Years ago, I was told by a family counselor that I was “too patient”. Admittedly, that really threw me for a loop. “Too patient” — was that even a thing?
You see, my generation grew up being told that patience was a virtue and the definition of a virtue is: behavior showing high moral standards. Back in the day, being patient as a child mean being quiet and well behaved. I can chuckle now in hindsight with greater awareness that our youthful “patience” was really a test of will power — and a fear of the consequences if we failed. It had very little to do with high moral standards.
That counselor’s insight led me to reflect on my relationship with patience. I’d always been proud of being such a patient person, but I began to unpack all the ways that having too much patience might be causing some problems.
The tap root of my relationship with patience was silence. I’d developed a very common strategy of hiding and stuffing my emotions as a child. Better to be quiet than to give voice to what I was feeling. There were severe consequences for emotional outbursts and there were words of praise for keeping it together. So this strategy was reinforced time and again as the working model for success. I constructed a framework for my understanding of patience with a foundation of silence.
This is how the stratification of our childhood patterns begins. My motivation was to avoid negative consequences and keep the peace. This is not how to teach children about values and high moral standards. But my parents’ generation did not know better and was simply perpetuating the old Freudian practices of child-rearing.
As the oldest sister with two feisty younger brothers, I often felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect them. I wanted to protect them from not having patience and I wanted to ensure overall family harmony. A nearly impossible challenge for an 8 year old old. Not only that, my brothers were developing strategies of their own quite different from mine. In fact, I’m pretty confident that my youngest brother employed the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” strategy which he fueled with unchecked, tsunami sized emotions and outlandish behaviors. Attempting to achieve any sustainable peace was like herding cats.
It’s only been with a lot of reflection that I can see now how yet another strategy became part of my framework for patience. I began to put other’s needs ahead of my own. The sacrifice seemed noble when I was young. But it created a big disconnect for me over the years as I lost touch with what was most important for me. As a steadfast harmonizer, my motivation turned to keeping the peace and avoiding conflict. I barely spent any time giving consideration to what I truly needed to foster my talents, to feel safe and to explore my potential.
There was yet another discovery as I deconstructed what patience actually looked and felt like to me — I became a control freak.
Yikes…I did not like facing this truth.
While it was wrapped up in good intentions, my need to “control” the situation was masked as helpful, supportive and even kind. I’d swoop in without being asked to fix, resolve and correct anything for anybody. The sooner a crisis was resolved, the safer I felt. I rarely took the time to consider that what I was doing was overriding what someone else really needed or wanted.
When I was younger, this part of me felt like I was some sort of incredible fairy, possessing a magic wand and skipping merrily into chaos and shifting dark energy to glittery light and sugary joy. As an adult, I altered the image to be more realistic — a competent problem solver or organizer. True confession, I still held tight to the image of a magic wand. I just didn’t show it to anyone.
What I have learned about the unhealthy part of being an avid helper is that inadvertently we are robbing others of their agency, their growth spurts and their consequences. We aren’t helping at all – just overstepping our bounds – and dismissing the needs and desires of others.
Let’s take a step back and look at what I have unpacked about my concept of patience which I developed in childhood and carried into my adult life, mostly unconsciously. These were my blind spots:
I learned to be silent. I did not express my emotions externally and I did not process my emotions internally. I hoarded them. This lead to a many layers of unprocessed emotions and a lot of confusion in my heart and mind.
I became a harmonizing people pleaser and disconnected from an important aspect of myself — my own true needs. Brene Brown writes about how we hustle for validation of our worthiness. I was trying to find that sense of love and belonging by “doing” rather than “being”. I’d wear myself out to the point of exhaustion helping others and forget to take care of myself. The biggest discovery was that this became the root cause of my tug of war with resentment. So much internal conflict between wanting to help others and feeling resentful for not being appreciated or reciprocated.
My gift of being a helper got clouded and I became a controller. I rarely asked for help I truly needed. Pride got the best of me — I had to prove I could handle anything on my own but deep inside I was crushed that no one was reciprocating all the help I’d given. I hid my own vulnerabilities. Brene Brown has emphasized that vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, trust, love and belonging. By hiding my vulnerability, I disconnected myself from my own self-worth and from the stronger, lasting connections that were possible with others when we let our guard down and lead with empathy. We are not here to fix or rescue. We are here to support, encourage and witness each other’s journey.
Deconstructing patience was a meaningful exercise for me and it totally transformed my framework for this quality that I still find worthwhile. In fact, I value my patience today more than ever because the framework and the components of it have shifted. This pivot came from close examination of “motivation”.
I found the enneagram to be an incredibly useful tool for this work. Beatrice Chestnut, author of the Complete Enneagram, describes it as a personal owner’s manual for how we make sense of life. So many of our concepts, beliefs and narratives about who we are were formed in childhood. Our “motivations” in childhood are to make sense of the families and the world we live in. We develop coping strategies and use stories to get our needs met. Our core motivations in childhood pre-dispose us to construct frameworks we carry with us into our adult lives. But the big caveat is that our motivations change as we mature, as does our environment, our autonomy and agency. We often enter adulthood eager to change a lot of things but we use the old framework to build the new…..and we end up re-creating the past.
If I was operating on an old framework of patience that included being silent, not processing emotions as they occurred, not honoring my own needs, over-helping and controlling others, then I could be assured that my being “too patient” was the root cause of so much of my own internal unhappiness.
The starting point was redefining my motivation for cultivating patience.
I wanted to feel calm and grounded regardless of what was going on around me. As an adult, I knew that I cannot control how others react or respond in any given moment. What I can control is me and my responses.
I wanted to feel a strong unwavering self-worth. How I feel about me, my gifts, my contribution to others has to come from within. This required unabashed acceptance, self-compassion and a recommitment to my own self-confidence in my core values and a big nod to the fact that I too have needs.
I wanted to be a compassionate, empathic teacher/inspirer/role model for others. No more fixing or rescuing. Much more listening, holding space and asking questions only others could answer for themselves.
Revisiting my core motivations and upgrading them to be in alignment with the vision of the adult I’d always hoped to be was just the catalyst I need to tear down the old framework and rebuild with my new and improved definition of patience.
The “too patient” framework was unhealthy, full of insecurities and flawed coping strategies. The healthy and empowering framework for my patience has a strong foundation of grounded confidence. The scaffolding of my patience framework is a steady work in progress, flexible and resilient, and always evolving. I am no longer silent; I have found my voice and more discernment about when and how to use it. I know myself better and honor my own emotions, set boundaries and am clear about my needs and my values. I heed resentment if I start to feel it — it’s my warning light that I might be overstepping my boundaries in the helping department. I have replaced “let me do that for you” with “what does support or help look like for you?”
I’d like to think that deconstruction of the old “too patient” framework has been a Goldilocks process for me — and that I have moved to the “just right” place to be with my core value of healthy patience.
The biggest and most rewarding benefit to this entire process of deconstructing our old frameworks of motivation and values has been to witness how parenting is evolving. Children are being taught patience in a whole new way. Mindful parents are proactively teaching their children emotional agility and self control in empowering, healthy new ways. No more dismissing or stuffing a child’s emotions. It takes only a few minutes to help a child name and honor what they are feeling. Parents are helping children make better choices once they are somewhat disengaged from big, strong emotional tugs. Children are learning that they are not defined by their big emotions or their ever-changing behavioral patterns, they are actually learning from them.
The big pivot in changing how we parent and grandparent with emotional agility, healthy patience and greater self-awareness is that our children will get a consistent, supportive framework for who they are, what their natural talents and gifts are, and toolkit of healthy tools for navigating friendships, family and life.
This conversation with Andrew Chapman, psychotherapist and meditation teacher is so worthwhile if you want to learn how the enneagram can support your self awareness and self observation skills.
CHECK OUT THIS 11/17/2022 EPISODE: Unlocked: Mindfulness and the Enneagram https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/typology/id1254061093?i=1000586586066
Here are two of my favorite books for reading more about each of the nine types of the enneagram. Such insightful guides for understanding what our core motivations are in life:
Greater Good Magazine: Four Reasons to Cultivate Patience