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Impatience under the microscope

By - Apr 23, 2016 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

Gluttony is little more than indulging in guilty pleasures and curiosity (only) killed the cat. What about impatience? It is another one of those traits we reluctantly call a character flaw, especially when we are the ones who have it. When it is not simply valued as a mark of high standards and perfectionism, it is at worst looked upon with leniency. Yet at the same time patience is a praised virtue. And we have all witnessed the effect impatience has on others, the pressure put by impatient people on those around them and the tension that ensues, none of which is ever pleasant. In the long run, this kind of pressure on others can even prove to be destructive. Françoise Klein has put this perhaps not so innocent character trait under the microscope. The following is the first instalment of the results of her work.

“The more one’s mind expands, the more patient and tolerant one becomes.”
Ostad Elahi, 100 Maxims of Guidance, Robert Laffont, 2000

This maxim by Ostad Elahi has helped me better understand how patience works, but even more how impatience works. I used to cloak this character flaw in positive traits by calling it zealousness or sharpness of mind, what some coaches call “constructive impatience”. But whether exteriorized or not, it is more often than not a weakness. If you go back to the etymology, im-patient people are people who are incapable of bearing, of enduring. They cannot stand certain situations or cannot “suffer” certain people. In medicine, a “patient” is a person who must endure sickness and sometimes await death.

It is often impatience that will lead a child to throw a tantrum and then sink into anger. In disturbed adults, impatience can be mistaken for anxiety or frustration, but in reasonable adults it leads to irritation, abruptness, exasperation and finally anger. In all cases, it is characterized by the inability to handle frustration. Impatient people seek agency over others and the world at large; they forget that they are part of a whole and that they are themselves dependent on those very people who seem to be so incompetent in their eyes.

Let us turn to semiology. Just as in medicine, studying the signs of the phenomenon should help us better understand it. Once we have unmasked impatience and described its consequences, we will have to look for its possible causes. The picture it will give us will help us improve our self-knowledge and in turn help us set up strategies to avoid “destructive impatience” and to strengthen our patience. With Ostad Elahi’s sentence in mind, moving forward in this presentation, we will see that the root of impatience is intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

Semiology. The signs of impatience

Certain gestures and behaviours can be considered as red flags as they are symptomatic of a surge of impatience. Impatience invades the mind and then makes the body agitated. Who hasn’t caught themselves seething with impatience in a traffic jam or while standing in line? Modern life is full of situations where self-control and patience are put harshly to the test. This irritation (which does indeed “itch”) often gets the better of us when we are dealing with children. In some cases it can turn to rage: How can it take them so long to put their shoes on when we are already late? Here raising one’s voice is an unmistakable red flag. But at other times the signs of impatience can be more subtle. We might interrupt someone, or get distracted and lose track of what they are saying. And then, more generally, there is this tendency to make decisions too quickly or to act before thinking, as if we were fully in charge of our destinies. In learning situations, excessive eagerness to make progress can lead us to cut corners. This would be the case of a student whose only concern is to accumulate degrees and has a hard time accepting failure. Similarly, at a moral or spiritual level, we may be impatient to see ourselves making progress.

The causes of impatience. What sets it off?

Behind impatience there is pride, and also a form of greed, an impulse to take possession of something (“I want it all and I want it now”), much like the relationship of an animal to its territory. Two keywords can help us grasp what is going on here: demands and ignorance. These are also at the heart of intolerance and affect the core of our relationships with others.

Passions, impulses, frustration

An animal may manifest impatience–a horse will scrape the ground with one front hoof–but it will only become angry when its well-being is threatened. Humans, on the other hand, manifest impatience as soon as things do not go as fast as they expect or when they see an obstacle preventing them from reaching their goals. It is a primitive instinct that indicates a lack of maturity. Grossly emotional people are the most impatient. Their narrow-mindedness prevents them from seeing beyond appearances and understanding the causes of events. Impatience is sometimes associated with passion, the emotional burn that precipitates us toward the object of our desire. Contemporary culture glorifies such momentum, but most often it is the sign of a lack of reason and maturity.

Helplessness in the face of destiny

Impatience is the result of frustration: our mind projects itself onto a very specific future, which we envision and desire. When what we actually experience seems to take us away from that future, we become impatient. In Western societies, the idea that individuals must become masters of their own destinies leads to expectations that everything should unfold according to their will and at the time they want. With a sense of urgency, we seek to maintain a grip on things, on time, on the environment. Whether our impatience is directed at ourselves or at others, it confronts us with limitations that resist our efforts and will not submit to our will. We realise that we are not actually “all-powerful” and it is unbearable. Life then becomes a source of uncountable situations that exasperate us: when we demand something that doesn’t come, when we scold someone for being too slow, when society just doesn’t improve or we ourselves don’t improve fast enough, etc. This lack of acceptance that borders at times on rebellion, has its equivalent in the spiritual field in how we relate to God’s will. Impatient people fundamentally lack trust and easily manifest pride. When in doubt, they expect and even demand signs or proof.

Demands and intolerance

Unreasonable or inappropriate demands are also reinforced by a form of intolerance that reveals a dysfunctional relationship with others. Impatient people would have everything and everyone adapt to their own pace. They consider themselves entitled to “push” reality to get immediate results and for things to be perfect. But what they want to see as zeal is merely anxiety and hyperactivity. And it affects others. Impatient people are blinded by their expectations: they believe such expectations to be necessary, even virtuous, and thus want others to conform to them. As they are convinced that their impatience is actually a virtue, they tend to interpret the patience of others as indolence or nonchalance!

The ignorance of the vain

Impatience actually implies a considerable lack of understanding and a lot of prejudice. When we do not accept things as they are, it is often because we do not understand why they are the way they are. When we want to impose our views forcefully or when we interrupt someone, we display narrow-mindedness and intolerance: while we may be convinced we have a vivacious mind, we are actually being vain and primitive; we take other people’s place instead of putting ourselves in their place. Hence the importance of thinking before we act, of “expanding our minds”, as we will see further on.

Moral Essays (1671-1675)

Impatience, which prompts people to contradict others, is a considerable fault. One does not necessarily need to contradict all false opinions; one needs to show general restraint […], which proves difficult to one’s amour–propre.

Impatience, which prompts us to contradict others vehemently, is due only to the fact that we find it barely tolerable to admit that others might have feelings different from our own. It is because those feelings are contrary to our own that they hurt us, not because they go against the Truth. Should our objective be to benefit those whom we contradict, we would take other measures and other ways. What we really want is to impose our own opinions on them and to raise ourselves above their heads; or rather, we contradict them in order to take some petty revenge for the vexation they caused us in challenging our opinions. So this process involves at the same time Pride that causes the vexation, and a want of Charity that urges us to take revenge by uttering some indiscreet contradiction, and hypocrisy that has us cloak these corrupt sentiments in the pretext of the love for Truth and the charitable desire to enlighten others; when, in fact, we only aim to satisfy ourselves. […]

Therefore, we should consider this impatience—that prompts us to rise up without proper judgement against anything that seems false to us—a very considerable fault, that is often far greater than the supposed error from which we would like to set others free. Thus, as we should first be charitable to ourselves, our primary concern should be to work on ourselves and try to get our minds to reach a state in which we are able to dispassionately endure others’ opinions that seem false to us so that we might oppose them only when driven by the desire to be helpful.

Adapted from Pierre Nicole, Œuvres philosophiques et morales, Hildesheim/New York, Georg Olms Verlag, 1970

Consequences. What we lose when we are impatient

The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne describes impatience and its consequences as follows:

“The fierceness and violence of desires hinder the execution of what we undertake more than they serve it. They fill us with impatience towards thwarted or delayed events; and with acrimony and suspicion towards those we deal with. We can never carry out well the things by which we are possessed and driven.”

Adapted from Essays, Book 3, chap. 10

There is every indication that impatient people are harmed by their own behaviour. Should they reach the goals they have set—and they convince themselves that these goals justify their behaviour—it is often to their own detriment and that of others.

On a physical and emotional level

The stress that we attribute to modern society is largely due to our own behaviour. It often leads us back to our impatience, particularly when it takes on aggressive forms, whether openly expressed or repressed. This stress, we feel it—and we spread it to others—with all the damage it causes: cardiac, digestive, muscular or nervous disorders, insomnia, etc. Let us again begin with the most obvious manifestations, with the most visible types of behaviour. Stressed impatient people develop hypersensitivity to their environment: they will be tense and nervous, they will become restless or will shout at a mere trifle. And when they don’t manifest it outwardly, they will be inwardly consumed by their impatience. As one study showed, repressed anger sets off mixed tension migraines.

On a material level

Irascible impatient people will break things, either intentionally or by being hasty. They can often be violent. When driving, they can jeopardize their own lives and the lives of others by speeding or careless passing. When trying to save time, they end up wasting some.

On the level of human relationships

People who constantly get irritated or exasperated are likely to criticize and hustle those around them: “What? You’re still not ready?”, “My gosh, you are so clumsy, let me do it!”. Whether at work or at home, these kinds of comments, which can be direct or implicit, create an overall tension and sometimes even a sickening atmosphere. They often make things worse instead of improving them.

The fact is that impatient people are never alone; their character flaw affects their relationships with others. When we become upset because a child is slow, we are only taking our own imperatives into account without considering the child’s pace and his age. When we interrupt someone or when we jump the queue, we are violating the rights of others. Such actions indicate disrespect, a lack of humility and they provoke resentment in others. In addition, behaving in this way is a serious obstacle in any learning process. We start listening to someone’s explanations, but soon enough we’ve moved on: back in our own thoughts, we substitute our own reasoning to theirs and skip stages to anticipate the conclusion…

All of these behaviours are evidence of a narrow and intolerant mind. Other people can feel it and end up taking their distance. Impatient people run the risk of not being loved and of cutting themselves off from those around them.

On a moral and spiritual level

Small acts of impatience are frequent and can often go by unnoticed. But when they lead to a loss of self-control, to states that border on anger or anti-social behaviour, they are symptomatic of a lack of dignity, a lack of respect for oneself, for one’s soul and for the divine presence within oneself. Impatient and angry behaviours can in the long run lead to irreversible anti-ethical behaviours, that can go as far as physical violence or even murder. A moment of impatience can thus destroy a whole life. A person can literally kill as a result of impatience; but even outside these extreme cases, everyday life abounds in little symbolic murders: a violent emotion can damage an object, a sharp word can break a heart…

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  1. Linda Apr 23, 2016 7:30 pm 1

    I am so grateful now. Can’t believe the timing of this article! “It is a primitive instinct that indicates a lack of maturity.” so good. Thank you!

    1. A. Apr 25, 2016 8:48 am 1.1

      Yes, not only is it primitive but also stems from an animal behaviour “an impulse to take possession of something (“I want it all and I want it now”), much like the relationship of an animal to its territory”. Again we see how our flaws derive from our primate nature

    2. Linda Apr 30, 2016 5:42 pm 1.2

      Thank you A., your response made me think harder about those animalistic and impulsive behavior. Like the other day, a car was in front of me driving slowly and stopping on and off for no reason. I so much wanted to honk, curse, etc… which I didn’t but when I passed by him, I made sure to slow down, turn my head, look into his eyes, and by that look I was telling him what an ignorant driver he was! The delay he caused was no more than 30 seconds.

      I found some good tips for practicing patience on the internet, e.g. take a day where you make patience your goal for the entire day; slow down; practice delaying gratification; practice thinking before you speak.

      1. A. May 04, 2016 5:03 am 1.2.1

        Hello Linda – regarding the specific issue of impatience while driving, you raise an interesting point. I found that an effective approach to this specific problem is to have attention to the Source just when you get into the car/start driving + try to practice the following : “foregoing one’s rights” by giving way to other drivers. I usually set myself a goal of 3 times/day. In other words, I give way to other drivers, three times/day

      2. Linda May 05, 2016 5:02 pm 1.2.2

        Interesting A. I like your suggestion and I think it’s doable. Thank you!

  2. Elements Apr 23, 2016 7:58 pm 2

    I just discovered 2 days ago that I am impatient, and I admitted it to my family today, then this article popped up on my phone- magic!
    Amazing that for decades I never noticed it, or recognised what it was really.
    It does have a physiological effect on your body!

  3. Rozane Apr 23, 2016 8:51 pm 3

    This article is a true eye opener! I had never understood my impatience so precisely and to such an extent. Truly appreciate all the hard work and research done to create such a useful article. Thank You!
    As I understand it, it’s just as harmful to repress one’s patience. Seeing all the potential harm one can do to oneself and others due to “impatience” has really motivated me to try and work on this weakness of mine.

  4. P. Apr 24, 2016 4:45 am 4

    One of the excuses that my imperious self brings me most of the times is “being patient may lead me to seem foolish or stupid to myself or to others”.

    For example, when someone is talking to me, my automatic reaction is to give an answer to her as soon as possible. From a spiritual point of view, I know that I need to put in some effort to combat this automatic tendency and instead try to make more effort to listen well.

    My imperious self frequently makes excuse such as “You are looking as stupid, This person does not deserve much listening, She herself made a mistake so you should not try to understand her” or it sends frequent impulses “to say something!!!, you have listened enough now, answer!!! now your turn to talk!!!”

    1. adissam Apr 29, 2016 11:34 am 4.1

      Yesterday, someone was talking about spirituality and I cut her off. Why did I do that ? In my case, it’s probably that feel superior (i.e. “I think I know THE answer”). When this happens, I often think about this quote from the persian poet Saadi quoted by Ostad Elahi in the introduction to Knowing the Spirit:
      “Those who pretend to know about This are really ignorant.
            For the person who has learned something about It will not be heard from!”
      From the Gulistan (The Rose-Garden), translation by James W. Morris in Knowing the Spirit, pp.40 (SUNY, 2007).

      1. P. May 11, 2016 12:40 pm 4.1.1

        Thank you very much for the case described and the quote.

        In my case, when the other person has recently done something bad to me, my ego has stronger voice and leads me to disregard the person. I would tell myself things such as: “he trampled on my rights and now he is talking about spirituality!!!. You should not pay attention to him….”

      2. adissam May 22, 2016 1:30 pm 4.1.2

        I’m certainly not immune to such discrepancy between actions and words. So when this happens with someone else, I tend to be more lenient… but it takes time. To counteract such thoughts, I try to look for positive character traits in the other person (she is calm, generous, sensitive and often in a positive mood…).

        For your specific case, have you also tried looking at it from a different angle?

  5. Impatient Indeed Apr 24, 2016 7:15 am 5

    This article was sent to me by a close friend of mine. It’s a reminder… I need to work on myself, constantly, non-stop… How embarrassing but sometimes something from within takes over and rides me and it’s too hard to stop it at that point… Thank you for friends like this who can remind you at the right time… before it’s too late!

  6. judy Apr 24, 2016 7:24 am 6

    Thank you so much for this amazing and moving article. I personally know and love a wonderful person close to me who is deeply afflicted with this problem. It’s heart breaking to witness the damage that is caused by this person to themselves (physically and emotionally), their family and coworkers. Does anyone think that there is any way others can help a person who is deeply and chronically impatient?

    1. A. Apr 25, 2016 8:59 am 6.1

      Maybe you could try to help this person by showing her/him how the reactions to his/her impatience are making his/her life miserable. You need to reason the person. However, if the person refuses to see and keeps on saying that it is always the fault of others, there is not much you can do because this is the issue and it needs to be tackled even before impatience. Someone who is very proud cannot learn from life and others.

      What I have seen happening over and over in life is that when someone has a major flaw, they end up in situations where they suffer from what they do to others as a result of their flaw. For instance I have a friend who always backbites. She had to change jobs and guess what? In her new job a group of people was talking behind her back all the time. I myself was very arrogant and ended up getting a job where my manager was even more arrogant and humiliated me regularly. etc… The difficult part is to see that these scenarios are just scenarios to teach us a lesson.

    2. H. Apr 26, 2016 4:11 am 6.2

      You are somehow describing my own case. In my case, the main reason I am making physical or emotional damage is that I cannot accept my destiny. Really! I mean I still cannot actually accept it. Accept all the conditions I am in and change myself in a way that He will be satisfied with me.

    3. Run Apr 28, 2016 11:37 am 6.3

      With respect to being in a hurry: If the thing one needs to do is important, it is good to be in a “hurry”, but if the thing is not “important” (like washing the dishes) one does not benefit from being in a hurry. So one needs to distinguish the cases and know when to slow down and when to speed up, so overall there will be a balance.

      “We must *weave speedily* on the warp and weft of (our own) process of spiritual perfection….” (Ostad Elahi, Knowing the Spirit, pp.53-54).

  7. Lisa Apr 24, 2016 6:08 pm 7

    What struck me most is that impatience has to do with pride. I am thankful for the article. It showed also what can bring impatience on so many other levels.

  8. Homayoun Apr 24, 2016 7:17 pm 8

    Thank you for this amazing article. I think society’s norm has made me become impatient by making it ok to be that way. Companies have adopted this kind of poor behavior and it takes place from the top of the food chain. I will start working on myself to fight my impatience, which takes place mostly at work for me.

  9. Mick Apr 24, 2016 10:57 pm 9

    I noticed yesterday that I was being more impatient than normal and justified it. Then I saw this article around an hour later. I am so grateful for the focus it has given and now I can see if I can put it into practice on the areas already identified.

  10. Sarah Ann Apr 24, 2016 11:28 pm 10

    I am so glad this much explanation, anatomy and pathology was provided. In my neck of the wood (Los Angeles), the culture is to rush and sometimes people brag about not having patience, which means being self-centered, expecting too much from people, not being able to cut them some slack and being intolerant to others’ shortcomings. Admittedly i was not born patient and every moment of every day I have to struggle to be patient. It is harder to practice this with my family members than with other people!

  11. Maya Apr 25, 2016 5:56 pm 11

    Thanks for leading me to understand I am so impatient !

  12. Nel Apr 26, 2016 2:41 am 12

    I am so grateful for this article. I always knew that impatience was one is my biggest weaknesses but never realized how damaging it could be to myself and others around me. I had no idea that this fault originated from my arrogance and the fact that I want everything to be done my way. Wow, this article has really opened my eyes and I hope that I can be more respectful and tolerant of others opinions and start practicing as of tomorrow.

  13. JDM12 Apr 27, 2016 1:03 pm 13

    Thanks to all for the insights.

  14. MR Apr 27, 2016 8:30 pm 14

    For years I have tried to work on one of my key weaknesses: Anger. I see now, that my anger is nothing but a natural symptom to a far deeper issue of mine that translates into impatience and lack of tolerance. As I was reading this wonderful article, scenes of my behaviors throughout my life, ever since childhood, were being played one by one in my mind and I felt ashamed. Hopefully I can put this feeling into good use.

    1. Mini May 08, 2016 10:13 pm 14.1

      I also felt exactly the same:

      “scenes of my behaviors throughout my life, ever since childhood, were being played one by one in my mind”.

      The thing is that I didn’t know why I get bitter and act like that. Now as if I have discovered a new creature/virus inside of myself I feel better, because knowing about the problem is kind of liberating. Since the day I read this article I can catch the virus better and I could actually practice being patient and it feels so good 🙂

  15. Nahjaf Apr 28, 2016 12:51 pm 15

    I am so grateful for this article, thank you.
    When reading it, it felt like someone was profiling me, and it was at once, alarming and exhilarating. Alarming, as it was spelling out the consequences of my affliction; and exhilarating, as I could finally understand the root causes all of these manifestations, from which I have been suffering, and, which I have always been lead to believe to be justified.
    Now that I have thankfully become aware that what I deemed as “constructive impatience” is in fact a hugely destructive one, I am eager to learn of strategies to fight it and would be grateful of any suggestions in this regard.

  16. Hiva Apr 30, 2016 7:03 pm 16

    Please give a step by step solution!

  17. hms May 03, 2016 5:20 pm 17

    since this article has been published, I have been keeping track of all the instances that my patience is tested during the day. I have noticed this in everything from proofreading emails before I send them, to listening to other peoples’ stories without interruption.

    One area that is so alarming to me is how much patience I lose (and thus anger I have) when I am stuck in traffic or if someone is in my way on the street. Living in a busy city, I come across crowds all the time, and I get SO worked up anytime someone hinders me, even for a brief moment. I do not know if I can work on this, as it is just too hard, but I have noticed this weak point is so pervasive in my character since this article was published.

    1. A. May 04, 2016 5:32 am 17.1

      Losing one’s temper while driving is certainly one of the main “scenarios” that test our patience. I have the same problem as you and am tested regularly since I also live in a big city (Paris). To fight this, I have found that having a moment of attention to the Source when I start driving and then try to practice giving way to others 3 times/day when driving, was really useful to fight against impatience in this specific context.

      1. hms May 05, 2016 3:45 pm 17.1.1

        Thank you, A. This is very helpful.

        I live in New York, but I do not drive. I usually take public transportation, and this gets to be such a hassle. I snare at people who take up the aisle, and get so frustrated. I start to think negatively…essentially I turn into a monster as soon as I step onto a train or bus! I think doing a prayer as I enter would be a good solution!

    2. Lisa Jan 11, 2017 4:51 am 17.2

      As you mentioned, driving in big cities is a test for our behavior, our intolerance, our pride and our impatience. There was a time when every time I entered my car, I would say a prayer first and than get on the road. It helped. Years ago I left the city. Today I’m back. I’m not driving anymore, but the traffic still angers me and I’m back where I started. So for me it is still a test I have to cope with and it shows me that impatience is more than not being patient.

  18. Saga May 19, 2016 7:00 pm 18

    This article is amazing and it has already helped me to not honk or say anything to others while I’m driving. Two question though, if you work with kids and they don’t listen and just run around and do what they want, shouldn’t you raise your voice to show authority? And secondly, if the people you talk with never take a pause to allow anyone else to speak, shouldn’t you cut their monologue?
    Thank you!

  19. JWY May 23, 2016 9:26 pm 19

    Thank you for taking the time to present such an in-depth study on this. With no doubt, it takes a tremendous amount of understanding and effort to make “patience” part of one’s character and I hope to learn and practice patience to the best of my ability and more, for as I try to navigate my character with patience and grace, it seems to be a never ending challenge at best!

    Can you please help answer the following question?

    At times we do our best in carrying out our responsibilities and meeting deadlines (we do our share), and those whom we depend on as a whole also do their best, yet, due to unexpected events, meeting deadlines and delivering on time may be jeopardized at the expense of a client, which in the end would end up being our disappointment, resulting in negative thoughts and energy at a personal level.

    What is the best course of behavior in such a scenario? To submit to what we do not have any control over with content? How do we deal with the fear of failure?

    Your comments are greatly appreciated.



  20. Lisa Jan 11, 2017 5:00 am 20

    While reading this article again, I realise that since I last read it my biggest problem with one person I was being impatient with was recognized and worked on. Ever since, when I am getting impatient I remind myself of what I read and most of the time it helps me to wait and see and not judge. I also recognized than that this weakness of mine is first and foremost pride.

  21. Aria Jul 30, 2017 10:36 pm 21

    Thank you for such a useful message in this world filled with deformed values. One of the key questions in job interviews is ‘Please tell us about your main weakness.’ And a standard answer (that is, an advice provided in specialized books) is “impatient”. HR interview experts tell us that positive associations triggered by giving ‘impatient’ as an answer are ambitious, high-flying, man of action, driven, etc. 

    Now thanks to your articles ‘Impatience under the microscope’ and ‘I am impatient but I am working on it’, I am in a better position to fight against my impatience, and to stop accepting such an egocentric behaviour as a positive business attitude (internally and externally).

  22. FA Jun 04, 2019 4:47 am 22

    Thank you so much for providing this life changing article! It has opened my eyes to a fault that has jeopardized my life in so many ways. My pride and narrow-mindedness are obvious now, but I had never even considered them!
    Now I am more aware of things I have been doing that are wrong, such as interrupting conversations, judging quickly, getting angry, and many more undignified behaviors….

  23. Juneone Dec 27, 2019 6:48 pm 23

    Reading this again for the holidays. It is extremely helpful in this season of reconnecting with family that I have not been around in many years. A perfect setting practice.

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