Do some people just have more patience than others? Is patience something we have, or something we develop? How is it that some people seem to wait in line rather calmly, with a pleasant smile. Were they just born that way or did they have to work at it? Maybe patience is really two things, a disposition and a practice.

Patience as a disposition and a practice

If we envision a trait and call it “a patient disposition,” we can imagine that we are all born genetically predisposed to be somewhere on that continuum, to have, say, a low, medium or high disposition to be patient. Some infants may wait to be fed rather calmly, and others may be quite a bit more demonstrative.

We can also think of patience as a practice, a discipline, a skill set. There must be steps we can take, things we can do, to live and function more patiently. Maybe in the years ahead we’ll be able to genetically engineer human infants to have highly patient dispositions out of the gate, but in the meantime, how can we get better at the practice of patience?

Calm the body

The first step is to slow the breathing and relax the muscles. It’s hard to remain highly agitated if your breathing is slow and your muscles are soft. Maybe allow yourself one big breath, one sigh, then invite your breathing to become slow and soft. Envision your heart rate and blood pressure slowing down. Scan your body, notice which muscles are tense and tell them it’s okay to relax.

Zoom out for perspective

This may seem obvious, but often we forget to do it. The key question is, “How big is this problem, really?” Too often we react as if the problem is major or catastrophic when, if put in better perspective, we see it’s more of a minor inconvenience. If you touch your palm to your nose, your hand looks big. Pull your hand away and it looks smaller, because of the wider perspective. Zoom in on the person walking slowly in front of you at the grocery store and it looks like a big deal. Zoom out and realize the delay is a matter of seconds.

Think accurately and honestly

“I can’t believe this.” “This is ridiculous.” “This is completely unacceptable.” “I cannot stand this.” Thinking this way and saying these things to yourself is not accurate or honest. The truth is you can believe it, it’s not ridiculous, and you can accept and tolerate it. Telling yourself that a situation is unacceptable, intolerable or unmanageable incites your mind, body and spirit to be agitated. Realizing the situation is unpleasant but manageable enables you to roll with it more smoothly.

Employ empathy, compassion and humility

Put yourself in the shoes of the person who appears to be causing your delay. Imagine what that person is feeling and try to understand that those feelings make sense. Soften your heart to have compassion for the person who is probably not trying to waste your time or cause you distress. He or she may even be trying to help you. Try to humble yourself by remembering that sometimes the shoe is on the other foot and you are the one slowing down the progress of others.

In art, athletics or academics, we may be born with a certain level of natural talent, but with disciplined practice, we can improve our performance to a degree. And so it is with patience as well.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Ian Kahn /