Waiting, or taking a time-out for oneself, is essentially a method to avoid becoming reactive; the reactivity being the very thing that exacerbates the problems rather than getting the situation back to neutral. If we wait, i.e., manage our anxiety, we have a better chance of discerning whether the thing bothering us is just an ‘irritant’ or a ‘catastrophe’. Though it may sound unusual that someone wouldn’t know the difference, think back to any situation in which you felt a sense of urgency to act off your feeling state:
-your father did his ‘patronizing thing’ with you
-your manager said you weren’t being invited to the critical summit conference, but that your colleague would go instead
-your partner said he’s feeling really turned off
-the person with whom you’d (thought you) had that great date didn’t text you the next day
-you started recognizing you were overeating but rather than try to problem-solve your way through it, you gave up, thinking “I’ve messed up anyway, so I may as well binge”
-your wife, yet again, said she doesn’t want sex now
-your husband said you vent your anger at him just as your mother did to your father
-your child had a melt-down in front of everyone attending the school function
-your partner is going away on a business trip and you worry that if you don’t discuss the problem right away the relationship won’t make it
-you’ve been on a strict diet and your weight hasn’t budged
The list is infinite. And the kinds of feelings that are elicited – which are truly difficult to bear – trigger sensations of: abandonment, feeling unworthy or shameful, loss of pride, hopelessness, helplessness and feeling out of control. Not good places to be.
The premise in waiting, or in a time-out, is akin to the waiting overnight before sending that email about which you’re not sure of the tone. That is, when we act on impulse we reduce adaptive responding and then are more likely to muck up some of our really promising interpersonal opportunities. Even when we think we have it down pat, and we’re not going to react similarly in the future, the event happens, and we’re back to our primitive selves. The waiting is the device that allows us to metabolize our feeling into its parts (and that much of it is our anxiety about the situation rather than it being truly dire in and of itself).
A case in point: Ed explains: “Shelly said she didn’t want to continue our relationship when I told her I wanted to start splitting our expenses. It felt as if she were comparing me negatively to her other boyfriends, and that I came up short, and I got furious. So Ed took a ‘time-out’, and waited, going to the gym for a while instead. In that hour or two he reminded himself that it wasn’t shameful to want to share costs, and that it was more about how he wanted more equality in the relationship. His fury had stemmed both from the fear of losing Shelly if he didn’t accede to the things or terms she wanted and from the feeling of shame and loss of pride for wanting it (in the face of her being so opposed to it).
In waiting, he’d also come to understand that if he kept trying to ‘please’ her and behave as the version of himself that he thought she wanted, his resentment toward her would soar – as it had with his last girlfriend. And, above all, he could see as well that he didn’t have to despise her for disagreeing. In fact, during the waiting period, he realized that she’d gone into her own sad place of feeling he must not value her as much anymore if he wasn’t willing to pay.
Ed came to understand that he simply needed to explain more precisely what he wanted (more equality in the relationship rather than a literal 50-50 split), let her know he understood where she might be taking this change in her own head, and to offer some better ways to discuss it – in order to arrive at a comfortable solution for both of them.
Juan Carlos explains: “I couldn’t bear to think I could lose this unusual new girlfriend. She was smart and beautiful and like no one I’d ever met. And she was so fully comfortable with herself. But I couldn’t have her as much as I wanted her. She was very independent of me and I didn’t know how to manage that kind of relationship. So I’d worry if I didn’t hear back from her and I’d want to text her all the time, each time showing her how special she was”. And Juan Carlos convinced himself that she’d appreciate his constant reminders of him in her life. Yet he couldn’t see that he’d created his own world of meanings rather than being sensitive to how she was actually experiencing him. And the more he did that, the more she began to pull away (and feedback-loops being what they are – he’d seek her out even more feverishly).
What allowed him to save and then repair the relationship was 1) his willingness to recognize he’d lost many relationships before and that he was clearly playing a role in the demise of each of them and, 2)understanding that his anxiety burgeoned whenever he didn’t have her attention and that he had to work actively to reduce it.
Thus, with every impulse to call or text, he learned to wait it out, realizing that by containing the anxiety – recognizing it for what it was (anxiety rather than just being ‘in love with her’ and begin to self-soothe rather than act impulsively – the intense need to text would fade.
The following are all forms of waiting in the service of arriving at a cleaner and more informed outcome:
-learning to see the situation as non-catastrophic
-seeking ways to soothe the anxiety
-finding a distraction-
-using problem-solving and mindfulness techniques
-using self-talk and ‘re-framing’ to explain to ourselves more clearly what happened
-using the above to remove the sense of ‘threat’ or danger that comes with what happened
-seeking someone we know with whom to talk it out
(and more techniques get added to this list as you learn those skills and coping methods that work for you)
It should be added that one of the critical variables that will obviate the person’s ability to change behavior is the use of alcohol and other substances. This is because it not only avoids dealing with the problem, but it’s a form of getting too skillful at eluding the problem – which makes it more and more difficult (rather than less so) to face such problems in the future. It’s as if you’re rehearsing never having to deal with tough feelings; and we get awfully good at the things we rehearse…(Next Blog Post)