The Waiting Game – what they don’t teach you in graduate school

Written by: Victoria Van Zandt, MFT

I’ve always had a thing for time, more specifically, punctuality. I learned this art from my father, who would glance at his watch as he paced the living‐ room floor three hours before we actually had to leave the house. I grew up learning that being on time was not only respectful of others’ time, but a reflection of how I value my time and, for that matter, value myself. I don’t necessarily pace ‐ well maybe sometimes ‐ but I have learned to doodle, breathe and write articles when I find myself in a position of having to wait for someone else!

For the purpose of this article, I’m referring to clients who arrive late to sessions or who are “no shows.” Granted, it doesn’t happen often that clients just don’t show up for their session but, when it does occur,
I grab the pastels and allow my frustration to flow. I’m lucky as an art therapist to have my art supplies always out and not just for my clients use, but for the many emotions client‐ centered work can manifest in me. I’ve learned to doodle and draw my way through the varied feelings that come up when I find myself having to sit and wait for a client. I’ve had to, over the years, perfect the skill of confronting friends who are habitually late and now, as a
licensed MFT, I’ve had to learn my own style and approach to this subject in my practice.

When friends or family are late, I know the lingo, but when clients don’t show or show up late ‐ whether they’ve called or not ‐ the lingo requires much more skill and precision. For instance, you can’t leave the office after 20 minutes and/or leave a note on your door, reading, “Waited for you ‐ sorry, had to go.” That doesn’t fly in our profession. You can’t yell or throw a tantrum at a client’s habitual tardiness. You also can’t stop seeing them because of flakiness or tardiness. As a trainee, I would schedule clients who had a tendency to cancel, on a Friday afternoon or as my only client that day, leaving me driving to and from the office in traffic only setting me up for the possibility of the client “No Showing or canceling at the last minute.” Yes, I know, I have a 24‐hour cancellation policy, but I’m still left with those feelings about time to process. Having learned a thing or two about time, I now schedule those clients who have a tendency to be late or cancel in the middle of my day. This way, I’m taking care of myself and my time practices.

The countertransference that might surface is a great topic for peer consultation and supervision, and it also provides us with an opportunity to learn self‐care, clear boundary‐setting and an ability to process our feelings. No matter what, we must have a practice in place for how to take care of our feelings when issues around time surface.

Here are some of my learned practices:

  1. If you are an intern or trainee, bring time issues up in supervision.
  2. Pay attention to when you schedule clients who have a tendency to cancel or arrive late. Adjust accordingly.
  3. Always have reading or art material available for YOUR use.
  4. Explore your issues concerning time in your own personal therapy. And know what your issues with time are.
  5. Breathe.
  6. Depending on your style, know how you want to address issues about time with clients and develop your own boundary‐setting agenda.

The next time you find yourself waiting patiently or impatiently for a client to arrive, have a plan in place for how you are going to address the issue with your client and how you will process your feelings and care for yourself.

Victoria Van Zandt, MA, LMFT
(310) 922-3957