Patience & Letting Go

A few weeks ago we had some new neighbors move in, along with an active little 7-month-old pup named Wrigley. Wrigley stood at a little bit over one foot tall, with medium-length bright golden fur, and an active and alert personality. This little dynamo would bring to the forefront a skill that I hadn’t practiced in a while: being patient and letting go.

He didn’t respond to me the way dogs normally do. I’m accustomed to dogs wagging their tails, striding right up to me as I pat their heads and ruffle their manes. (BTW I’m totally a dog person, I like their enthusiastic, excitable energy)

The first time I met Wrigley, he stood alert from about 15 feet (or 5 meters) away: head and ears perked up, straight and stiff stature, looking directly at me. When I knelt down and extended a hand, he jumped back and barked. I clapped my hands in a gesture intended to entice him to come closer, but he froze, barked again, and pranced a little farther away, keeping his eyes fixed on me.

My neighbors told me that he became this way after being stuck in Shelter-In-Place (SIP) since March, with very little exposure to new people. I wanted to see what it would take to have him see me as a friend and not a threat. What that means in terms of behavior, is seeing how to have him get closer to me.

What came to mind was someone telling me that when you look a dog directly in its eyes, that’s intimidating to them. When dogs want to express friendliness they will look away, often sideways, and approach with an indirect gaze. This was my first hypothesis to try out.

The next few times I saw Wrigley, he came out, saw me, and froze in his alert stance. I looked towards him, he barked, sometimes jumping away. I look away, he put his nose down to the ground and got a few steps closer. After three times of this, I considered this hypothesis confirmed. If I want Wrigley to get closer to me, I will have to look away.

I saw him every few days for the next couple weeks, each time getting closer before stopping and barking. Just yesterday, three weeks after first meeting him, we hit a milestone: I stood where I was and looked away from him. He meandered to my right, and then behind me, with his nose to the ground until he got to my heels. He was sniffing my heels! 

Step one: success! Now on to step two: having him approach me while facing him. I haven’t come up with a plan for that yet, but we’ll see what happens. Here are the critical lessons that I got from this experience:

  1. Be Patient;
  2. Learn what works, and do that;
  3. Let go of your complaints and expectations.

Be Patient

Having a goal or target behavior tends to make people impatient and frustrated when it seems like they’re moving away from it, like when I found out that Wrigley moves away from me when I look directly at him. The key here is that it’s just as important to know what doesn’t work as it is to know what works. If I want Wrigley to move towards me, I need to know what NOT to do just as much as what TO do.

Let them go at their own pace. I know that I want Wrigley to see me as a friend RIGHT NOW, or as quickly as possible. It doesn’t help to force my time schedule on him. That kind of rushing, moving forward faster than he wants, will only hinder any progress, and may have him disengage entirely. In behaviorism terms, this means I have failed as a trainer.

Understand that anyone you meet is coming into your life with all of the trained reactions that their entire past has taught them. Some of them are from their intentional training of themselves, some of them are not. If you want them to act and react differently around you, it will take time, and also might not happen at all.

(side note: “You can’t train an elephant to climb a tree.” Sometimes you will want a certain behavior that is outside of the things they’re naturally inclined or able to do.)

Psychology and behaviorism experiments are conducted in a controlled environment. When we’re interacting with the people in our immediate vicinity, understand that it is not a controlled environment. There are elements of their lives that are not under your control. Although you can modify your own behavior around them to try to elicit a certain response, their set of behaviors may suddenly and drastically change due to something else happening in their lives that you have no idea about. Be sensitive to these kinds of changes, and understand that there are a lot of other things going on for them besides their interactions with you.

Learn What Works and Do That

This sounds simple, but there can be things that get in the way, like expectations about what should get the reaction you want. You need to let go of what you think are “right” and “wrong” ways to respond. Just observe with the intent to understand. Observe what they’re doing in response to your behavior. Do the thing that elicits the behavior you want. Don’t do what elicits behavior you don’t want. To borrow from a course leader in one of my leadership programs,

“Do what works. Don’t do what doesn’t work.”

This doesn’t mean you have no choice in what to do; you still have a choice. If you find out what works, and it isn’t something you’re willing to do, you don’t have to do it. Just be prepared that you won’t get the result you’re looking for, unless you find an alternate way to get there.

Be flexible. Try out things that don’t necessarily make sense to you. Like for me, when I want to make myself appear friendly and approachable, my go-to expression is to turn directly towards them, look them in the eye, smile, and speak in a sing-song voice. In Wrigley’s case, I needed to release my expectation that all of this meant friendliness, observe his reaction of barking and moving away, and then try something completely different.

What I didn’t do is complain that Wrigley doesn’t like me, or there’s something wrong with him, or get angry or frustrated because he just doesn’t understand me. Which brings us to the next thing.

Let Go of Your Complaints and Expectations

This one is actually a practice. I wake up in the morning with complaints and expectations about how my day is going to go, even before anything happens. They don’t have to be anything aggravating or frustrating, they can even be something as simple as having a to-do list or a plan for how my day is going to go. These are expectations; it’s a plan, a list of things I want to get done. Although it’s helpful to have a plan, it can get in the way of being present and taking proper action.

In my 5 years’ experience as a classroom teacher, I learned,

“You can’t go into class without a plan. And it never goes according to plan.” 

Have your plan, and get ready to throw it out the window at a moment’s notice. Here’s what I do to practice letting go of my complaints and expectations:

  • Choose a task that is slightly annoying.

For me, I tend to choose washing the dishes, which includes scrubbing pots and pans and putting the clean dishes away. You can have it be the same thing, or decide on something in the spur of the moment; typically, it’s the thing you least want to do.

  • Do that task.
  • Notice your complaints starting right away, or maybe even before you start.

My complaints sound like:

    1. “I have so much work to do, I need to start that instead.”
    2. “These dishes aren’t mine. I should leave them there, it’s not my job to wash my roommates’ dishes.”
    3. “Wow what were they cooking that burned all of this onto the pan like this?”

Notice if you slow down when these thoughts come up. Notice any change in your behavior, including changes in how you feel.

  • Keep going until the job is complete.

I tend to get a sense of calm and peace in defying my complaints. I’ll even start laughing at myself sometimes.

This is my example of what works for me. You can try it, it might work for you too. If it doesn’t, try other things and find something that does.

If you tried it, did it work? Did it not work? Did you try something else? Please tell me, I’d love to know!

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I also mention “Letting Go” in this blog here: On Letting Go

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