The Pain of Waiting (and What to Do about It)

Man waiting

How comfortable are you with waiting?

Lately, I’ve come to realize that I suck at waiting. It’s the main cause behind most of the anxiety I experience. Usually I’m okay when I’m dealing with something. I act without much thought or worry.

But when I’m waiting, my mind keeps buzzing with all sorts of thoughts of every possible complication, and the worry manifests physically in the form of stomach acid and nausea. From there I don’t feel like eating, I don’t sleep well, and I feel tired and drained. And I resist all of it.

If I’m okay with action, no matter how challenging the issue is, why can’t I be okay with waiting?

My guess: it’s a conditioned response. Some get used to ignoring the thing they’re waiting for, and others (like me) fixate on the thing and ignore everything else.

Fixating or obsessing is not bad—if it’s helpful, or at least not harmful. But when the waiting turns into anxious agony, it needs to be questioned.

This article is an attempt to understand the pain that accompanies waiting, what we can learn from it about ourselves, and how we can move past it.

Why is waiting painful?

The pain comes from two things: the unknown, and/or dealing with something we don’t want to deal with in the first place.

Think of waiting to meet the love of your life. You might feel anxious, but it’s exciting. You don’t mind.

Now think of waiting to talk to your doctor after being told she wants to discuss your latest blood work results. The mind drifts to all the things that could go wrong.

Painful waiting inventory

So let’s start by taking an inventory of all the things that we don’t want to deal with, but we do anyway. Think of all the situations you waited for anxiously, and write them down. Some of the examples that come up for me:

  • Waiting for a service person (plumber, electrician, roofer) to come and deal with an issue,
  • Waiting to drop off someone at the train station or airport,
  • Waiting to see the doctor after a call about test results of loved ones,
  • Waiting to say goodbye to a loved one,
  • Waiting to know if a stock transaction went through at a favorable price,
  • Waiting for a response (email or phone) about a repair, recommendation I made, or to check on my family,
  • Waiting to go to a meeting or event.

Now let’s dig deeper.

What’s the source of pain behind the waiting?

Once we have an idea of the waiting situations that cause us pain, let’s look at the underlying feelings and wants behind each situation.

Waiting for a service call:  I don’t want things to breakdown, and I don’t want to pay more money for repairs. Things appear unpredictable and out of control. The underlying want is to control what happens/doesn’t happen, and how I want to spend my money.

Waiting to drop off someone: The pain is a result of disliking (more like loathing) traffic, and having to be stuck in a car for a long time. I want to control how I spend my time. Also there is an element of not wanting to get into car accidents (physical safety and financial security).

Waiting to see the doctor: We fear that someone we love might be seriously sick and we could lose them. We want to hold on to our loved ones.

Waiting to say goodbye: It’s about not wanting to feel the space that someone leaves behind. And that means we don’t want to lose their company and attention.

Waiting for a financial transaction results: The underlying thought is I don’t want to make mistakes or lose money. It’s about wanting to control how much I pay, and financial security.

Waiting for a response: We fear that someone might not agree with us and things won’t work our way. This is a form of wanting to control the outcome and avoiding rejection.

Waiting to go somewhere: I don’t like going out much, so waiting to go out makes me anxious because it’s not routine. It’s unfamiliar, which means it doesn’t feel secure and comfortable.

Looking at the needs and wants behind the pain and anxiety I come up with three main wants.

  1. Control—wanting to control the situation or other people’s response.
  2. Security (financial and physical)—wanting to feel comfortable, and safe.
  3. Love and companionship—wanting to be with our loved ones out of fear of being alone.

The pain is triggered when we feel there is uncertainty around getting one or more of the above wants met as we wait.

Easing the pain

To alleviate the pain of waiting, we can work on the root cause—our reaction to uncertainty and unmet wants. Consider the following:

1- Accept the pain: Rejecting how we feel is not helpful. It’s best that we allow the pain to be and breathe through it. If we don’t fight it, we won’t suffer.

We feel as much alive experiencing pain as experiencing pleasure. When we stop avoiding pain, we can live it, till it lets go, whether we’re waiting or not.

2- Learn to live with uncertainty: The space of waiting amplifies the sense of uncertainty. But the truth is: we live with uncertainty all the time. We just need to remind ourselves that we’ve been doing it since we were born—waiting or not.

The more we trust, the more comfortable we become with the unknown.

3- Become aware of the underlying want, and let it go: We all want to feel loved, secure, and somewhat in control. But the reality is: all the things we want are as transient as the rest of life. We can get them, but sooner or later, we’ll lose them, and then we’ll want them again, only to lose them.

To want safety doesn’t mean we’ll get it. Risk is as close to us as our breath. To worry about losing love doesn’t mean we’ll get to keep it. Our attempts at control and resisting the reality of the moment only leads to more anxiety. Life works on its own terms—not ours.

Feel the want, and release the attachment to it.

If we don’t have expectations (negative and positive) while waiting, we won’t feel intense pain.

Waiting, by nature, is passive. We are waiting for things beyond our control. And in that space of uncertainty we feel vulnerable. But when are we not vulnerable?

One can look at our entire life from birth as the waiting space for our eventual death. But in this waiting we get to explore, evolve, and … be.