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Always Late? Find Out Why


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Keith Ablow, M.D.
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
It’s high time to figure out what’s making you perpetually behind. Here, strategies to help you get out of the lateness rut.

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.

1. “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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