More than a year ago, my husband lost his job. It was a well-paying job and it afforded us a very comfortable lifestyle. At first, we felt hopeful that he would quickly be able to replace it. He’s bright, super-successful, and even though the “unemployed” status blindsided all of us, we really didn’t worry much at the beginning. After all, who wouldn’t be thrilled and lucky to have my husband on their payroll?
Anyway, after about a year of looking for a similar type of position, my husband realized that he had to take a lower-level job because we had been dipping into our savings way too much, and money had to start coming in. I understood and even gave him credit for adjusting to the fact that he wasn’t going to find a position that was as prestigious as his former one, and, at that point, any position was better than no job at all.
He eventually got offered a job that pays him about 40% less than his former job. We are still, thank G-d, doing better than many families. We are able to pay our bills, our yeshiva and camp obligations are met, and we don’t have to continue to raid our savings. I am grateful for that. And I give my husband tremendous credit for his ability to accept this fact and also handle a less “important” position than his former one was.
However, we cannot afford “extras.” No more eating out once a week at pricey restaurants. No more fancy vacations — or even regular vacations, for that matter. No more expensive clothing or perks that we never really needed in the first place and certainly don’t need now but took for granted.
As I’m writing this, I’m presenting our situation logically and with a peaceful mind. My problem is that I find I can’t stop thinking about what was. I wake up every day reviewing the “before” and “after” of our lives. I know that I should be so grateful that my husband has a job because I know that there are plenty of people out there who don’t. And I am grateful and feel blessed that we can be financially independent. But somehow I find that my thoughts are constantly gravitating back to the way things used to be. I think about the vacation to the Greek Isles we had planned a while back and were hoping to take this year. I think about my friends going out to dinner every Thursday evening and that we can’t join them. I know this is silly in the scheme of things.
How I can control my thoughts? In my heart and my attitude, I am supportive of my husband and grateful for all that we have. But somehow, I can’t seem to control my thoughts and my constant need to think about “what could have been.” These thoughts leave me feeling stressed and unsettled. How do I get a handle on my thoughts? How do I make them go away? I feel they sabotage all the good efforts I make to accept what’s happened. So far, I’m able to keep them to myself. Sometimes my husband will sense that I’m not in a good mood and he’ll ask me what’s wrong and I usually make up some silly excuse. I worry that one day I won’t be able to hold my thoughts in check and I’ll let out to him what I’m thinking and all my yearnings and disappointments.
Can we control our thoughts?
Dear Too Thoughtful,
For better or for worse, we are all constantly bombarded with thoughts at a dizzying speed. Yes, there are those people who tend to “think less,” which sounds kind of odd, but some people might view it as a blessing. For most of us, however, our thoughts are relentless. It’s really hard to get away from them. And sadly, more often than not, many of our thoughts easily shift into the negative rather than the positive. It just seems easier to “go there,” and it’s definitely easier to go from good thoughts to bad thoughts than it is to go from bad thoughts to good thoughts.
Some people who practice meditation, yoga, and various deep breathing exercises and are actually able to stay the course and find it helpful. For many, it feels impossible to go to that place of thoughtlessness. An easier option to deal with our continual thoughts is to engage in activities or hobbies that we can commit to and enjoy so thoroughly that we find ourselves in “the zone,” that intense place where it almost feels as though time stands still and nothing else in the world really matters. For some people, the nature of their jobs can put them in their zone; for others, it might be playing tennis or mah-jongg. Painting, playing an instrument, or a game of chess can also take you to that heightened state of awareness, where regular thoughts just don’t seem to matter or penetrate. Finding an opportunity to enter one’s zone is helpful for everyone, regardless of what’s going on in their lives. It provides our overactive brains with a mini-vacation from the unstoppable train of thoughts that seems to take over and call the shots. So you may want to explore whether you can find some relief through any of these suggestions.
But there are other ways to address your upsetting thoughts. You may want to examine your thoughts and decide whether or not having them should necessarily be disturbing. Thoughts come and go, and they only have as much power as we choose to give them. Just because you think something doesn’t mean it has any power over you, your life, your happiness, or your future. Rather than push back on your thoughts, trying to make them disappear, sit back and see if you are able to observe them wash over you and go on their merry way. After all, they are only thoughts, and you don’t have to believe that they have any particular influence over you.
You may also want to take a little time to examine who you are at this point in your life, minus the extravagant extras you enjoyed for so long. Did the fancy clothing, exotic trips, and expensive restaurants define you in any meaningful way? Maybe not — and if not, kudos to you. But if so, this might actually be a wonderful opportunity for you to revisit your values and discover what, in fact, makes a person fabulous. If we channel our challenges properly, we can often rise up to a higher level of being. And that is a powerful gift that is there for the taking.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.