Our Irrational Fears of Disappointing Others

Being late is a bitch. Or is it? 

I’ll never forget several years ago when I was running late for a tennis match, and it was not a pretty scene. Somehow the time got away from me when I was getting ready, and when I got in the car to leave, I realized I was in trouble. My match started in 16 minutes and Google Maps said it would take me 18 minutes to get to the tennis facility across town. Awesome. 

The next 18 minutes of my life were like a scene from a Rocky movie when Rocky is getting his butt kicked. My mean inner voice took over my mind and proceeded to mentally and verbally abuse my entire reason for existence. The abuse sounded something like this:

Well done, Katherine, I cannot believe you’re going to be late for this tennis match. How can you keep getting this shit wrong? You know the rules. If you’re 10 minutes late, you get disqualified and ruin your team’s chance of winning. It’s a miracle you manage to keep a day job with how irresponsible you are. How hard is it to be on time to a tennis match? Apparently, it’s incredibly hard for you because you’re a knucklehead.

The attack got worse as time went on. The closer I got to the tennis court, the more real my tardiness and irresponsibility became. I watched and worried as the clock ticked down to my impending doom.

When I arrived, I was a hot, sweaty mess. I was six minutes late to my match and four minutes away from being disqualified. I used what little breath I had left to profusely apologize to the team captain. “Oh, my word, I’m so sorry” I said. “The time got away from me! I got here as fast as I could! I hate that I kept you waiting.” 

Her response? “No worries at all. The previous team is still playing so we can’t get on the courts right now anyway. We have plenty of time.”

Surprisingly, what I felt was not relief since I was no longer late. It was disappointment over how I had just treated myself. I had just spent 18 minutes vilifying myself—spewing venom and dark, hateful words without taking a breath the entire time. I blamed myself. I accused myself. I yelled at myself. I was deeply disappointed in myself, and I sure let myself know it. 

Hindsight is a wonderful teacher, and I’m now able to see the root cause of why I was so hard on myself that day. It’s very simple. By not living in the present moment, I was living in the future. From the moment I pulled out of my driveway, I was predicting and anticipating the worst-case scenario about what would happen when I arrived at the match. I assumed I would be disqualified. I anticipated that everyone would be pissed. But none of those things came true. Not one. 

So, the mental boxing match was fully unnecessary. Talk about a waste of time. In one of my favorite self-help books, The Power of Now, author Eckhart Tolle reminds us that almost all of our problems are based in the past or in the future. In other words, we’re always beating ourselves up for what we didn’t do this morning or what we’ll probably screw up later today.

If you’re truly living in the present moment, your manic, mean mind cannot attack you

If I had been in the present moment in my car, and not anticipating the future, I would have listened to a TED talk or podcast or music on the radio and enjoyed a stress-free drive in my beautiful car down the clean and safe roads of the greatest country in the world. I would have appreciated that I was blessed enough to have a healthy body and fabulous husband, both of which made it possible for me to play tennis that day. If we keep reminding ourselves, even out loud at times, that we’re “Right Here. Right Now.” it can bring us back to the present moment so that we can actually enjoy it. 

Tolle goes on to say that stress is caused by being “here” and wanting to be “there.” He says most of us are so busy trying to get to the future that the present is reduced to a means to an end of “getting there.” 

Are you treating the present moment, the only one you will ever have that is real, and the only moment in which you can find happiness, like it’s a means to an end? In my case, I was terrified of the future and fear single-handedly ruined 18 minutes of my life. Fear fuels the mean voice in your head. It gives the voice the ammunition it needs to argue the case that you’re an idiot for being late…even when you’re not late. Living in the future is no way to live. Here are two things to anchor you in the present.

Ask yourself a question. When you find yourself fearing something that might happen in the future, ask yourself this question: “What problem do I have right now?” Not next year, tomorrow, or 15 minutes from now. Right that moment. Chances are, you’re okay. I wish I had asked myself that question in the car on my way to the tennis court. In the car, I didn’t have a care in the world. My problem was waiting for me in the future, but it was not with me in the present moment. And as it turned out, it wasn’t even an issue in the future!

Never wait again. The very notion of “waiting” creates problems. Waiting means your body is in the present and mind is in the future. For example, if you are “waiting” in line for a table at brunch, you are treating the present moment like a means to an end; you are treating it like it doesn’t matter. The Power of Now suggests that the next time someone says, “Sorry to have kept you waiting,” you should reply, “That’s alright, I wasn’t waiting. I was standing here enjoying myself—in joy in myself.”

What if you looked at waiting differently? What if you never waited again? It is possible. It just happened to me. Yesterday, I was in line with a good friend at a local coffee shop. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time so we were engrossed in conversation the entire time we were in line. When we reached the counter, the woman in front of us turned around and profusely apologized for taking so long to order. She hated that she had kept us waiting. 

My friend Michelle and I immediately looked at each other, burst out laughing and said in sync, “We didn’t even notice!” Michelle and I didn’t notice because we weren’t waiting in line. We weren’t waiting for the future to arrive. We were living in the present, enjoying each other’s company.

Katherine Wintsch