I’m running out of patience when we need patience the most

A reader writes:

I wonder if you have any ideas about dealing with minor annoyances that don’t seem so minor in the current situation.

Like many people, sometimes I find myself annoyed by some of my coworkers’ habits or quirks that are otherwise fairly harmless (at least I hope it’s many people and not just me being particularly petty). Most of the time it’s pretty easy to shrug off, or at most share a “really, again?” glance with a close coworker when that one guy does that one weird thing he always does in committee meetings.

However, I’m finding that during this stressful time, some of my coworkers are exhibiting these behaviors more frequently, and also that I get annoyed by them more easily and have a harder time letting it go. Most of these are truly minor things, so I’m not looking to confront my coworkers on it or anything — but I don’t want to feel aggravated by these little things about my coworkers all the time, especially since I know they’re probably struggling too!

For context, I feel that my mental health otherwise is as good as one can expect under the circumstances; all my stress seems to be manifesting itself as having very little patience for my coworkers’ quirks. Do you have any strategies that might help me here?

I’ve long been a fan of the work of clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, who for 15 years wrote the mental health advice column “Baggage Check” for the Washington Post, so I asked her if she would weigh in here. She was up for it, so I’m going to let her take this one:

I’ve definitely been hearing this a lot lately. Not only is it a very natural reaction to the heightened stress and disruption we are all experiencing, but there may be new annoyances you’ve never had to deal with before (I can’t believe she’s doing that with her Zoom background again! or Why has he not learned to choose a camera angle that isn’t Full Nosehair?) So you are not alone. And while it’s good that you are coping well overall, two things will help you cope even better: managing your physical stress response, and mentally reframing your annoyance.

First, the physical. We’re under heightened threat and uncertainty, which means our autonomic nervous systems are frazzled. Call it irritation, impatience, agitation, or just having a short fuse — but your physical stress response is likely on high alert these days, and that creates tangible ripple effects in your body. You can’t eradicate that entirely, but you can help calm that response in the moment by paying specific attention to where, exactly, you feel things. Muscle tension in your neck? Clenched jaw? Shallow breath? Heat in your chest? Tight fists? The more you can label your individual body cues, the better you can target them through breathing techniques, muscle relaxation exercises or even just a few minutes of dancing like nobody’s watching (because really, nobody’s watching.)

You can also keep the agitation in check by being sure to get enough sleep (and quality sleep at that — put your phone to bed before yourself), upping your daylight and fresh air (in safe ways!), and using your brain creatively in pursuits outside of work-work. Boundaries between work and home are being obliterated, but they’re still important: enact a visual reminder when you start and end your workday, as a mental reset, even if it’s just putting away your laptop or changing your clothes. You may already be doing these things, of course, but often we think that we’re prioritizing them more than we actually are.

Now, for the mental part — which will help you let go once you do get irritated. Create a simple affirmation that sums up what you’re aiming to do: “I am building my patience” or “I can be flexible with people’s flaws” or “When I forgive others, I add kindness to the world.” You can even pair it with a calming visual while relaxing your breathing. The key is to find deeper meaning in this, as hokey as that may sound when on the surface you’re just trying to be more patient with your coworker’s constant throat-clearing. Ultimately, though, connecting with that larger purpose is what allows us to tolerate difficulty, because we can frame it as part of a larger — and very worthy — battle that will help us grow.

Finally, save some of that compassion and patience for yourself. It’s okay to be irritated. It’s okay to have noncharitable thoughts about your coworkers’ quirks. That need not define you. Let yourself have a private laugh at times, or blow of some steam by venting to a loved one. As long as you treat your coworkers directly with respect and empathy, you can forgive yourself for the times you fall short of forgiving them (especially if they’re a frequent user of the word “pivot”).

Me again. This is the first time someone has presented affirmations in a way that’s resonated with me, and I think it’s because these examples reframe your response to remind you of who you want to be.  “I can be flexible with people’s flaws” and Andrea’s other suggestions keep the focus on the way you want to operate, rather than just letting yourself react with the feelings of the moment (and how many regrets could we all avoid if we did that consistently?).

If you want to hear more from Andrea (and you should — she’s great), her latest book is Detox Your Thoughts, which uses clinical stories and personal examples to illustrate the mental traps that are most associated with unhappiness.

She’s also the author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up with Your Friends.

* I make a commission if you use those Amazon links.

I’m running out of patience when we need patience the most was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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