The topic of ‘waiting’ has come up several times for me this week, in a variety of situations. I find it to be a powerful concept that can be fairly difficult to accept, and even harder to employ. As counselors, parents, teachers, leaders, and partners one of the greatest life pressures is in the feeling that we should always know what to do. “What if my client asks me a question I don’t know the answer to?” “What if my kid doesn’t listen to me?” “What if my partner does something hurtful?”
What if, what if, what if.
That feeling you are experiencing as you ask yourselves this question of “What if?” is anxiety. Do you feel it? Adrenaline causing a squeeze in your chest, making your heart beat louder and more quickly? That shortness of breath. That strong desire to jump into action? But ‘what if’ the best course of action was no action at all – at least at first? What if pausing, waiting, and silence were your best tools for a successful outcome?
When we experience anxiety and fear (fear of the unknown, fear of making a mistake, fear of being inadequate), our brains kick into survival mode, to our brains and bodies fear of the unknown feels just like fear of a predator – fear is fear. So, as the highly evolved animals we are, our brains and bodies jump into “save me” mode. Adrenaline courses through us preparing for fight/flight, which is exactly the reason we feel the need to jump into action – to hurl angry words at our partner, to get big and demanding with our children, and to launch into a know-it-all lecture for our clients. We are protecting ourselves in that moment. However, when we protect ourselves, when our focus is on “save me”, we aren’t using our relational and critical thinking capabilities. “Save me” mode doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, or about consequences and long-term effects.
So imagine that in that moment when your brain and body want to jump into action, to defend or to flee, that instead you choose to pause. To wait. To allow silence and space. This is not always easy, our desire to save ourselves is strong. Asking ourselves to pause in a critical moment takes practice and patience, and most of all, self-awareness. Because, we can’t pause in a moment we don’t recognize is happening.
But with practice, you will. And then you will have a choice to pause. And in that pause you give yourself time to slow your heart rate, breathe a little more deeply, and remember that as a clinician you don’t need to have all the answers, as a parent you don’t need to have control, as a partner you don’t need to win the argument. In pausing you allow your brain and body to remember that it is in fact not in danger, that this person or feeling you are confronted with is not the enemy, and that in giving yourself a moment you get to make a conscious choice as to how to proceed.
Clearly, I am a strong believer in the pause, the wait, the silence. But, not everyone agrees with me. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, “Waiting doesn’t work.” Waiting out my anger or discomfort, waiting out my child’s tantrum, waiting out the moment…doesn’t work.
My question in return has become,
"At what point in your waiting did you decide your waiting wasn’t working, and therefore stopped waiting and did something else?"
To me, it is like a law of the universe – waiting works, because when you decide to wait out discomfort you don’t stop waiting until discomfort has passed. When you decide to wait out a child’s big emotions, you don’t stop waiting until the wave of emotions have passed. Waiting always works if you allow it. And when waiting is done in a calm, loving, compassionate way – it saves you from hurting your relationships, including the one you have with yourself.
So in the end, you do save you…but you also save the relationship in the process.