goal, 3) we learn that it’s going to cost us more than we thought to reach the goal, and 4) we start looking for ways to avoid having to pay those extra costs.”

So if we apply this to a pandemic-friendly scenario, we suffer impatience when we 1) want to get back to the office to see our coworkers and establish a sense of rhythm in our daily lives and 2) we think it will take approximately one year of pandemic life to get back to normal, but 3) we learn it’s going to take at least 1.5 years, maybe even 2 years, to get back to work at our offices, so 4) you question the authority and competency of the local officials making these decisions in hopes that they’ll be reversed.

Basically, you know you’re at risk of impatience (and subsequent anger) when you have a goal that ends up taking more time to achieve than you’d planned for.

Why Practice Patience? The Benefits

Why should you want to learn how to have patience in life? Isn’t it kind of a useless function in today’s world of instant gratification? Well, I think the ties between impatience, anger and stress are really compelling. In fact, a 2007 study by Fuller Theological Seminary professor Sarah A. Schnitker and UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, found that:

“Patient people tend to experience less depression and negative emotions, perhaps because they can cope better with upsetting or stressful situations. They also rate themselves as more mindful and feel more gratitude, more connection to mankind and to the universe, and a greater sense of abundance.”

Also, the Buddha practiced patience, and he is an icon for all mindful humans to strive toward.

My Mantra For Patience

Ok, here it is. It’s this simple — my new mantra is:

“What’s the rush?”

Seriously, who is riding your coattails to make sure that you show up to that meeting on time? Is it possible that you are the only one who cares this much about you showing up right on time?

It is possible, but only after a little self-interrogation. What’s the rush?

This new mantra is something I’m repeating daily. To remember, I have it written down on sticky notes at my desk at home and work. Keep in mind that habit change — including mental habit change — does not come overnight. It requires consistent repetition to form a new pathway in the brain.

Scenarios In Which This Mantra Works Well

This mantra can work well both when you’re experiencing acute impatience or when you’re feeling frustrated by the pace of your life in general. Here are just a couple of my regular sources of annoyance that I’m trying to apply the mantra to:

  1. Sitting in an Uber or on the bus in stop-and-go traffic while anxiously trying to make it to an appointment or flight.
  2. Stuck walking behind a slow person on the street on my way home.
  3. When only 20 people read a blog post I spent hours working on (!!).  
  4. Petty disputes with friends or family that aren’t even worth arguing over, but it’s the principle of the matter!
  5. Legitimate disputes with folks who see reality differently than myself, whether personal, professional or political.
  6. When the date for reopening schools or restaurants or offices keeps getting pushed back, due to the pandemic.

It works for existential matters, as well. For example, as an individual in their mid-twenties, I’m thinking about age 30 as a clear deadline to have a lot of stuff figured out. But truly, what’s the rush? I have something like 70 more years of life after that to also figure stuff out!

You Don’t Have To Be Controlled By Your Impatience

I returned to this post after the volunteer event mentioned at the beginning. No one cared even a little bit that I was late, and I was able to quickly get into the volunteering spirit upon arrival, because I hadn’t beaten myself up about my lateness. Instead, I remembered my new mantra and practiced repeating it until I calmed down.

Again, I am a very impatient person. That impatience leads me to a ton of unwelcome, unhelpful anger. Part of being mindful is recognizing uncomfortable thought patterns and taking action to break the cycle. For me, that looks like adding “What’s the rush?” to my mantra lineup, and it seems to be helping.

Do you have any tips for overcoming impatience? Is it a mantra, a philosophical position, or simple awareness meditation that helps? I’m still traveling this road, so any signposts would be helpful.

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