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Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Four Steps to Developing Patience

How to decrease impatience — also known as the happiness killer.

This post is the second part of a two-part series about patience. The first post is, Is Your Relationship A Curse or Curriculum?

So, what's the purpose of cultivating patience in yourself? In a word, happiness: better relationships, more success. Well worth the effort, I'd say. But effort, indeed, it takes.

We can all work to develop more patience. An important idea here is that developing patience is just that. Developing a skill. We aren't born with it. Think of a hungry infant, shrieking with all its red-faced, rigid-bodied impatient demand for satisfaction.

After all, we can't just sit down at a piano and play it without ever learning to play and practicing, practicing, practicing. That practicing includes 1) paying attention to when we are not patient, 2) being kind to ourselves for not being "perfect" already, and 3) changing the automatic judgmental, critical thoughts and feelings.

Most people who are patience "professionals" recommend that we train ourselves to work with little pains and irritations so that when the big ones come, we will have developed the patience we need for adversity. Many patience-train themselves with experiences of bites and stings, rashes, heat, and cold, rain, waiting in line, driving in traffic — things that may aggravate, but are bearable.

4 Steps to Working with Impatience

1. Understanding the addictive nature of anger, irritation, outrage

As evolving humans, we are still constructed with our old reptilian brain that protects our physical and emotional survival. On the emotional survival side, we want our way, to get ahead, to achieve, to "look good." It's not a "bad" thing; it's just an evolutionary older part of our brain than our newer midbrain and neocortex.

Let's just face it — that urge to protect ourselves and what we deem valuable is absolutely addictive. Just try and not act on your urge and you'll see what I mean. (A friend who served in Vietnam mentioned to me how soldiers in foxholes could not smack mosquitoes on their arms. The slapping sound would give their location away. In that example, there are at least two opposing pulls for survival at play, and the soldiers chose life over comfort.)

So the first step in growing patience is to get in touch with the addictive quality of the opposite of patience — anger, irritation, blaming, shaming. Usually, it starts with a slight discomfort and tensing in the stomach area that goes along with the interpretation that things are not going our way. Then the storyline of thoughts appear. "I have never seen such incompetence ... how could they ... don't they realize ... did they do it on purpose or are they just ignorant ... blah, blah, blah." You know the rants. We all have them. And we can grow beyond them.

2. Upgrading our attitude towards discomfort and pain

So many of us have the belief that being "comfortable" is the only state we will tolerate. I remember a friend, about 25 years ago, who was in the process of changing a destructive habit. He had learned to say to himself, "This is merely uncomfortable, not intolerable." It helped him enormously to break his habit and helped me begin to look at my own avoidance patterns.

Pain has its purposes. It pushes us to find solutions.

Where we often go astray with the "solutions" that we try to find, is that we try to change the other person, situation, or thing that we think is causing our discomfort. But the problem is, that it is not the outside thing that's the source of our pain, but how our mind is set. No matter how bad or good the outer thing is, it's our mind that has the aversion or attraction. It's our mind that is the cause of discomfort, not the outer circumstances.

In the mind-training model of dealing with the pain of irritation, the idea is to reduce the pain and suffering that our impatience gives us and to increase our ability to act in a way that has a higher probability of our achieving our goals.

So the solution to pain is an inside job.

3. Paying attention when the irritation/pain starts

Most of us don't really realize it when we are feeling subtle — but very present — painful feelings. We ignore the fact that we are in pain and focus exclusively on fixing the problem. But to really care for ourselves, we can ask ourselves if being irritated brings us comfort other than the comfort of familiarity? Get curious about what's actually happening in the moment inside you. I know for myself that when I am critical and impatient with anyone — including myself — it really hurts more than almost anything else.

Focusing on what's actually happening inside you, you can notice the dread of not wanting what's happening, the resistance.

4. Self-talk

The main thing here is to just stop the story. And as we get more and more practice attending to that vulnerability inside without fueling it with our story about how wrong it all is, how wrong they are, how wrong we are, the feeling can pass through in mere seconds.

As an example, a client once reported that she was hurt that her husband had seemed to forget her birthday. When he left for work, she started recounting all the ways in their relationship he had not met her needs, then she went on to shaming herself for being so "weak as to marry him." She woke up and realized, "Oh, I'm just disappointed, that's natural. But he's a good man and I know he loves me." She was astounded at the internal peace that showed up when she just dropped the story.

When — not if — you find yourself impatient or irritated with yourself, you can remind yourself that you are growing, and that, "Sure, this is understandable, this is what happens to me when I'm bothered." You can say to yourself, "It's true, I don't like this, this is uncomfortable, but I can tolerate it. And, "I can be tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies."

Wow. Just imagine how it would feel if we never felt rushed, or hurt by another's impatience with us. And how it would feel if we were never (well, almost never) irritated or impatient with someone — either someone else or ourselves. What would that be like? Is it worth practicing patience?

About the Author
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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