Impatience and Unhappiness
Are we living life too fast to actually enjoy it?
Posted Jan 02, 2012
Slow down everyone
You're moving too fast
Frames can't catch you
When you're moving
- Jack Johnson
A year ago a MAPP colleague Louis Alloro asked his Facebook friends to choose one word for 2011, which he then turned into a word cloud. The word could be something that we wished for or something that we wanted to achieve. The responses ranged from "Cha-ching" to "Trust" to "Love". The word that I choose to be my 'one word' was "patience".
We've all heard that terrible old cliché 'Patience is a virtue'. I, for one, learned to hate patience at an early age. Let's just say that if I was one of the children in the now famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, I would have failed... miserably. Patience to me was like having to eat all of your broccoli before you could have your dessert. I hated waiting for things. When I was in Elementary School all I could think about was Jr. High. In Jr. High I wanted to be in High School...and in High School I wished for the day that I were in University. It wasn't that I disliked where I was (except for Jr. High that place was a hell on earth!), it was that I just couldn't wait to get to the next step. So much so that I often forgot to enjoy the step that I was on.
When I was in Africa I was forced into learning lessons of patience. "African Time" is a phenomenon that I have come across in every single country that I have lived in and visited in Africa. When I was living in Tuba, South Africa learning patience was a humbling experience, one that I watched other foreign volunteers struggle with on a daily basis. Meetings that were scheduled for a certain time were sure to start at least 2 hours late. If I wanted to go into town I couldn't predict how long I would be there for because there was no guarantee that I would be able to get a ride. Walking in between communities could take hours, and unless a kind soul picked you up...that is how we got around.
I could have let this bother me, and I could have insisted that people start running on my time schedule. Except this would have accomplished nothing. The people around me were comfortable with their time schedule, and I could either adapt...or spend the entire year frustrated. My partner Ongezwa laughed at me more than once for trying to speed things up. She had lived this way her whole life and knew that it was futile... I wasn't the first Mulungu (white person) to try to change African Time, and I wouldn't be the last.
A funny thing happened when I began to adapt to the different pace of things in Africa. I began to have more time to spend in the moment that I was in. I had less of a worry about the next step and I was able to focus more on the task at hand than I ever had been able to back at home.
I remember talking to a friend of mine on the phone about it. He questioned how I was dealing with the difference in pace... and if I thought that people back home would benefit from what I was learning. I came to the conclusion that if we could somehow combine the two worlds, African time and Super Speedy North American time... the whole world would benefit. I just had to figure out how to be the Goldilocks of patience and urgency somehow finding that 'just right' space.
When I came back home I found myself hating the pace of life here. Everything felt so rushed! That feeling persisted for a few months before I quickly (pun intended) slid back to my old pace of doing things... impatience once again ruled my life.
The troubling thing about impatience is that it caused me a lot of stress. I constantly felt like I was behind, and that I should have accomplished so much more. This feeling led me to becoming upset with myself, and I acted out by not getting anything done. The impatience that had kept me going throughout my life was failing me... and I was miserable about it.
My boss at Song for Africa was incredible at reminding me that I needed to be more patient. And so when Louis sent out his request for a word in 2011...patience topped my list. I dedicated the next year to learning all I could about being patient at home...traveling back to Africa every time I needed a reminder would be nice, but it just isn't practical...so I had to come up with some strategies of my own for how to become more patient.
I have managed to combine a years worth of frustration and learning into six handy lessons and strategies that I learned about becoming more patient this year:
1. Take an adult time out
My body tends to respond first to feelings of impatience. My brain takes a moment to clue into the fact that my pulse is racing, my skin is tingling, and every single muscle in my body is contracting. When I feel this way I have learned that I need to take a little bit of a time out. This can mean anything from taking 3 deep breaths, to singing myself my favorite song. Basically anything that takes me away from the situation that is causing me to be impatient. In this way I am able to refocus and look more objectively at the situation, and either find a way to speed up the process, or realize that it is out of my control.
2. Be patient with patience
Ironically one of my biggest sources of impatience over the past year was that I wasn't learning how to be more patient... faster. I know that it sounds odd, but I would often berate myself for not remembering the lessons that I was trying to learn. When this happened I would be frustrated for a few moments...and then I would laugh at myself and remember that the person I should be the most patient with was myself. I had spent a lifetime being impatient... it was going to take some time to adapt to a new way of being. Berating myself wasn't helping and so I needed to remember that learning patience requires patience.
3. Know when you should be impatient
One of the hardest things to learn over the past year was when my impatience was warranted. There were times that I thought I was doing really really well with being patient. Only to find out that I should have been a little bit more impatient. This threw a monkey wrench in my carefully laid plans on becoming a paragon of patience. Those same body cues that told me I was becoming impatient were in fact occasionally useful, and I should sometimes listen to them. My natural cues and timetable wasn't always skewed, and occasionally they are warranted. There were times over the past year that I wasted time waiting and being patient, when I could have saved myself the hassle by simply calling the person and being a little bit more pro-active. Learning where the patience 'sweet-spot' is can be tricky, it is situation dependent, and there are no hard and fast rules. Trial and error, and reflection have definitely helped, but when it comes to knowing when to be more impatient I know that I still have a lot to learn.
4. Future vs Present Self
One of the things that I found helped me figure out #3 is to look at what was driving me in that situation. Was it my present self, or my future self? Was I trying to appease a current discomfort, or was I looking at the future benefits/consequences to my actions.
My impatience ran so deeply in my life that I believe it is why I am a horrible impulse shopper. While I am nowhere near the point of having to appear as a guest on the Dr. Phil show, I do gain far too much enjoyment from something new. In the past I appeased this need for newness through buying something that I really didn't need. Over the past year I have learned to try a different strategy. Before I make a decision I take an adult time out and ask myself which self I am looking to serve in that moment. The time that it takes for me to answer this question slows me down enough that I can make a rational...and more responsible decision. I still give into my present self occasionally, but I find that I am even more content with the decision because it wasn't made in haste.
5. Practice empathy
I think that by focusing on being more patient myself, I have improved my relationships with others. Because I am not rushing around in my own little impatient haze I am able to take my time to interact with more people. The person counting out every single penny at the grocery store no longer frustrates me, and so I am more likely to offer a smile and strike up a conversation. I am also the world's best impatience detector. Like those who have quit smoking can instantly detect cigarette smoke, I have become adept at recognizing impatience in others.
You may think you hide it well but if you are impatient it shows. I may not be able to hear what you are saying, but I can see you gesturing in a fit of road rage. I see you tapping your foot and constantly checking your phone. I know that you are now even more anxious because I am distracting the person counting their pennies. Now that I can see what it looks like to others, I feel even more motivated to be patient. Impatience just looks silly. Harumphing one more time as you watch another minute pass by isn't going to make the car in front of you move any faster. It is only going to make you look like an old grump... and a little bit of a jerk.
Did you know why that person is counting every single penny? You might if you slowed down and took the time to ask. Sometimes that car in front of you has a very good reason for going slowly. Impatience can often prevent you from standing in someone else's shoes. Practicing empathy not only slowed me down, but it allowed me to be a better friend and neighbor.
6. Be clear about what is causing your impatience
This is probably the most important thing that I learned about being more patient this year. When I took the time to really think about it I was able to find the root cause of what was causing me to be impatient. As it turns out impatience was really often a symptom of something else altogether. If I am frustrated at that car in front of me, could it be that I am worried about the meeting that I am heading to? I don't want to be late, but I also am concerned about the outcome of the meeting. How is being impatient helping me in this situation? Generally the answer to that question is "not at all".
When I am able to pinpoint the root cause of my impatience I am able to solve a bigger issue. If I am worried about the outcome of an important meeting, I can better prepare myself and usually come out with a positive result. Knowing that being impatient isn't helping me to solve any real issues has allowed me to let it go easier.
I am thankful for the lessons in patience that I learned over the past year. I am nowhere near perfect, but with a little time... I'll get there.
Now for 2012...and yes Louis did ask again. This years word? Vulnerability.