It’s easy to feel that we’re the slaves of time, or at the mercy of time, or that time is a force of nature to which we are helpless or powerless. People sometimes see life as a block of time being chipped away, especially when they imagine their dreams of career and relationship fulfillment slipping away.
Of course, it’s true we can’t control the passage of time. Still, we’re inwardly conflicted when we turn that reality into a source of anxiety, stress, and frantic busyness.
Racing against time makes sense if you’re trying to save your town from rising flood waters. In many cases, though, people who experience life in a time-urgent way are drowning in emotional hot water.
Psychologists call this “excessive time-urgency” or “hurry sickness.” Unfortunately, mainstream thinking on the subject is simplistic and unhelpful. This simplistic approach is exemplified in this comment from a psychologist:
Excessive time-urgency is a problem in thinking. Everyone has some pressure to get things done. However, if you consider everything is equally urgent, you’re likely to experience stress problems. Rethink your view of time, how you relate to it, and what is really important to you. Place events and tasks in proper perspective.
This advice is unhelpful. First of all, to say that time-urgency is “a problem in thinking” is misleading. The problem is deeper. It arises out of emotional dynamics submerged beneath our conscious thinking. What we need instead of “better thinking” is insight that flushes out the source of the problem.
The problem starts with inner conflict. What are the elements of this conflict? People can be busy and still feel relaxed about life, of course. Ideally, we want to feel strong and up to the challenge of handling daily experiences in a smooth and competent manner. Unconsciously, however, it’s a different story.
On this unconscious side, we tend to have unresolved issues from childhood that involve a lingering sense of weakness and even helplessness. Consciously, we want to feel strong; unconsciously, we’re still identified with much of the self-doubt and helplessness we felt growing up. Under the influence of this conflict, we’re compelled to experience ourselves and our place in the world in ways that are infused with weakness and uncertainty.
A person can jump to the tick-tock of time because he feels that his employer (as well as himself) judges him according to how much work he squeezes into the day. He also can feel that some agenda, program, demand, or obligation is calling the shots. This feeling can be traced to a dynamic in our psyche. There it feels as if some inner authority is demanding that we jump to its commands. This inner authority is a false sense of self. But because of our inner passivity, which is another facet of our unevolved nature, we allow, much of the time, this primitive aggressive aspect of our psyche to prevail.
We typically experience ourselves through a series of conditioned reactions to this inner commander. Scurrying around anxiously like this, we’re operating from a passive place. Because of inner passivity, this inner authority holds us accountable and renders us subordinate to its dictates. We aren’t marching to our own drum. We march instead to the drums of others or to the drumbeat of the authoritative, often critical inner voice that’s ready to hound us with allegations of our laziness, insinuations about our competence, or condemnations for being a failure or a fraud.
The more we react mindlessly to this inner commander, the more entangled we are in inner passivity and the more likely we will either counteract the passive feeling with frantic activity or collapse into depressing apathy.
Time is the yardstick with which our inner commander measures our subordination and raps our knuckles. Our inner passivity and the disconnect from self that it produces render us blind to the true nature of time. “Time is not a thing that passes … it’s a sea on which you float,” says a character in a novel by Margaret Atwood. Time can be scaled but, ultimately, it’s an eternal present. For practical purposes, we have scaled time to measurable units to make sense of motion and change, to see ourselves in historical context, and to give ourselves a sense of control.
People who race against time are likely to feel frustrated and exhausted because so often their unconscious purpose is to recycle and replay their inner passivity. In such a race, they’re always playing catch-up and often losing ground, which means they’re experiencing an inner weakness directly related to inner passivity.
Despite our conscious wish to feel strong, inner passivity keeps us feeling weak and helpless. That weakness is an old emotional default position first experienced in childhood. Unwittingly, we use time in an underhanded way: We’re able to feel our helplessness more profoundly in the face of time’s apparent indifference to our existence, fate, or stressful lifestyle. As a defense or cover-up for our unconscious resonance with this helplessness, we produce the impression or illusion that our frenetic energy keeps us in the race, rushing onward abreast or ahead of time.
This race against time, as mentioned, is a symptom of inner conflict. It’s also serves as an unconscious defense to cover up the inner conflict. In this defense, we’re making this claim: “I don’t want remain weak and at the mercy of the demands that I feel time places upon me. I’m not tempted to feel overwhelmed by modern life. Look at how determined I am to keep pace with the demands of time. Look at how I run myself ragged trying not to feel overwhelmed and helpless.” This defense, of course, creates exhaustion. Unwittingly, this individual is using his impression that time is swift, fleeting, and even antagonistic to his wellbeing as a means for experiencing and preserving inner passivity.
Discussing this mindless hurry, a writer at The Huffington Post said, “I’ve often noticed that when I’m rushing, I’m not really present. I’m just focused on getting things done. I’m racing against the clock. It’s a feeling of pushing against time, the present moment itself. It’s exhausting and draining. While there’s nothing wrong with rushing, we’re not really home when we rush. We cannot be present and rush at the same time.”
Actually, we can rush around and still be present. A busy person can certainly retain presence of mind. In any case, being present to our self is important. One of the symptoms of inner passivity is to be disconnected from our authentic self and thereby from the agreeable or pleasant sense of competence and peace that we can derive from such connection. A good connection to self can make the present moment feel timeless.
The identical underlying dynamics can produce the opposite symptom and a different defense. Inner passivity can prompt some individuals to be apathetic and tardy instead of rushed and hasty. These people might regularly show up late for meetings or work. They too don’t want to admit that they’re experiencing daily obligations and responsibilities through their passive side. In their case, they make the claim that their slow deliberate pace proves they’re in charge, thereby not passive. But their slow pace goes to the other extreme, slipping into tardiness, procrastination, and passive-aggressive dawdling. The unconscious defense goes like this: “I don’t want to feel that the demands of others are holding me accountable or oppressing me. Look, I’m in charge, and I chose to move along at my own sweet pace.”
In other situations, some “time-racers” are preoccupied with the feeling that their accomplishments in life have been unsatisfactory. The feeling is, “Who I am and what I have done is not enough.” They feel a constant nagging (from their inner critic) that they should be doing better, and they’re constantly setting goals and thinking about getting “to the next level.” Here they can be emotionally attached to feeling self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-rejection. Hence, they go chasing after “the next level” of accomplishment to avoid dealing with their emotional entanglement in feelings of unworthiness. Even when they successfully meet their goals, the inner emptiness persists.
With insight, we begin to see that inner passivity allows both our inner critic and our concept of time to hold us accountable. One practice involves checking in with oneself on first awakening in the morning. Many people start the day off in a passive state of mind. They start thinking for example, “Oh darn, I’m late, I got to get moving,” or “I’ll never get everything done that’s on my list,” or “I just can’t feel any enthusiasm for facing the day.”
In this practice, recognize that the passive side can be an emotional default position. Be inwardly vigilant so that, from the moment of awakening, you can track even your random thinking. Notice whether you’re tempted to gravitate to passive thinking. If so, just watch the thoughts. Don’t try to suppress them (that’s too hard to do). Just watching the passive thoughts is an act of power because, in doing so, you’re overcoming resistance and expressing your intention to be less passive. Your intention is to isolate the thoughts and understand their source in your psyche, thereby enhancing your intelligence and inner strength.
Throughout the day, try to check in with yourself and note what you’re feeling. Keep observing the pull to the passive side. Passive thoughts tend to be defensive, self-pitying, self-validating, self-preoccupied, and generally negative. If you’re feeling annoyed or angry, you’re likely to be reacting to passive thoughts and speculations. Again, don’t fight the passive feelings (that can generate more feelings of helplessness)—just observe them. The act of observing them is an act of power.
Many people who live largely under the influence of inner passivity believe that their way of experiencing life is completely normal, as if their distressful if not painful version of reality is how life is supposed to be. But now, in seeing inner passivity’s role in time urgency, you’re beginning to create a new sense of self from the inside out. True, it can be challenging to assimilate the deeper knowledge that leads to self-actualization. Yet those who really want to uncover inner truth are likely to succeed—and in the bargain be able to cruise along smoothly rather than racing.
Related reading: The Art of Self-Regulation.