The Value of Being Impatient
Being impatient has its own rewards
Posted Aug 19, 2008
When I was in graduate school I had to take a "History of Psychology" course. It's a prerequisite mandated by APA and although the course has a reputation for being blah--it's mainly a collection of names, dates, and the now mostly obsolete tools and theories they developed--the professor did his best to interject humor and share fun factoids along the way. Three times during the semester we had an in-class test that constituted of 20 short-answer questions. In a class of 25, I was always the first one to finish the test. I never got the highest score, but my goal was to answer as many questions in adequate fashion to make sure I did well enough, then I'd pack up my stuff, hand in the test, and go off to get lunch.
I must admit that there was a certain amount of fun associated with finishing first. It was almost like I was in a race (unbeknownst to my classmates) to get the test over with as soon as possible. It's the closest I've ever come in graduate school to feeling like a race car driver.
You can also argue that I was impatient. And indeed, the thought of picking my brain to squeeze out all the information that was there and then to proceed to write it all out in order to shoot for a slightly higher grade drained my energy. So let me go ahead and own it: when it comes to doing things I don't find valuable, I get impatient.
I feel the exact opposite, though, when it comes to doing things I love. I'm more than happy, for instance, to carry a good, deep conversation for hours. I don't get tired, I feel energized. And it's the same thing when I do therapy. Even when my clients and I seem to be having the exact same conversation about the same topic for the tenth time, I enjoy it immensely because it's part of the process. It's part of the push and pull. We hit a new challenge, a resistance area, and we're engaged until we can reach a new plateau.
Here's what I've learned about impatience: It's an indicator telling me that I'm either doing something I don't particularly care for (e.g. taking a History of Psychology test) or that I'm not fully engaged in what I enjoy doing. If I find myself getting antsy when I'm talking with a client, for example, it means that something is not running on all eight cylinders. There's something about the process that needs attention. Why am I not feeling present? What buttons does that interaction push in me? Do other people in my client's life also feel that way when they interact with him or her?
The other thing I've come to realize is that impatience goes hand in hand with intensity. If you're an impatient person, you're probably also an intense person. I think impatience is intensity that has gotten blocked or channeled into the wrong stream. When I first started being a therapist, a couple of supervisors gave me feedback that I was "intense." I took it as a compliment. I want to be fully there for my clients, to be present in my interaction, to create an open space where all the feelings and emotions and insights get explored. Sure, it can feel intense, but that's where the healing happens. I often have clients who complain about former therapists: "All she did was nod her head." "He hardly ever challenged my viewpoint or engaged me in real conversation." And they're talking about a lack of intensity. And, of course, I bet that there are therapists who hear the opposite from their clients: "I was looking for someone who'd be quieter and just listen." I think that intensity is not for everyone, but if I can be accepting and intense and join forces with my clients (i.e. have an alliance) then therapy becomes very powerful.
A lot of times, in the beginning stages of therapy, a client will say to me that they don't want to feel depressed or anxious or down anymore. They often qualify it with, "I know I'm being impatient, but... how long do I have to stay depressed for?" A classic answer is to emphasize the importance of being patient: "I know you're feeling this way, but you need to give it time." That doesn't work for me. If anything, it stifles the intensity. I much prefer to build on the intensity that the client is communicating, "I'm also impatient by nature. And it makes total sense that you're feeling impatient about getting better. Let's work together to do everything we can to move forward; of course there'll be times when things feel like they're stuck or even getting worse, but we'll join forces to make headways. And if for any reason we see we're not moving forward, we'll explore all other options and see what we can do."
I like impatient clients--and not just because they remind me of myself. They bring energy and intensity and purpose to therapy. They're motivated. They have an agenda to get better and that's exactly the energy I'm looking for. I think all of us have that intensity, to some degree, but we've learned to mask it. And in my experience as a therapist, more often than not, suffocating the intensity is a large part of why a person is feeling bad in the first place.