I visited my father recently and had another one of those conversations where he talked about everything he’d been doing. Our conversation was dominated by him talking about his garden, his concerns, and why I haven’t come to visit sooner. He didn’t seem interested in how my life was going, so I stayed silent. At the same time, I felt irritated by the one-sided conversation, lost patience, and wanted to leave. Why would I want to stay if he wasn’t interested in my life?
Patience is a virtue. Virtues are supposed to help us live more meaningful lives. Why wouldn’t we be patient if this virtue was true? My interaction with my father didn’t feel very meaningful. Could I create more meaningful interactions with him if I became more patient?
I’ve reflected on this and realized that our behaviors are driven by what we value. There can be many specific factors that cause impatience, but at a general and foundational level it seems to be how we relate to relationships and stress.
Relationships connect us to the world.
We connect with our partners, we connect with the environment, we even connect with the rock when we’re climbing. We stay connected with our partner by staying in conflicts when they arise. We connect with the environment by doing something difficult to help it, like picking up trash or advocating for environmental protections. We connect with the rock climb by being curious about how to improve our performance. There’s something foundational about relationships: they focus our attention on something larger, that we’re a part of. Meaning comes from understanding how we’re interconnected in those relationships.
Being in relationships, though, is stressful. They ask us to move beyond our individual, separate understanding of ourselves. Our partners have different ideas about life, different behaviors, and those differences can cause conflict. Advocating for the environment takes time away from other things we need to do and that can add additional stress and pressure to our lives. Rock climbs that are beyond our ability shift us out of our comfort zones and heighten the possibility of falling and failing, adding stress to the experience.
Valuing relationships makes sense because we can’t exist in the world without them. Thus, honoring stress that occurs in the various relationships we engage should be something important that we value. This makes sense, yet we can still resist engaging in them simply because they’re hard. It’s helpful to have a tool to use so we can stay focused and enjoy the whole process. The tool we teach is called the 1-2-3 drill.
In step 1, we accept reality as it is. Acceptance shifts our attention into the moment so we can work with what is occurring. We accept how people are behaving as a starting point for our interactions with them. We do this for ourselves also. We accept that we’re both doing the best we can in current conflicts, given our ability to deal with stress matched against the stress in the situation. The reason we know we’re both doing the best we can is the evidence of what’s actually occurring in the moment. Fighting it would be fighting reality. Acceptance doesn’t condone behavior however; it positions us for seeing the current reality clearly, making an informed decision, and working within the situation to influence it in helpful ways.
In step 2, we practice defenselessness. The ego likes to defend itself or feels offended by others. We don’t defend our ego; we don’t offend other people’s egos. Rather, we lower our defenses so we can stay connected, while also maintaining a learning situation that’s within boundaries. Boundaries are like yes/no fall lines. Stray into the no-fall zone and we’ll panic when we get too stressed and react with the fight-or-flight response seeking escape. Knowing the boundaries around the level of stress that’s appropriate helps us stay engaged.
In step 3, we take action with tough love. Life is difficult; it’s tough. Don’t be surprised when stress and difficulty enter the relationship. Expect it. By acknowledging that life is difficult, we know why it’s stressful. We can offer ourselves compassion for that stressful journey, rather than be self critical. Compassion softens our defenses and allows us to connect with ourselves and others. Connection helps us speak our needs, listen to the other’s needs, and work together to find small actionable steps to meet those needs.
Patience permeates the whole 1-2-3 process. We’re patient in acceptance because we don’t rush the situation to some premature conclusion. By accepting each other in our full expression—helpful and unhelpful behaviors—we allow time to help each other grow through the stressful conflict.
Putting up defenses shuts down our willingness to be present for and work through difficulties with others. Defenselessness helps us relax into the stressful encounter and be patient with its resolution. Clarifying boundaries around what constitutes learning situations gives us confidence that we can be patient.
Acknowledging that life is tough helps us be patient to work with struggles. Interacting with others with love and respect creates the kind of encounters we willingly engage. Together, tough love demonstrates our patience.
The 1-2-3 drill puts us in direct contact with what’s really important to value: stress and the relationships that cause it. Valuing these diminishes our need to be patient because we actually want to be in the stressful encounter. Valuing stress and relationships becomes foundational for how we behave in life.
My conversation with my father revealed what I valued, and it wasn’t stress or building a stronger relationship with him. I’d asked myself why I would want to stay with him if he wasn’t interested in my life. If I’d simply taken the extra step and answered that question and applied the 1-2-3 drill, I would have been directed to some answers.
Reflecting on it now, I realize that I expected him to be different and made assumptions about his interest in my life. I’d shifted my focus away from what I could actually control: my own behavior and how I chose to interact in the conversation. Doing that would have helped me be patient with him. I would have a desire to connect and understand more about who he is, share who I am, and enjoy our unique relationship. That kind of interaction creates meaningful experiences for us to share.
Practice tip: Three Steps to Patience
Changing what you value can build patience. You’ll build stronger relationships by valuing the stress that you’ll inevitably encounter in them. The 1-2-3 drill can help because it puts you directly into the stressful situation in an optimal way. Prior to applying it, though, you need to be aware that you’re in stress so you don’t react. Then, go through the steps of the drill:
- Acceptance: Don’t think others should behave differently than they currently do. Any change in behavior has to be influenced in the moment. That influence comes in step 3, when you’re engaged with them. Therefore, accept how they’re behaving given the amount of stress in the situation and their level of ability to deal with it.
- Defenselessness: Lower your defenses to the degree that still maintains boundaries that allow learning. You don’t want to make yourself vulnerable to physical, mental, or emotional abuse. Know where your boundaries are.
- Tough Love: Honor the stress you’ll inevitably encounter. You have needs and so do others you engage with. Work together in kind ways to find out those needs and take small steps to get them met.