By Keith Ablow, M.D.
Some years ago when I was chief resident in psychiatry at the New England Medical Center, I decided it was finally time to enter therapy myself. I was dating the woman who would later become my wife and I wanted to explore why I hadn't yet committed to her.
So I booked an appointment with a noted psychiatrist, about 10 miles from my home, and left early enough to get there on time. But 35 minutes later, I was lost amid curving backstreets - and already 15 minutes late.
I called the psychiatrist, apologized, and suggested we reschedule for another day. "Haven't you been avoiding therapy long enough?" he asked me.
I thought about it. Part of me wanted to dismiss the idea that my ambivalence could have turned me round and round until I was too late for my session. It seemed almost comical to think that I couldn't even commit to figuring out why I couldn't commit in a relationship. But I'd learned enough about the mind's defenses to know it was possible. It was also true that I had waited until my final year of psychiatric training to start out on the road to therapy.
"Yes," I said. "It's been long enough."
"Then keep trying to find me," he said. "I'll wait for you, no matter how much you wish I wouldn't."
Now, with the benefit of that therapy and 15 years spent treating my own patients, I know that being late is a way many of us express a range of hidden emotions - including avoidance of uncomfortable situations. Here's what your lack of punctuality might be saying about you - or someone you care about - and the keys to making a change.
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"I feel anxious"
Many people make themselves late, whether once or repeatedly, when heading to a job or to meet friends, because they feel apprehensive or stressed. It's as if deep, unresolved emotions are acting as resistors in the mind's circuitry, redirecting us away from the source of our discomfort.
If you find yourself 20 minutes late for lunch with a few friends three times in a row, it's time to wonder what's making you want to avoid them: Are the restaurants where you're meeting too pricey for your budget? At the back of your mind, are you worried that socializing is taking time from work you ought to be doing? Does someone in the group consistently pressure you to talk more openly about your kids or marriage than you wish to?
Once you've homed in on the underlying reason for your feelings, you need to decide how to address it. Planning is the enemy of anxiety. If the menu's beyond your budget, send a group e-mail suggesting a couple of "great food, great deal" restaurant choices. Your colleagues should get the idea that they're stressing you out with the four-star routine and dial it back. If it's that you're leaving too much unfinished work, plan to devote two extra hours to it the day or evening before. Whether or not you manage to cross everything off your to-do list, you've already earned your two-hour lunch break. And if someone's behavior makes you dread your next get-together, choose a time and place to raise the issue with her in a direct yet conciliatory way. The post-lunch phone call might start off, "I was thinking about how much I look forward to these lunches, for the most part. But there's something I'm not feeling so great about that I'd like to talk over with you."
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"I'm showing who's in power"
It's one thing to think, We're good friends. If I'm a few minutes late, it won't matter. It's quite another to think, She knows I'm busier than she is. It isn't a big deal if she waits a few minutes for me to get there. People who use lateness to signify they are special or more powerful than those they keep waiting may not plan to show up late, but there's often a quiet running commentary at the back of their mind suggesting that others will - and really should - wait for them.
I once coached an executive who was repeatedly late to meetings with the team working under her. It had come to the attention of her boss, who was unhappy about it. When I explored the reasons for the pattern, she admitted it was rarely the case that a true emergency prevented her from being on time. "Do you worry whether your team really accepts you as their leader?" I asked her.
She smiled. "It isn't like any of them ever leave before I get there," she said. Exactly. Waiting is a form of deference. And it can mean the late person wants - or needs - to be reminded she is superior and in control. It sounded to me like my client might be keeping people waiting for exactly this reason. "There are lots of ways you've proven yourself as a leader," I told her. "Once you believe that yourself, you won't need to keep testing people to see if you've proven it to them."
If someone you care about is pulling rank by always running late, lead by sharing your own feelings in a supportive way. Remember, your friend or coworker or husband may not even realize that she or he is locked in a hurtful pattern. Here's what you might say: "I've got to tell you, when you're 20 minutes late - and it happens a fair amount - I start feeling like a second-class citizen. I doubt you want me to feel that way. Could we agree from now on to meet at a time that actually works for both of us?"
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"I need to know I'm loved"
I once treated a client who was chronically late to appointments with me.
"I don't think you've made it here on time more than twice out of a dozen visits," I told him, finally. "Any reason you can think of?"
He shook his head. "I've always had trouble getting where I'm supposed to be," he said. "My dad used to just take off without me whenever it happened."
"When did it happen with your father?" I asked.
"Not often. Once in a while going to school. My dad drove me, but if I was late - even by a minute - he'd just leave, and I'd have to find a way to get there on my own."
"He was unfair," I said. "And he wasn't loving, at those times."
One way we may gauge the affection of others is to test whether they will sacrifice their time. If you keep your husband waiting for updates on your schedule, figure out why: Do you feel he should be more involved in planning dinners or resent that he complained about the last two weekend outings that you had arranged? Turn your insight into a confession of sorts: "I was thinking about why I've been keeping you in the dark until the last minute. And I may have figured it out. We used to alternate planning things for the kids. But lately, it's been all me. I know that's just the way it evolved, but I liked it when you were scoping out fun things for us, and I miss it. Can we go back to a team approach?"
If you have a friend who is always late, you can become a true healer with just one comment like this: "Just so you know, I'll always wait for you. You're much more important to me than getting to a movie in time for previews. But it would be great if we did leave early enough, because cutting it too close makes me stressed out about parking and all that."
Next: Practical strategies for being on time
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