A while back, my wife Lynn and I went out to run a few errands. We agreed to divide and conquer before meeting up at 1 pm to grab lunch. By 1:15 pm Lynn was still not back, and I was hungry, cold, and anxious to get through the work waiting for me at home. I could feel my patience shrinking and my impatience building.
Years ago, I would have taken this out on Lynn. Being patient is still a challenge for me, but thankfully, I’ve come a long way from tearing into my spouse for something so minor. If, like me, you struggle with impatience, I want you to know it’s worth working on—because impatience hurts relationships.
If impatience hurts, is it abuse?
You probably know that this blog is where we share guidance for those of us who have harmed our partner and want to change. As you read this, your first question may be: “is being impatient abusive?” Maybe you’ve already answered that question in your mind and determined that, since everyone is impatient from time to time, it’s not.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss how much impatience hurts, however. The answer to the question “is impatience abuse?” is—it depends. Yes, everyone is impatient sometimes. None of us are perfect, and from time to time we all feel frustration at having to wait.
Some of us get impatient more often than others, however. And some of us react more strongly when we feel that emotion. If it happens regularly and is coupled with intimidating, over-the-top reactions, then it’s likely our impatience is hurting our partner and our relationship.
How impatience hurts others
It’s not so much that our impatience hurts, it’s what we do when we’re impatient. When we feel impatient, we’re much more likely to say something critical, raise our voice, give off glaring looks, slam a door, or worse.
Even if our impatience is not directed at another person, those around us will feel the unpleasant effect. I’m sure you know from experiencing someone else’s impatience that it’s not fun to be around. We humans have a built-in instinct to avoid people who seem upset or angry—it just feels like the safe thing to do.
But if our loved ones feel like they need to change their behavior to stay safe, or think carefully before they speak, that’s a problem. All this vigilance and caution are incredibly stressful. Some people describe it like “walking on eggshells”—there seems to be no way to avoid trouble.
Nobody can anticipate our every mood, nor should they have to. It forces our loved ones to give up their own autonomy (self-direction and freedom)—one of our deepest human emotional needs. At best, they’ll feel resentful, and at worse, they can lose their own sense of identity and worth. This is how impatience hurts our loved ones and our relationship with them.
What’s behind our impatience?
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: we must understand what’s going on inside our mind if we want to change our behavior. Our thoughts determine our emotions, and our emotions, in turn, drive our actions. This is illustrated perfectly with impatience.
Here’s how impatience typically unfolds. Something we wanted to accomplish takes longer than expected. Our efforts toward a goal get frustrated. We’re forced to compromise on something, or someone disappoints us in some way.
When this happens, we feel impatient. You might describe your emotions a bit differently. Being annoyed, irritated, anxious, bitter, disrespected, ignored, offended, resentful, incapacitated, or disappointed can all be versions of impatience.
These emotions aren’t coming from the situation itself. We may not be aware of it, but they’re actually being created by our thoughts about the situation, such as:
- The customer service rep should be more helpful so I can get my refund.
- This slow driver is going to make me late for the meeting, and I’ll look bad.
- My wife is disrespecting me and the value of my time by keeping me waiting.
- If my husband cared about me, he’d answer my texts more quickly.
How to become more patient
We have to get to the source—our thinking—if we want to change how we feel and act. Just telling ourselves that we are going to “try to be more patient” won’t work. The key to becoming more patient is to think about those frustrating situations differently.
While I didn’t know exactly what was delaying my wife, there could be a number of reasons that were not her fault. Maybe there were long checkout lines. Perhaps she needed to ask a clerk to check in back for out-of-stock merchandise. Neither of these have anything to do with her not respecting me.
Another way we can challenge the thoughts that lead to impatience is by putting things into perspective. I asked myself: will these 15 minutes matter next week, next month, or next year? Of course not. Is it okay when things don’t happen on my timeline? Sure—I’m really not going to be any worse off.
When we identify our thoughts, we often see they are untrue or even silly. Will I really look bad if I was caught in a traffic jam? No. Is text response time really a good measure for how much someone cares about us? Again, no. Recognizing and challenging these distorted thoughts enables us to reduce our impatience and other negative emotions. Smaller emotions mean we’ll have a smaller reaction, or even no reaction at all.
The benefits of patience
While being more patient is always a good (and often appreciated) improvement for those around us, they’re not the only ones who benefit. We ditch the stress of feeling impatient, and its terrible effects on our physical and mental health. Plus, we avoid the lingering guilt that hits whenever we get upset and lash out at someone. In short, when we’re more easy-going about life, we feel better about ourselves.
It turned out that Lynn had squeezed an extra stop into her shopping so she could surprise me with a small gift, for no reason. Man, am I glad I met her with a smile when she showed up, even if she was 15 minutes late! I am not a naturally patient person, but I know it’s worth continuing to work on. I just wish the process didn’t take so long!
At the heart of all impatience is a self-centered thought:
- “It’s not fair to me that I have to wait.”
- “This person is disrespecting my time.”
- “I need to finish this project and this person is keeping me from getting it done.”
Me, me, me. But God didn’t wire us to be so focused on ourselves. He created us to love and serve him, and in return, he promised to take care of us.
In order to love and serve God, we have to love and serve those around us. That means that we put their needs on the same level as our own—not ahead, and not behind. When we’re focused on taking care of ourselves first, it’s because we are not trusting God to fulfill his end of the bargain.
It’s exhausting to approach life like it’s all up to us. God’s already provided the air that we breathe, the food we eat, and the materials we use to house and clothe ourselves. When we realize how much he’s already doing to provide for us, it gets easier to trust him when he interrupts our schedule.
Remembering the role God has given us here on earth is one of those shifts in perspective that can help us be more patient. “I’m not here to pursue my own agenda, but to care for others.” In fact, God can’t use us when we’re doing our own thing. He needs us to slow down so we can see, and join, what he’s doing.
Next time you’re feeling impatient, ask God, “What do you want me to see or do with this time?” Then listen, watch, and wait. Developing patience and connecting with him in these moments opens us to experiencing his blessings.