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Why patience is a misunderstood strength

Patience is the ability to stay calm or centred in a difficult situation, when things are not going our way

Looking at patience in an absolute way can be dangerous
Looking at patience in an absolute way can be dangerous (iStockphoto)

A25-year-old client tells me: “I am surrounded by everyone who wants to hustle, move swiftly in their careers, make the most connections, and optimise their early work years. So, while I want to do well, excel at work, I feel that I don’t like who I am becoming—impatient with my relationships, very little tolerance for delays, and the idea of waiting seems like futility. Do you think I can learn how to develop patience and sustain my ambition?”

Patience is one of the most underestimated strengths, one we all can develop. Not just that, patience is misunderstood to a large extent. Very often people wrongly associate patience with being passive, or the absence of boundaries. The reality is that people are capable of being firm, gentle, ambitious, assertive, yet patient. These qualities can coexist and show up in various combinations, whether it’s in relation to parenting or leadership roles.

Patience is the ability to stay calm or centred in a difficult situation, when things are not going our way or when our needs are not being met in the moment. It entails a quality of mindful steady presence, instead of getting angry, anxious, restless, irritated or frustrated when things are slow, taking time, particularly if there is ambiguity or a difference of opinion. It involves an awareness and acceptance of the fact that situations or interactions may not be going as we would have liked, with the conscious choice of regulating our emotions and feelings. As a result, patience is reflected in acts of delayed gratification and the ability to regulate our own mood.

At a micro level, there are so many moments and actions daily that reflect our capacity for patience. Think about what you feel or do when your social media feed is taking time to refresh, a child who’s not listening to you, or when a loved one takes much longer to respond than you expected or desired. Patience can impact how we are seen and how we hold space for our loved ones and others in professional relationships.

At a macro level, on the other hand, patience can impact our narratives of resilience, decision-making, even the satisfaction we experience with life. Very often, when it comes to creative endeavours, whether it’s writing or creating art, the sooner we learn to be patient, the kinder we can be to ourselves. My experience is that patience can benefit both the client and therapist. Clients can find their own answers if they can work through periods of uncertainty, hold space for overwhelming emotions and remain patient with their own selves.

My understanding is that if we see the world through a lens of “should” and “must” and believe in ideas like “Everyone must listen to me” or “I should always be prompt when it comes to email communication”, a certain rigidity sets in. This can come in the way of patience. If we experience the world as an unsafe place, engage in catastrophising and find it hard to trust others, those beliefs can serve as a deterrent to developing patience.

Sarah A. Schnitker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, US, says, “It helps to think of patience on a spectrum.” This insight helps us understand how looking at it in an absolute way can be dangerous. At one extreme, patience can be seen as emotional volatility, and, at the other extreme, it can reflect in an attitude of helplessness and fatalistic thinking. Both are ineffective ways of relating to the world.

The trick lies in finding a middle ground. We all can figure this out if we give ourselves time and nurture this quality. Becoming mindful of the purpose patience serves is a first step. Examining our own beliefs and emotions when we react can be the next step. Asking ourselves the values we want to align our lives to can help us develop patience. Then there is meditation, gardening, knitting—activities that are a masterclass in patience. As my daughter tells me, “Patience is key to be a Jedi.”

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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