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Paul from Australia wrote in and asked how he could cultivate his patience. Paul is visually impaired and often gets questions or offers of help from strangers. At first, the questions were welcome conversation starters and the offers of help were charming. But after years and years, as you might imagine, it’s all started to get annoying. Oblivious questions, miss-the-mark offers of help, and awkwardly alarmist people create interpersonal tension that Paul is left to deal with. So he asks, how can I be more patient? How can I be less annoyed when these people are just curious or trying to help?
Now, Paul’s question applies to all of us. We all have that thing that annoys us. We all have the pet peeve to which we’re super-sensitive. And when it happens, we overreact—we might yell, get sarcastic, roll our eyes, or use a contemptuous tone of voice, none of which are helpful and all of which make things worse.
For me, it’s my kids yelling, “Mommy, come here quick!” I think I’m responding to crisis, only to have them ask for more peanut butter pretzels. Which, I might add, they could have easily gotten for themselves.
For you, it might be your partner leaving hair in the drain, your kids nightly bedtime delay tactics, that spinning beach ball on your computer, your co-worker’s donkey-meets-a-car-horn laugh, or pretty much any aspect of your commute. (Some days on my train, I suspect it would be faster to drag myself home with my lips).
So why do we get so annoyed at such objectively little things? The answer is called sensitization. You heard of tolerance—gradually getting used to higher and higher levels of alcohol, drugs, kid messes, what have you. Sensitization is the opposite of tolerance.
Think of it like this: remember the last time you burned your tongue? Maybe your coffee was too hot or you didn’t realize those french fries were fresh out of the fryer. After you burned yourself, whenever you drank anything for a day or so, even room temperature water, your tongue hurt again. Now, drinking lukewarm liquid doesn’t usually hurt, but because you got burned, your tongue was sensitized. Your pain threshold was lower.
The same thing happens with stress. A study in the prestigious Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that individuals who had experienced significant childhood adversity like family violence or parental alcoholism had a lower threshold for developing a depressive reaction to stress—that is, they were more likely to develop depression following less total stress than those who didn’t experience childhood adversity. In other words, they had become sensitized to stress.
On a much smaller scale, when we get annoyed by the same thing over and over, like Paul and his well-meaning would-be helpers, sensitization is a natural response. It takes less to push you over the edge. (Which also explains why I cringe when the kids call “Mommmyyyyy!”)
So now, what to do about this? How to grow our patience and feel less annoyed? It’s hard to find good advice on how to be more patient—most sources recommend the obvious, like counting to ten, or the woo-woo, like meditating on the annoying person’s aura. So, as always, let’s turn to the research.
First, patience: Patience is a branch of the psychological family tree of self-control, which is the ability to regulate your emotions and behavior, even when your impulses are screaming otherwise. We often think of self-control as intrapersonal—we each regulate ourselves to move toward our goals. We resist that cookie, log off Facebook, or lace up our running shoes. But self-control can also be interpersonal: we do our best not to interrupt, keep our cool, or—you guessed it—be more patient.
Next, annoyance: The result of impatience—annoyance—falls under the umbrella of anger, along with irritation, judgment, and criticism.
Therefore, let’s borrow from the research on self-control and anger to give us 5 ways to cultivate our patience and curb our annoyance.
How to Be More Patient
- Know that your goal will still be achieved.
- Give yourself what you need in your imagination.
- Change your conclusion.
- Pretend you’re being watched.
- Save the story for later.
Let’s dive into each tip a bit further.
Tip #1: Know that your goal will still be achieved.
One theory posits that anger—and its little cousin, annoyance—is thought to be the result of an impeded goal. So when you’re feeling annoyed, think about your goal—getting your kids to the bus stop, getting out of this traffic caused by rubberneckers who have apparently never seen a fender bender before, or eating dinner if the waiter would ever bring it.
Whatever the goal, trust that it will still be achieved. It might take a little longer than expected or you might have to jump through some unexpected hoops, but you’ll still get there. And sometimes that knowledge is enough to help you relax and be more patient.
Tip #2: Give yourself what you need in your imagination.
Think back to the most annoying of all your annoying memories. Play it through in your mind as if you were watching a movie. Now, right before the part where you lose your cool, ask yourself what you needed in that moment. It could be anything—internal strength, a feeling of relaxation, or just one of those giant squeaky hammers clowns use to hit each other. Giving yourself what you need, even in your imagination, can make your brain feel like you really received it. And that can help you handle the next time with aplomb.
Tip #3: Change your conclusion.
When Paul gets yet another question from strangers, he might conclude, “Ugh, people are stupid.” When my kids yell requests from another room, I think, “Why are they so lazy?” When your partner waltzes out the door while breakfast dishes are piled in the sink, you might think, “She’s taking advantage of me.”
Now, objectively, the thing that triggered our thoughts—a question, a yelled request, a pile of dishes—isn’t what makes us mad, it’s the conclusion we draw from it. It’s our interpretation that makes us annoyed. So if we change our interpretation, we can change our feelings. Even changing the interpretation from personal to situational can help—there’s a big difference between me thinking my kids are lazy by disposition versus thinking they’re feeling lazy at the moment.
So think of another way to interpret the situation. Maybe the question-askers are uneducated but well-meaning. Maybe the dish-leaver is in a hurry or distracted, and if we bring it up in a non-accusatory way later, she’ll offer to do the dinner dishes.
Tip #4: Pretend you’re being watched.
We tend to turn up the dimmer switch on our best selves when we’re in public. It’s unfortunate that our best behavior is more likely to be on display when there’s an audience, but the very fact it occurs means we can turn on our best selves at will. So pretend your kids, your boss, or your grandma is watching when you respond to annoyances. Or if you’re actually in public, you don’t even have to pretend. This is fake it ‘til you make it, which means once you’ve done it a few times, you won’t have to fake it anymore. Responding well will come more naturally.
Tip #5: Save the story for later.
An annoying moment can make a great story. Annoyances are almost always relatable and make a great story in a “can you believe this” kind of way.
So while you’re in the midst of it—wondering if the DMV runs in slow motion, fielding your kid’s insistence that you kiss each of her dozens of stuffed animals goodnight, or getting stuck behind the driver who’s attempting to parallel park for the fourth time—file it away for later. Seeing your predicament as fodder for a good story will help you take the mindset of “Let’s see how this turns out” rather than “Get me out!”
And of course, if all else fails, you can always use the classic: take a deep breath and count to ten. The advice has stuck around for a reason: it works.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.