Bad habit thought pattern that needs to go.
January 3, 2015 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Loneliness, Stress at work, I created this bad habit to keep it together. Now what? Details inside.

A few years ago I met someone through mutual friends, who I was immediately attracted to. At the time, I was also holding onto a very stressful job and I had been single for a long period of time (7 years) after a breakup. I swam laps everyday to lower my stress levels and unfortunately, I started thinking of this person almost everyday during this daily de-stress activity. This ritual really relaxed me. At that time, i made nothing of it. I had to get my mind off work to keep my sanity intact and this was just a private vision of the kind of connection that I wanted eventually in my life. I guess I needed someone to personify that and ended up making a real movie in my head. I am not perpetually crushing on others. The last time i had a crush, I was a teenager. Me now (39F).

I briefly tried to pursue the above person but was not successful in evoking their interest in me. After a couple of meetings it was also clear that the real person was not the dream person. I had built this person up so big in my head that I had a very difficult time accepting the situation initially. I respected the dream as something that was simply telling me that I needed to take action to build the life I wanted/dreamed of.

So I did/am. I am now very happily coupled up with a wonderful person where there is mutual love. I am quite happy. I also don't have the toxic job situation anymore although i do have stress in my new situation (comes with the industry).

The only problem is the dream/thinking habit continues. When I try to think of my life this person often pops up instead of my lovely partner. I am not so bothered/concerned about what it means but I rather want it to stop. My brain often wants to use this movie to relax from stress (I work at a startup), avoid starting on big hairy things at work. I have no contact/social media contacts with above person and do not even live in the same city. I have no intention of hurting my lovely partner. I don't think of this person during the day.

But when I am winding down and about to close my eyes, this thought pattern emerges. I feel quite stuck with this stupid habit/dream.

Is this uncommon? Any best practice that helped you kick out a similar issue?
posted by gadget_gal to Human Relations (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
NO, this is not uncommon! I do this most nights when I can't sleep. It's fantasy, and it's healthy and it's how a lot of us unwind. You seem to be aware it has nothing to do with wanting to be with the actual person (as I am aware that I am not actually going to date married actor Cillian Murphy, famous rapper Pusha T, or the guy I only know from twitter and never actually met and whose voice I've never heard but I imagine sounds a bit like Cillian Murphy's.) And fantasy isn't always sexual; haven't we all tried on living in a mansion on the opposite side of the country, doing a totally different job, hanging out with a totally different partner? Doesn't mean we actually want these things, it's just role-playing. It's creative, not destructive, unless it's interfering with your life.

I'm not trying to be glib, but most of us don't fantasize about our partners or our current life so I don't think you should be so horrified you think of [your version of] this other person instead of your partner. But I hear you say it's bothering you and want it to stop. Have you tried accepting the fact that you will fantasize? Once you have accepted that, maybe you can try diversifying the cast of your little movie so you're not stuck on this one person. Are you a writer, or have you ever wanted to be? It can help to "write" someone out of your system (especially since you were the one who created this character; that means you have the power to destroy it.)
posted by kapers at 12:21 PM on January 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Kapers, I do accept fantasising and don't feel any guilt. I am in a creative profession (programming). It's not interfering in my life other than it feels like I am stuck in groundhog day fantasy. I want new vivid dreams/fantasies. I don't know how to destroy it.
posted by gadget_gal at 12:32 PM on January 3, 2015

I haven't had this experience, but it sounds exactly like what you're calling it: a mental habit. It's a well-worn groove, and now your mind just habitually falls into it. I wonder if when it happens you can just mentally note, "Oh, there's the X fantasy again," and then kindly escort your mind over to something else, such as the flow of your breath. You might count your breaths up to the number ten, or focus on the feeling of your belly moving in and out. If you revert back to the fantasy, repeat as above, without getting irritated. It's just your mind doing what it's gotten used to doing.
posted by swheatie at 12:42 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see, so it's not the fantasizing habit you want to break, it's the particular fantasy.

At this point, it's probably an automatic, unconscious thing, so maybe you will have to make a conscious effort to interrupt and change up the fantasy, every single time. This would probably feel unnatural at first, but maybe if every time you catch yourself on the same fantasy, you force yourself to think of someone/something else, it will eventually get replaced.

Now that I think of it, I have done this. I used to put myself to sleep every night thinking about someone I had no chance with and I wanted to stop because it was painful. So I actually worked up this fantasy where he had wronged me, and a NEW man was standing up for me, and then I started thinking about the new man (god, this sounds silly and juvenile and is faintly embarrassing, but I hope it helps!)
posted by kapers at 12:46 PM on January 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Well, one answer seems like: invent a new one? I'm also very hooked on daydreaming + self-soothing storytelling, and while only a few of my daydreams have ever caused me to feel guilt or grief, they very often stop working in the way I need them to (for example, I need particularly ass-kicking daydreams to get through an exercise routines, and when I get bored of certain stories, I don't exercise as much.) When that happens, I come up with new ones, although I've never done it quite so self-consciously as I'm telling you to do here.

If I were you, I'd just start brainstorming about what particular features that story has that are satisfying to you and think if you can come up with another, more acceptable story that retains them. It's a romantic daydream, it sounds like, so you'll want to keep someone you're attracted to in it (I don't know if you'll be able to use your partner - I think it's harder to romantically daydream about a person you're actually hanging out with all day, but maybe an actor or a character from fiction, or a different old boyfriend you don't feel quite so conflicted about?) You don't say if it's a straight up sex fantasy, but if there are other elements, you could incorporate those, too. So if you are in the habit of imagining, say, you and Twitter guy living in an apartment in Brooklyn and working as artists with your two adorable children, then you could switch it around and imagine the love story of you and Invented Person Who Looks like Benedict Cumberbatch but Is Actually A Professional Cellist With A Secret living in Paris and being novelists together and adopting a puppy. Or whatever. And then do some vague internet research where you watch some Youtube videos where B.D. is particularly adorable and look up a bunch of French bungalows on real estate websites until your fantasy has a detailed enough texture to take on a life of its own.

Brains are funny things, but maybe that would work for you?
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is what could be called a "sticky" thought. Sticky thoughts are hard to stop, pushing them out of your mind doesn't work for long. When you realize you're having this particular sticky thought/dream you can start to go "oh, I'm having this sticky thought again, that's interesting". You can notice what feelings and further thoughts it brings up, and start building some awareness/distance by simply being mindful of it and the pattern/cycle that occurs.

FWIW yes, I've had similar fantasy-like thoughts about people who in real life were not good fits for me or where it was just not possible. For myself, when I realize this person (or fantasy) is taking up space in my head it makes me mad/resentful, and sometimes I feel bad that I wasn't able to be in a relationship with this person, or that they rejected me on some level. It's my feeling bad that makes the fantasy problematic, and I find what's making me feel bad is a feeling of shame/rejection, because some part of me is still cycling around "why didn't that person want me?". Once you realize what's happening you can gain distance from the feelings that are brought up and the thought will stick less because you're not falling into the whole pattern of thinking about person>feel good>feel bad/upset>want to stop feeling bad/upset (your pattern might be very different than mine).

This link has some good nuggets in it.

Also there's a clear element of avoidance in this thought habit for you, it's what you use to keep from focusing on real stresses or problems. This is worth exploring further. You sound like you know how to deal with stress well, but maybe try watching a funny video or reading an interesting article instead of doing this thought thing when you're avoiding something when you're at work.
I've tried to replace a lot of my fantasizing about potential relationships (which for me is right before I fall asleep also) to thinking about fun things I want to do, what I'm going to make for dinner tomorrow, which friend I'm going to send an email to, etc. I'd like to start journaling before bed too so that I can write about what's bothering me irl and have a clearer mind before bed. Fantasizing about potential lovers is more of a special treat for me now than a junk food that makes me feel sick, and it's been very liberating to realize I can break that thought chain and focus on other things. I don't think there's anything terrible about fantasizing, but for me right now it's healthier for me to focus on the here and now and about things that are less escapist/more tangible for the most part.
posted by lafemma at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I wonder if you go to these thoughts as a way to soothe anxiety about other worries. So instead of thinking about this person, ask yourself what is really bothering you and either solve that problem or (if unsolvable) consciously push the frustration aside and choose something else to think about.

If you want to go really deep, try meditation which can slow down the frenetic pace of the act of thinking itself (after repeated practice).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suspect replacing the movie will be easier than destroying it altogether. That could be a new crush (if you're so inclined, though it sounds like you might not be). Or a vacation. Or a slightly more idealized version of your daily life, something like a movie of you being extra awesome at work or extra sparkling while socializing. I do the same thing as you and find that fantasies don't "work" for me unless they're connected, no matter how tenuously, to reality.

Also, what do you do to mentally relax? Engrossing fiction helps my brain's craving to think about something that isn't work.
posted by orangejenny at 1:35 PM on January 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ah so relieved! I was beginning to really worry. It felt like being trapped with a blow up doll in your dreams. Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I am understanding this a lot better.

Lafemma, I did face the rejection you talk about. I do see a lot of rejection in my career and this has never affected me too much. It was unexpectedly hard to digest it in the romantic context here. I didn't have any real chances with him (likes to play the field). But I still pursued him thinking if nothing else, it would at least end the recurring fantasy of him.

It seems to me that I am just normal and love me a good romantic fantasy at bed time to relax. There's a lot of tenderness, romance and sexual love in this dream. If at all relevant, I didn't have this kind of love at first sight happen with the current real life partner. It was more a slow, warm, realisation - love at hindsight which was new, unexpected, just as glorious as love at first sight. Possibly why i am so attached to this other flavour of romantic love in my dreams.

Thinking about it a little more, I have no difficulty changing the story/circumstances/setting. But i am stuck on the protagonist. I can't incorporate my real life partner or movie/famous people inside these romantic fantasies. So i think I will just have to wait till I meet someone really charming in real life again or work on accepting the current one. Its like I am in a fix because my fantasy only works with a real life charming person. But in my waking life, I am quite fulfilled by my partner and have not been really attracted to anyone new.

I am quite excited now with this problem because of the new ideas you have given me. Looking forward to letting go this protagonist and finding a new one.
posted by gadget_gal at 2:26 PM on January 3, 2015

I think the clear answer is to make yourself a new "movie," as several others have suggested. However, if you need a ritual to stop the automatic cycling of the troublesome ideas through your mind, here's a tip from my counselor: A visualization you can do when you feel recurrent thoughts ramping up at bedtime or other relaxation times is to picture a chalkboard. As the thougts occur, picture an eraser or a damp sponge (I liked the latter because it seemed like it would clean more thorougly). Let the thoughts write themselves on the chalkboard and erase them as they appear. Do this long enough and you'll clear the way for new thoughts, or just be able to let the day go and drift to sleep. This was really effective for me in working through anxiety, but it seems like it'd help with any intrusive or repetitive thoughts.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 7:15 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I do it too. I have two fantasies. One is when I shower irl, I create my dream home. Like a custom "I just won the lotto" home. I like to consider different settings, styles, pool or no pool, etc. Flooring alone can take half my shower.

I also occasionally think of an old boyfriend who is gone overseas permanently (and I'm married, and it's been 25+ yrs, etc). In the past I've found myself thinking of him more than I'm comfortable with, so I've forced myself to think of other things which has worked pretty well. I rarely think of him now, maybe every couple months where it used to be almost daily. That one I try to minimize as I don't think it's great for me but the house one? I know it's not real, but I enjoy it, and when I step out of the shower I forget it until the next day when I'm in the shower.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 8:47 PM on January 3, 2015

I too think you'll have better luck training your brain in a new direction. You obviously have a powerful imagination. I don't know quite enough about these fantasies to pick up the plotline, but here are a few possible ideas:

- Some fantasy where he says goodbye or leaves? E.g., in your fantasy, he comes over to hang out with you like always, but this time (and every time from now on), he says he can't do this anymore, because [something you want to believe about your life: you don't need a prince charming to save you from work because you saved yourself; because you've found a great person for you, one who will give you real love and not the kind of love that burns fast and flares out like the kind of love he offers]. And since he truly wants what's best for you, he is leaving you to the greater happiness you are capable of now.

- If Bob would never do that, what about some fantasy where he has to leave and effectively becomes inaccessible to your mental imaging? Like how it was in high school when seniors went off to college; you knew they were gone but had no idea what their life was like now. Maybe Bob joined the foreign service and got assigned far away somewhere you can't quite picture, so your recurrent fantasy is like "oh, Bob, [whatever you normally think about him, e.g. I can't wait to call him and he'll say--], oh wait, Bob lives in That Country now. Do they have phones there? Is it cold? Hot? Mountainous? Desert? Trees? Hmm. Well. Well, I hope Bob is having a good time there, I guess. Anyway."

- Some fantasy where Bob motivates you to do whatever you want to motivate yourself to do in your life? E.g., it turns out that Bob is actually your twin separated at birth! So of course you have to break off your affair immediately and never speak of it again, as if it never happened. But neither of you want to lose this important relationship - and now you know why you feel such a connection to imaginary him. And his new idea is that you both [goal you have: carefully save your money so you, he, and your respective spouses can buy a vacation duplex in that place you love and spend summers together on the beach]...

- Some fantasy where you get distance from the fantasies by adding a layer between you and them? E.g., you thought you were imagining Bob, but it turns out that in your imagination, you were watching a TV show about Bob! He's just a character on TV! But now your imaginary TV is getting weird, and the volume is getting lower / the screen is black and white / the reception is getting staticky. Or when the fantasies start, and you realize you're watching the Bob Show on TV again, have a new character in your imagination (your new partner even?) ring the doorbell picking you up to go ... do what very fun thing? Or have the buzzer in your imaginary kitchen ding because for dinner you are ... cooking what incredibly delicious food?
posted by salvia at 11:57 PM on January 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

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