There’s a common misconception that patience is something that you are either born with or are naturally lacking. But like any virtue, patience can be developed through hard work and reflection.
I recently told my sister about the trouble caused by one of my students. She asked me how I could put up with “such annoying kids” when I teach every day — how I could laugh about their behavior instead of getting angry.
It caused me to reflect on how I have grown much more patient in my time as a teacher. Behaviors that really irritated me when I first started teaching no longer exasperate me. Instead of getting anxious that the class isn’t moving through material quickly enough, I am able to wait calmly while a student laboriously works through a problem. I have learned to curb my natural inclination to snap at troublemakers and instead speak evenly without showing the frustration I feel.
Here are a few tips I’ve used over the years for developing patience.
What is patience?
Merriam-Webster defines “patient” as being “able to remain calm and not become annoyed when waiting for a long time or when dealing with problems or difficult people.” Patience really comes down to how you choose to respond to frustrations or irritations.
For example, when you are stuck in traffic, you can either choose to swear at other drivers and pound the steering wheel, or you can choose to sit calmly. The environmental irritation is still present, but by acting with self-control, you are exhibiting patience — even if you still feel irritated.
The first step to developing any good habit is to identify your problem areas. What behavioral choices are you making that manifest impatience? There are the obvious impatient behaviors that we indulge in: snapping at someone, complaining about the situation, or storming out of the room. Then there are more subtle signs of impatience: eye rolling, arm crossing, irritated sighs, repeatedly checking your watch, tapping your toes, or drumming your fingers.
If you look at patience as a set of choices and actions rather than an innate quality, you can make improvements to your behavior.
Acknowledge the other person
One thing that has helped me develop patience is acknowledging the humanity and limitations of the person who’s irritating me. No one is perfect. Although it’s easier to be patient with people you care about, strangers also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Try to give people the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they are having a bad day. Maybe being loud or contrary or rude is a result of a physical ailment or their age. Maybe they are hungry or tired. Maybe they were raised to act that way, or a negative trait is just part of their personality.
I have bad habits, myself, and am not always a model of kindness and virtue. When I am able to see someone as a person instead of as an obstacle blocking my path, I am able to choose to act with more patience and understanding.
I also try to remember that my actions have consequences. When people have been patient with me, I have had more positive interactions. When people have been impatient with me, I have felt upset, flustered, and angry. Being impatient can make a situation worse and cause even more irritation for all parties.
Start with something easy
If you decided you wanted to run a marathon, you wouldn’t put down the bag of potato chips, get up off the couch, and run all 26.2 miles immediately. You would start with short runs and work your way up to the full length.
The same is true for developing a good habit. Start small. Find a small daily irritation to practice with, like stopping at a red light or waiting for your coffee to brew. As you conquer small irritations, you will build up your ability to be patient and over time will be able to tackle bigger challenges.
Some people and situations consistently get under our skin. Sometimes these are daily irritations: a morning commute, dealing with irritating tasks throughout your work day, or encountering a coworker or neighbor who rubs you the wrong way. Other times, these frustrations come on a more irregular basis: a long line at the store, a low phone battery, or a holiday party where you can’t avoid that annoying family member.
When you know that you are going to encounter one of these triggers, take some time to prepare mentally:
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Envision the choices you can make in the situation to practice patience.
- Think about how you have handled the situation in the past, and how you want to change the outcome with different words or actions.
- Try to laugh at the situation.
- Realize that the situation won’t last forever.
Being prepared to encounter irritations can help you more patiently tolerate them.
Find a friend
Another way to develop any good habit is to get an accountability buddy. Ask someone you trust to give you honest feedback about your temperament and tell them what behaviors you want to work on. Schedule daily or weekly check-ins.
If both you and your buddy are working on developing a good habit together, you can hold each other accountable, commiserate about your failings, and encourage each other through the challenges.
Evaluate your progress
When trying to work on a good habit, self-evaluation is key. Try keeping a journal to make a record of when you were patient and impatient. Write down what you did well and what you could improve for next time. This will allow you to see your progress over time — and perhaps uncover patterns that might help you prepare in the future.
Make an examination of conscience at the end of the day. This is a prayer practice where you think through your actions of the day and reflect on which choices were rooted in the person you are created to be, and which choices turned you away from virtue. At the end of the examination of conscience, thank God for the grace to acknowledge your failings and ask Him for the strength to do better the next day.
Don’t forget to be patient with yourself and your progress! Developing a virtue takes time and effort. The more you practice, the easier patience will become. By acknowledging your progress, you will have the strength to keep working at it.