How to train yourself to be more patient

Patience: Some people are born with a knack for it, but experts say the rest of us can learn how to do better.
Image: People waiting in line
Personality plays a role in why some of us tend to respond to life’s delays and setbacks with more calm than others. PeopleImages / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

You’re stuck in line at the post office. Your coworker missed his deadline for the project you’re working on together. Your two-year-old is throwing a temper tantrum, again.

There are situations that try even the most patient among us.

But experts want you to know that even though we all vary when it comes to how much patience we might naturally bring to any given situation, we can all work on it and improve.

It’s like being athletic, explains, Debra R. Comer, Ph.D., Mel Weitz Distinguished Professor in Business at Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business, who researches organizational socialization and behaviors.

Some people are naturally athletic and others are less inclined, but even the most un-athletic person can train and get better, no matter what base level you start from. The same is the case with patience; with practice, you can get better responding with patience, she tells NBC News BETTER. “It’s something that people can work on if they want to.”

Here’s what you should know about patience and how to get better at it.

Patience depends on personality, your personal history and the situation

Personality plays a role in why some of us tend to respond to life’s delays and setbacks with more calm than others. Studies have shown, for example, that people who are more conscientious, agreeable, and open to new experience tend to have more patience — and people who have fewer of those traits tend to be more likely to be impatient.

But those factors are definitely only part of the story, Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University, tells NBC. “There are a lot of predictors not related to personality traits that determine patience, too.”

The habits we develop, ability to regulate emotions, and our expectations in a given situation all affect our capacity to respond with patience, as do situational variables like whether we’re overtired, ill, hungry, stressed, or, even, overheated, Schnitker adds.

In some of Schnitker’s research published in "The Journal of Positive Psychology" in 2012, she and her colleagues characterized three types of scenarios that would require someone to respond either patiently or impatiently: life hardships (facing, for example, a chronic illness or disability you’ll have to deal with over the long-term); interpersonal interactions (settling a conflict or struggle with a spouse, friend, child or parent); and daily hassles (traffic jams, flight delays, spills, tangled necklaces, and getting transferred a half dozen times before being able to talk to the person that can help you figure out why your Internet isn’t working).

Just because you tend to be patient in one of these categories of situations doesn’t mean you’ll be patient in all. For example, just because you’re the type of person that can patiently listen to your friend’s every relationship freak out, doesn’t mean you’re the type of person who isn’t going to get irked when you show up to find an unusually long line at the post office.

Here's the thing: Patience is not the opposite of impatience

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Schnitker says it helps to think about patience on a spectrum: Patience is the ability to be calm in the face of adversity, frustration or suffering, and in any given situation you’ll respond with some amount of patience (or lack of it).

Either you respond with patience (right in the middle of the spectrum); with a deficiency of patience (the type of impatience where you have no ability to be calm, which leads you to an overreaction); or with an abundance of patience (the type of impatience where you stay so calm you become disengaged from the situation or stop caring).

Patience is the ability to be calm in the face of adversity, frustration or suffering, and in any given situation you’ll respond with some amount of patience (or lack of it).

Think about a married couple having a fight, Schnitker says. The patient response is staying calm, listening to one another, and talking out the problem and a solution that works for both sides. The impatient response can either be getting angry, yelling, or maybe taking an action recklessly without thinking it out. But impatience might also show up as the partners ignoring one another or disengaging from the relationship, she says. “And that’s just as problematic.”

Impatience doesn’t seem to be productive in any scenario

Neither type of “impatience” is necessarily productive, Schnitker and Comer say. There are situations in life where it’s not good to be overly patient (in a checked out, spiritless way), Comer adds — like in the face of extreme injustice. “In those cases being overly passive is not a great way to be.”

And being on the anger, frustration, anxiety and inability-to-control-your-actions end of the spectrum can have deleterious effects, too.

Research dating back to the 80s has connected impatience with irritability and higher risk of heart problems. More recent research has linked impatience with the inability to handle stressors and practice self-control. And a 2016 study published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" found that impatient behavior was actually linked to people having shorter telomeres, a part of our DNA that influences how our cells age, suggesting that being more impatient might therefore speed up the aging process in our bodies (as opposed to how our cells would otherwise age if we act more patiently).

Schnitker’s research has linked impatience with loneliness, higher incidence of depressive symptoms and negative emotions, she says.

Other work from Schnitker’s group has linked patience with positive things, like life satisfaction, self-esteem, having self-control and even being better able to pursue and accomplish goals.

“When you’re patient, you’re calmer, so you’re able to keep persisting when it’s difficult and you’re not prey to goal disengagement,” she says. “You’re able to know when to act and when to conserve energy.”

You can get better at being patient. Here’s how

The bottom line, Comer says, is if you recognize that you’re more irritable, reactive and irascible than you’d like to be, you can change to become better at responding patiently. “But you have to want to change,” she says.

And you’re going to need to practice, Schnitker adds.

What’s important to remember is that life is full of myriad variables and obstacles, and there’s no way anyone can avoid any situation that might potentially trigger impatience, Schnitker says. “But you can control your response.”

Here are the three steps Schnitker suggests taking to work on your own patience:

1. Identify when you’re impatient and what emotion you’re feeling

Recognize that you’re starting to feel activated and identify what emotion is at the heart of that response, causing you to get heated. Are you angry that you can’t get home faster? Are you sad or feeling rejected that potential date didn’t work out? Are you anxious that you’re not going to make it to your appointment on time?

2. Reframe how you think about the situation

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. (My coworker isn’t purposely trying to miss his deadlines; he has a lot on his plate.) Remember, whatever’s triggering your impatience many times isn’t about you. For example, the cash register didn’t break just so that your grocery-buying would take longer, or the train isn’t packed this morning just so that you can’t get a seat.

3. Think with your purpose in mind

Remember the big picture perspective. Sure, it’s irritating that another job interview didn’t land you a new position, but you’re looking for a career move that’s going to help you accomplish your long-term goals. It’d be great if my toddler wouldn’t start pouting whenever she gets served green beans instead of ice cream, but it’s important that she learns what healthy eating means and gets into a routine of eating in that way. Remember why putting up with whatever delay or frustration you’re facing will ultimately help you get where you want to go.

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