Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

What Makes Sunday Nights So Hard?

Making Sunday nights easier for yourself

Jackie is a middle school English teacher. On Fridays, when she leaves her classroom, she can't think about anything but how exhausted she is. On Sundays, she starts to worry about finishing her lesson plans for the week to come and grading all of the papers that are sitting in a file on her desk. Weekends are never long enough, she thinks. Or maybe she's just an inefficient teacher. Or both.  At any rate, she seldom gets all of the work done before Sunday bedtime, and by the time she finally does fall into bed, she's exhausted all over again - and feeling down in the dumps.

The saddest part of all, maybe, is that Jackie is, according to all of the feedback that she gets, an excellent teacher. Her students respect her and are clearly learning from her. She is friends with many of her colleagues, and younger teachers come to her for advice. And she loves her work! But on Sunday nights, she starts to imagine leaving teaching and going into another profession - any other profession! Or maybe going to live on a desert island somewhere...

Sound familiar? Sunday nights are hard for lots of us. For one thing, they stir up old feelings from schooldays - long after we leave the education system, our bodies and psyches bring up childhood fears about unfinished homework and tests we're not prepared for. For another, like Jackie, we can't figure out where the time went and what happened to all our good intentions - the paperwork we were going to catch up on, the errands we were going to run, the book we were going to read, the friends we were going to see? Oh yes, and what about all of the fun and relaxing we were going to do?

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Sunday Night Blues - which can also take the form of Sunday Night Anxiety Attack - are, in many ways, a sign of our times. We live in a high-demand, high function world where we're expected - and expect ourselves - to perform at an extremely high level - all the time. Even relaxing is supposed to be an achievement! (If ever there was a contradiction in terms, this is it, but that doesn't stop us from putting pressure on ourselves to have fun all weekend long and at the same time catch up on everything we didn't get done during the week before!)

But don't despair. There is a solution to the Sunday night problem - one that doesn't require you to become more organized, use your time more efficiently, or look for a new job (in this economy? Right.). It's as simple as revising your daydreams.

Say what?

As I explained in my last post, on job hunting, daydreams can range from tiny thoughts about what we're going to wear to work tomorrow to involved stories about falling in love or traveling to far off places. Jackie's fantasies about finding another career, or moving to a place where she doesn't have to work at all, are also daydreams. Although we've been trained to think of these thoughts as meaningless or even bad, when they interfere with our ability to carry out the tasks we're trying to concentrate on, they actually serve an important psychological purpose. Dr. Eric Klinger, one of the pioneers in the field of imagining, showed years ago that daydreams take up far more of our time than anyone believed. Recent research by a team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia has confirmed not only that everyone daydreams, but that we do it at least a third of the time that we are awake. A wandering mind may seem to be a problem (and of course sometimes can be); but in fact, these little side-trips that our thoughts make are silently activating some of the same parts of the brain that are triggered by focused thinking.

It seems that our brains are hardwired to produce these "mind wanderings," because they are necessary for healthy psychological functioning. One of their functions, according to Dr. Jerome Singer, another daydream pioneer, is to allow us to talk to ourselves, often to tell ourselves something useful about ourselves. So it is important not to ignore our daydreams.

But on Sundays, it is also important not to take these thoughts literally. What does that mean? On Sunday night - for some of us, starting even on Sunday morning - our daydreams often turn to the things we haven't done that weekend. Of course, Sunday night daydreams are directly tied to Friday afternoon daydreams. Hard as it may seem, the plans we make for the weekend are not all facts. Some of them are fantasies, wishes, or hopes for what we might be able to accomplish. So the work is to recognize on Friday (and on Saturday and Sunday) that what we are hoping to achieve this weekend is most likely not what we are actually going to get done. It's a game plan, an outline, but not a definitive fact.

The truth is, even the best organized of us have to deal with the reality that life does not always go according to plan. Last week, for example, when I planned to complete a particular writing project, I got a twenty-four hour bug and had to give up on that goal for the weekend. A dear friend might call to say she's coming to town just when you had set yourself the goal of revising your cv; or you get into an argument with your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/sibling/child (the list can go on) and you can't think about anything else. Or maybe a new movie opened up and you spontaneously decided to go see it and go out afterwards with friends. So you get nothing done.

If you accept that your daydream plans for the weekend were not written in stone, but were instead ideas about possibilities, and that we all have to adjust our plans and ideas according to what actually unfolds in our lives, then you might be less despondent on Sunday night when you haven't accomplished everything you set out to do.

This of course does not mean that you can just throw all of your duties out the window on the weekend. That's a good way to lose jobs, friends, and family. But here are some ideas to help you use your daydreams to help you manage your weekends differently - and to help you arrive at Sunday night without the dreaded Sunday Night Blues.

1 - Try thinking of your Friday plans as an outline, not a finished product.

2 - Go through the ideas and select one or (maximum) two as definite plans

3 - Daydream your way through those activities and try to determine whether or not they are realistic

4 - Make sure to leave plenty of room for "messing around" or "goofing off" for the weekend

5 - Give yourself credit for completing the assigned tasks

6 - On Sunday night, evaluate your plans to determine whether or not they were actually realistic (if you didn't get them accomplished, they probably weren't)

7 - As you start thinking about the things you have to do on Monday, remind yourself: these thoughts, no matter how realistic they may seem, they are daydreams

And finally, and perhaps this is the most important idea of all, try to remember this: even while you're dreading the week to come, you are also daydreaming (probably without knowing it) about some of the positive parts of your week. Try to spend a little time focusing on those images. For Jackie, this meant reminding herself of the fun she had talking with her kids about one of the books they were reading. She remembered the look of pleasure on one particular student's face when Jackie encouraged her to explore an idea she had shyly put forward in class discussion the week before. Daydreaming about similar moments that might occur in the coming days, she remembered why she was doing the work that she did. And her Sunday night felt better. 

 

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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