How to Be Patient, From a Self-Described Impatient Person

Lessons on embracing the asshole in your brain — and taming it

Illustration: DanielVilleneuve/Getty Images

I’ll never forget the time a good friend said to me, “You’re so patient, Nicole.” And I looked back at her and yelled, “FUCK YOU!”

She blinked at me, clearly hurt and confused. I stared back, genuinely angry.

“Why would you say that?” I asked, believing that she was mocking me. “I’m not patient.”

“But you are,” she said. “You’re so patient.”

I felt like she’d poked me on a bruise, but I could also see she hadn’t intended her words as sarcasm. It began to dawn on me that maybe my friend had meant it when she called me, of all people, patient. That led me down another, more ominous path: Did my friend actually know me at all, if she thought I was patient?

I wasn’t simply being an asshole when I told her to fuck off. Rather, she’d touched on something I considered one of my most profound failings as a human being. I believed, and would often tell people, that I was fundamentally impatient, and that I struggled with my impatience as both a teacher and a person.

I’ve always thought of patience as innate. Either you have patience or you don’t. And that leads to my second assumption: I am not a patient person.

Patience, after all, may be a virtue, but it was never considered an important one in my extended family. My father was usually patient, and my mom is very patient in important aspects of her life, like her teaching. She was always shockingly patient when we really needed her to be. But the trouble really lay with my mom’s extended family, a den of codependency fostered by my grandmother, who seemed to believe family must love and torture each other in equal measure.

My grandma and her daughters are chatterboxes, and the daughters were always trying to dominate each other, even as they vied for their mother’s attention. This means they’re terrible conversationalists. They interrupt, talk over each other, roll their eyes, and make rude noises. My grandmother and my mom’s older sister, especially, do not care about trifles like history, facts, or the vagaries of subjective experience. Until I wised up and moved away, I was regularly told that not only what I knew, but what I felt, was incorrect — especially if my relatives didn’t agree.

After moving away, I had to learn a lot of new skills. For example, I’d grown up speaking only Passive Aggressive, a dialect spoken throughout the world but especially prevalent in the Midwest. My neighbor, a psychologist, refers to this dialect as “soft communication,” which is a lovely idea. But I don’t think anyone who actually grew up in a passive-aggressive household would ever consider it “soft.”

This is a language based almost entirely on the word “fine,” which should be used in lieu of one’s true thoughts or feelings. Are you in agony? No, you’re FINE! Are you depressed? No, you’re FINE! Would you rather poke your own eye out than go somewhere? Don’t say “no,” just tell everyone IT’S FINE.

“Fine” can become nuanced through the use of props. Cupboards were a favorite in my family. For example, you might say “fine,” but slam a cupboard door to indicate you’re really the opposite of fine. If you were genuinely pleased with something, “fine” might rest on its own. But even if you were ecstatic, you would still limit yourself to “fine.” After all, we don’t want anyone getting too big for their britches!

Once I learned to speak real English, I had to master the art of genuine conversation. I would sit at tables and watch in wonder as new friends let each other speak in whole sentences, from start to finish. These people would even ask questions based on what had been said before, as if they’d actually listened.

I’d been raised to believe that when another person is talking, you should spend that time coming up with your own rejoinders. So, learning how to actually listen to other people was an incredibly hard lesson. I still fail at it constantly. I catch myself interrupting, talking over people, or totally zoning out as I converse with even my dearest friends. But I have also gotten better at listening. Now, I sometimes hold real, honest, fruitful conversations. It feels like a miracle, to be honest, especially when I’m reminded how far I’ve come.

What I’d learned to do, through a lot of hard work and self-reflection, was to act patient.

At the same time, I’m aware of how much my external bad habits have merely retreated inward. I’m hyperconscious of a corner of my brain that’s always there, shouting. It shouts at students: WHY ARE YOU ASKING A QUESTION THAT’S BEEN ASKED A THOUSAND TIMES, even as I assure the student there are no bad questions. It shouts at my friends: HOW ABOUT WE GET BACK TO ME MMMMMKAY, even as I tell that voice to shut it. And it shouts at my boyfriends: GREAT BUT ALSO I AM INTERESTING ASK ME WHY. If they don’t, so much of my mental energy is spent strategizing how to work things about how awesome I am into the conversation. HE MUST KNOW YOUR CV shouts this tinny part of my brain every time I meet someone, even as I imagine cunt-punting that voice into oblivion.

In other words, I am constantly, and in every aspect of my life, confronted with what I see as proof of my impatience.

And yet, I want to be a good teacher, a good friend, and a good lover. I hate that even with people I really care about, that horrid voice sometimes pipes up with snide and nasty comments. It begs me to finish someone’s sentence, or switch subjects to something more exciting (something more about me, usually), or make someone’s point for them. It’s the voice of an asshole and it makes me think I’m an asshole, too, because if I wasn’t an asshole, wouldn’t that voice be silent?

It’s that voice I was pointing to, mentally, when my friend told me I was patient. “I am not patient!” I explained to her. “You should hear this asshole who lives in my head!”

She frowned. “Well, you act like you’re patient.”

In that moment I felt like Saul on the way to Damascus. What if I had patience wrong this whole time? What if I’d spent years castigating myself for not being patient, which in my heart of hearts translates to being an asshole, but I’d based my perception on an incorrect assumption? And what if these assumptions had made being patient even more difficult?

I’ve come to believe that patience isn’t an innate virtue, which is the way I think of virtues. (If there are any theologians out there reading this, they’re probably thinking I also have the nature of virtues incorrect.) I’d always considered patience a trait you’re born with, like brown eyes, spiral curls, or a seemingly inherent ability to swear like a diva belting an aria. In my mind, I wasn’t patient. I wasn’t born with it. I’d never be patient because I come from an impatient background, just like I will never be tall, svelte, or capable of pretending that most craft beers taste like anything other than fetid leprechaun wee.

But my friend was right. What I’d learned to do, through a lot of hard work and self-reflection, was to act patient. I’d learned to act so patient, in fact, that my friends thought of me as a patient person. It’s like I’d gone around pretending to be Hamlet so convincingly they believed I was a doomed Danish prince.

At first this didn’t sit well with me. Great, I thought. So I should be nominated for an Oscar: Most Able to Pretend Patience in a Lead Role. I didn’t want to act patient, I wanted to be patient.

But then I talked to other people who I consider truly patient. And, turns out, they all have an asshole in their heads, too. Except for one person I know who does claim they never think badly about anyone. (Because I’m an asshole, I think they’re lying.)

Nowadays, I suspect that most of us who think of ourselves as innately impatient are just thinking of patience incorrectly. And it’s only by adjusting our thinking about patience, by seeing it as a skill rather than something we’re born with, that we can adjust our behavior.

And so I’ve actively embraced pretending to be patient, rather than trying to become a patient person. I do this through some physical tricks and some mental acrobatics. The first tool in my kit is a good old-fashioned deep breath. When a grown-ass person runs up to me and tattles on a classmate like we’re all eight years old, I don’t strangle that person. Instead, I take a calming breath. Sometimes I even take a few deep breaths as I count to 10. Counting to 10 is the big gun, the bazooka to the handgun that is a deep breath. There are times I need to deploy both, and that’s okay. They help me get my patience-face back on.

I also remind myself of the facts versus my perceptions, usually to refute the asshole in my head. When someone asks me a basic question about writing, for example, the asshole might scream, “OHMIGOD I’VE ANSWERED THIS 500 TIMES WHY ARE YOU ASKING THIS AGAIN WHY GOD WHY.” But the asshole is reacting out of its asshole-ish perspective. Yes, I’ve been asked that question 500 times. But this person is asking the question for the first time. Once I recalibrate myself to the facts (rather than my asshole brain’s perceptions), I can answer them as if for the first time.

Other than these little tricks (and a lot of schooling my traitorous face, which tries to give me away at every opportunity), I can’t really tell you how to act patient. You just have to practice. And you’ll fail, sometimes. Sometimes I snap, and I let the asshole answer curtly or badly, or my eyes roll before I can stop them. Luckily, I’ve also discovered that, when this happens, I can usually apologize and try to do better.

Because acting patient has made my life better in the same ways that being patient might. It’s helped me genuinely connect with my friends. I’m humbled and inspired by their lives and their ideas. Acting patient means that, in my love life, I’m more apt to be dating the person actually sitting across from me, rather than a figment of my imagination I’ve created by ignoring everything they’re telling me about themselves. As a teacher, obviously, it means that I’ve yet to strangle anyone. And you don’t earn tenure by strangling people.

All of this is why, next time, when someone says I’m patient, I’ll try to believe them. In other words, I’ll try acting patient with myself. Learning to do this has been my hardest lesson, one which seems like a startlingly generous gift after all these years.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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