The Surprising Power of Waiting

Why we're not wired to wait for things and how awareness can put us back in control.

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Most people believe that waiting is a waste of time and it’s best to fill that time with something…anything. Whether we’re in line at a the grocery story, waiting at a doctor’s office, or sitting at a stoplight, the brain seems to be cued to fill that space. Nowadays, many of us pull out our phones and begin sifting through various messages, reading over documents, or surfing the web.

However, the belief that waiting has no value is mistaken. In fact, the secret to a sense of personal control, general satisfaction with life, and even success lies in learning how to make peace with waiting.

We’ve all heard the famous adage, “Patience is a virtue” or “Good things come to those who wait.”

Easier said than done. Why?

We’re not in control of our brains

Underneath the subtle yet intolerable experience of waiting is a little anxious gremlin that fears being alone. This gremlin is operating on old software that says if you’re alone that means you’re not being protected by your clan and it’s a threat to your safety. In those small moments of waiting, the gremlin takes the controls of your brain and reaches for something to “be with” so you’re not alone anymore.

In other words, the anxious gremlin is in control and you’re not. Studies are clear that lacking a sense of control is associated with negative stress, anxiety, and depression. Also, the more we let the gremlin run our brain, the stronger it gets—or as the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb says, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Using waiting for good

What if you were to practice being on the lookout for moments of waiting in the day? In those moments, instead of grabbing something to fill the space, you recognized it as an opportunity to be okay with just waiting. You can soften the muscles in your body that have just tensed due to a mini fight/flight/freeze response and just recognize you’re safe.

What we practice and repeat in life becomes more automatic. If you practice and repeat this, you’re going to start taking back control of your mind and being more at ease.

There are so many opportunities to practice.

  • You can do this while waiting for the bread to toast,
  • waiting for someone to get out of the shower,
  • waiting for a certain report at work,
  • waiting for the screen to load,
  • waiting for your partner to clean the dishes,
  • waiting on hold on the phone,
  • or even while waiting for your newborn to settle down as you’re doing your best as a parent to soothe your baby.

As you notice the waiting, relax your body, recognize you’re safe, and just be curious about the experience of waiting.

In doing this, you strengthen self-control and trust in yourself. When there’s less tension around filling up time with stuff, you feel more relaxed in life. You’ve freed yourself from this delusion of immediacy, grasping, and need, and opened up to a sense of ease, contentment, and confidence.

Try this very simple exercise today and in the days ahead. Consider where you might be waiting. As you notice the waiting, relax your body, recognize you’re safe, and just be curious about the experience of waiting.

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy