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Dealing with the Sunday Night Blues

What makes Sunday nights so hard? And what can you do about it?

“Sundays are the worst,” says Janine*, who juggles a career, married life, and parenthood. “I think about all of the stuff I didn’t get done, and whatever good things happened over the weekend just fly out of my head. By the time I’ve got the kids in bed and can finish whatever I need to get done for the next day, I’m so exhausted and anxious and miserable that I just want to veg out in front of the tv. I’m so tense that I can’t even have a reasonable conversation with my husband.”

Sound familiar? Sunday nights are hard for lots of us, whether we live alone, with a large family, with roommates, or with a partner. One of the problems, of course, is that we often save tasks for the week ahead for the last minute on Sunday – homework, paperwork we brought home from the office, paying bills – which almost always isn’t enough time to do what we need to get done. And another problem is that those tasks are often the ones we didn’t want to do in the first place. So here it is Sunday night, and

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instead of being able to relax and prepare leisurely for the week to come, we’re facing the worst of the stuff we’ve been avoiding – not only for the weekend, but often for even longer.

And even worse, with those unfinished and unpleasant tasks hanging over your head, you may not even have been able to enjoy the rest of the weekend as much as you wanted. So Sunday night is also a time of regrets – for what we didn’t do and what we didn’t enjoy to the max.

You’d think a solution would be to just make yourself sit down and get those things done on Friday night. Get it over with and then you can really enjoy the weekend, right? And then Sunday night you won’t have any problems.

Except it seldom works that way. Alex*, for example, is one of the most organized guys I know. He does exactly what you’ve just told yourself you should be doing – on Friday night, he gets all of his leftover work done, so that he can enjoy the weekend ahead. But it doesn’t really work that way. On Saturday morning, when he goes out for a morning run, instead of appreciating the beautiful, crisp air and the sound of birds around him, he starts thinking about what he needs to do next. On Sunday, he’s as anxious as the rest of us, worrying about who he needs to call first and what he needs to do when he gets to the office in the morning.

So what’s the best way to deal with Sunday night blues?

One thing is to recognize the feelings for what they are – not accurate reflections of something you’ve really done wrong, but anxiety about how and when you can get to everything you set out for yourself.

Then, it can be useful to think about what those feelings mean. Are they echoes of childhood anxieties? Sunday evenings often 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.

But your anxieties may be more specific than that, even. Maybe you had an undetected learning difficulty and you always felt like an idiot in school. That’s what the problem was for Alex, and one of the reasons that he still felt anxious that nothing he did was going to be good enough. Or maybe you had an experience like Janine, the daughter of divorced parents with joint custody. On Sunday night, besides getting ready for school, she had to get ready to leave her one parent’s house to spend the next three nights at the other’s. Not only was it difficult to separate from each of her parents, but inevitably she left something behind, and inevitably they gave her a hard time about bringing whatever it was to the other parent’s house. So her anxiety and exhaustion as an adult were often fueled by an ever-present worry that she was going to forget something important that it would be difficult to retrieve.

However, while both recognizing that what you’re feeling isn’t just about the here and now, and also locating the old source of the sensation can be helpful, it doesn’t always take care of the problem. This is in part because these feelings are deeply entrenched, and in part because they’re not just about the past, but also about the present. Maybe you really are worried about what your boss is going to say to you when you don’t have the report she wants ready. Maybe your organizational skills still do leave something to be desired. Maybe you’re really not helping your children prepare for the day ahead.

We live in a demanding, high-speed world, and keeping up with everything we need and want and expect to do is not always simple.

So what else can you do to make Sunday nights more pleasant – and maybe even ease your way into your work week?

For both Janine and Alex, that answer came with a fairly simple attitude change: instead of seeing Sunday night as the end of the weekend, they began to think of it as part of a procession of days and nights, each of which was part of a life-process. Friday was not the end of the week, or the beginning of the weekend, but part of that procession. They could accomplish what they could on Friday, and on Saturday, and on Sunday as well; but they would still have the rest of the week to continue their work. If there was a deadline looming on Monday morning of course, then the weekend had to be used to meet that deadline. But that didn’t mean that it was isolated from the rest of their lives. In fact, it was yet another part of the process of experience; another task that needed to be woven into the fabric of their lives, not separated out from that fabric.

For Alex, that perspective made it easier to see that when he’d finished all of his work on Friday, he wasn’t really finished – he had simply accomplished the part of the process that was accessible at the end of the week. There would of course be more, and that was okay. He wasn’t done; but he was now going to turn his mind to other moments. When he was running, for example, he wasn’t slacking off and he didn’t need to prepare for an unexpected criticism or a sense of failure. In fact, he reminded himself, his learning difficulties had been diagnosed and he was a highly effective businessman. And a man who could allow himself to focus on the pleasures of exercise.

For Janine, first it was important for her to recognize that she had been unconsciously feeling as though she had to get her children ready to spend the next few away from her. Once she understood that those old experiences were feeding her discomfort on Sunday nights, she became a little less frantic about getting everything organized in the hours before she went to bed. But the reality was that she still had many plates to juggle – getting herself and her children ready for the week was not a simple process, even if she wasn’t sending them away to their father’s home. And the fact was that her own husband was an active, loving partner and parent, so that she was not doing all of the preparation alone.

Thinking of Sunday night not as an endpoint, but as part of an ongoing process helped her change not only her perspective, but also her feelings about the end of the weekend. “I don’t have to have everything done by bedtime on Sunday,” she said finally. “If one of the girls forgets her homework, or her ballet shoes, we can figure it out. And if I don’t have everything prepared for work, I can do some of it when I get in; and probably some of it later in the day.”

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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