Why Consistent Lateness Is A Creative Adjustment

Awareness strategies for people who don’t show up on time

Antique timepiece set against a fall background
Antique timepiece set against a fall background

My Mom was a victim of my being late. The night before our early morning flight she inquired what time we had to arrive at the airport’s international gate.

“Oh, I dunno, how about a couple of hours beforehand” was my lax-i-daisy response.

“Mmm, I think for international we need to arrive three hours in advance” she pondered.

“Nah, they always exaggerate that!” I quipped in between a giant yawn.

The following morning email responses took longer than required, my electric toothbrush was nowhere to be found and I spent a little too much time in the hot shower. Once I opened the bathroom door and steam pilfritted out, my Mom was already packed like a marathon runner and ready to rock the pony show. When she saw me traipsing around the apartment half naked, she looked at the time and her anxiety shot through the roof faster than a feral cat in heat. Mom’s fingers starting tapping on the kitchen counter. I continued to reassure her we’d get to the airport on time.

Except the taxi arrived late and we soon faced major downtown morning traffic congestion.

“Lisa. We are NOT going to make it.”
“Sure we will Mom, just have faith.”

Her white knuckles gripped the door handle, I sensed she was about to jump out of the car and sprint the entire way with her luggage strapped on her back. My Mom had that “I’m disappointed” look splattered all over her face. I felt immediate teutonic waves of guilt inside of me. Instead, I swallowed my true feelings and projected false sunshine, rainbows and gleeful optimism.

We did not arrive on time. The gates closed 15 minutes prior and no amount of sweet talking allowed us to get on the plane to Jamaica to celebrate my fortieth birthday. That’s right — four and zero. One may think by that age someone (ahem — me) may have their act together. But hey, in Jewish and Christian circles, the number 40 generally symbolizes a period of testing, trial or probation. And I was testing the Mother-Load.

We returned back to the apartment in silence. I knew best to keep distance from my Mom and let her boiling kettle simmer down in fear I may get burned by her scorn. The false mask of hope was replaced with a deep sorrow and remorse for my actions. When Mom was able to speak again, she had a powerful request.

“Lisa — from this year forward, I need you to make a promise to yourself to never be late again.”

I hung my head low and considered her words with caution before replying:

“Yes Mom, I can do this. I promise I’ll never be late.”

Four years have passed. Since that time I have never been tardy with my Mom. However, I HAVE been late with other people in that same aloof mindset. Did I understand the full context of my Mom’s question? Part of her question requested “promise YOURSELF.”

In Gestalt psychotherapy terms, the example of being late is described as a “creative adjustment”. Sure, on the surface, this sounds rather pleasant — like da Vinci’s paint brush skimming the canvas of the Mona Lisa to correct her mustache. This is not what it means.

A creative adjustment is maintaining an adequate level of contact with the situation we are in at any given period of time. This process can cause us challenges and pain when the creative adjustments we make to one situation becomes fixed, preventing us from adapting to new situations.

Let’s say you’re about to show up late to meet a friend — again. You must adjust in a creative fashion to your situation and increase your pace. In order to diminish pain, you text your friend and tell him/her you’re running behind. If you modify your behavior and leave one hour earlier each time you have plans to meet this friend, over a period of weeks and months, you will regain your friend’s trust and also feel a greater sense of internal peace. In time, your friendship will be repaired and this challenge will no longer exist in your space.

Simon Stafford-Townsend, a Gestalt Psychotherapist from Bristol UK, describes Creative Adjustments as:

Our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and spirit are equally prone to being sprained, broken, and otherwise adapted to circumstances in ways that cause us problems when those circumstances change. And the point to using the term creative adjustment is to emphasise that those adaptations were and are really valuable. Because that was the most creative way you had of adapting given the situation you were in and the resources you had available.

Stafford-Townsend continues to illuminate how Gestalt Psychotherapy addresses Creative Adjustments:

Gestalt therapy isn’t about identifying creative adjustments and changing them. It’s about becoming aware of them and making choices.

Back to being late. After sitting with my creative adjustment for some time, I observed a perpetual habit of overestimating the amount of time it takes to arrive somewhere. With additional observation, it also became apparent, I’m on time for hair appointments, job interviews and veterinary visits. All of these destinations had a sole focus — me. When it came to meeting others, the desire or willingness to arrive on time became more lax. This boiled down to one figural challenge; I believed separate social rules applied to me. Wow.

When a person arrives late, there’s a good chance the individual is not fully present in the moment. Their headspace is still focused on the rush to arrive to the destination. If the tardy person exerted exercise, breathing is elevated and catching of the breath is the main focal point. For all of the above reasons, people left waiting may feel unrecognized and unimportant.

Over the coming weeks pay attention to the areas in your life where you show up on time and those in which you don’t. Are there specific circumstances or people which cause you hesitation or avoidance? When you show up late, where do you feel it most in your body? For some, time management is an underdeveloped skill, not properly witnessed in the family of origin. For others, being late is part of existing on autopilot. The great news is, with acknowledgement of a creative adjustment, comes the choice to change.

Written by

Agile Coach and Psychotherapist-In-Training at the intersection of technology and the human condition. Let’s chat: lisabradburnmedium@gmail.com

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