Patience Can Be Learned 

Humans used to know how to wait says M.J. Ryan, author of The Power of Patience. But as a consequence of high-speed technology, we don’t want to wait for anything — not computers, traffic lights, checkout lines, packages, or people talking to us.

In fact, the faster things go, the less patience we are able to muster. Our lack of patience creates problems because life’s big challenges — illness, disability, relationship conflicts, job crises, and parenting issues — require that we practice patience in order not merely to cope but to grow in love and wisdom.

Ryan is hopeful that we can change. With the right attitudes and a bit of practice, we can learn to harness the power of patience in our lives. It’s a combination of motivation (wanting to,) awareness (paying attention to our inner landscape,) and cultivation (practicing.)

We can do it because patience is a human quality that can be strengthened. We already have it but we’re just not always aware of what helps us be patient, what triggers our impatience, or what to do when our patience wears thin.

At our April GaGa Sisterhood meeting, M.J. Ryan gave a presentation on patience — the definition, the benefits, the science, and the tools for strengthening it. The most important thing to know is that patience is something you do, not something you have or don’t have. It’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised to stay strong.

The 3 Elements of Patience

Patience has 3 elements:

  1. Acceptance: the ability to accept a situation as it is
  2. Serenity: the ability to stay calm in a situation you must accept
  3. Persistence: the ability to stick with the challenge and work through the problem

The Benefits of Patience

Patience keeps us from acting badly towards ourselves and others when we’re feeling upset. When we practice being patient, we can:

  • Lower our blood pressure
  • Think more rationally
  • Lower our stress response
  • Have a more positive or hopeful attitude
  • Improve our performance and mastery
  • Learn to delay gratification

The Science of Patience

When we feel threatened whether real or perceived, the tiny portion of our brain called the “amygdala,” or “lizard brain,” triggers a response of “fight or flight.” This response sets in motion a number of physiological sensations that disable the frontal lobes and activate the fight-or-flight response. Without the frontal lobes, we can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control our responses. The more this response is turned on, the harder it is to turn it off and we become more and more impatient.

In the Moment Strategies to Strengthen Patience

By learning how to recognize your stressors and tapping into the rational part of your brain, you can stop yourself from behaving impatiently.

  • Notice that you feel threatened or stressed. Become aware of your emotions and the way your body is responding. Remind yourself it’s an automatic response, not necessarily the best or most logical one.
  • Ask yourself if this is a real emergency. If not, stay calm. When you’re calm, you’re more likely to find a rational solution.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize and remember what’s really important. How do you want to behave? Is it worth it to have a tantrum?
  • Take yourself “off scene” to calm down before you decide to act or speak. Have a word cue for yourself, for example, “hijack” to remind yourself or the person you’re upset with that you need a break.
  • Practice the “one-minute miracle” exercise designed by a doctor. Slowly inhale and exhale through your nose for one minute as you relax the “Golden Triangle” also known as the pelvic floor.
  • Investigate what triggers your impatience. For Ryan, it’s believing “I don’t have time for this.” As you catch yourself being triggered, try to shift your thinking. “Wait a minute, I actually do have time.”

Advice from GaGa Sisterhood Members

After Ryan gave her presentation, we went into breakout rooms in pairs to discover our own triggers and antidotes. Here are the questions we answered. I invite you to explore them for yourself.

  1. What situations do you lose your patience in?
  2. What happens to you just before you lose your patience? Is it something you say? A visual image that comes into your mind? A feeling? Just notice without judgment.
  3. Brainstorm what you can do as the counter thought, image, feeling. It should be a direct response to the trigger.

Some of the situations that trigger our GaGa members:

Trigger: Feeling like a victim. Response: It’s not about me.

Trigger: Waiting in line behind a slow person. Response: Make up an empathic story about the person.

Trigger: Having a cat interrupt you to go inside and out. Response: Think of it as an opportunity to get up and exercise.

Trigger: Being treated disrespectfully. Response: Use humor and say to yourself: “I’m okay, you’re not okay.”

Of all the tests of patience we face, the hardest is to be patient with ourselves. So often when we’re impatient with ourselves, we beat ourselves up and we feel worse. Ryan explains that it’s our “lizard brain” again that’s perceiving ourselves as a threat and so we behave badly. She recommends we learn to have self-compassion and treat ourselves as if we were comforting one of our grandchildren. The practice of self-compassion is fully explained by Dr. Kristen Neff who has a wealth of resources on her website.

To end our meeting, Ryan left us with the following quote:

Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.

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