For many who live in New York, moving to the city is a dream come true. A city glamorized by movies and television shows, it offers unique opportunities to enjoy some of the best theater, music, and art in the world, as well as a chance to work in a variety of fields. The draw and excitement of such an iconic place allows for the creation of high expectations for life in the city. At first, these expectations might be fully met. The crowds and noise can be exhilarating. The energy and diversity of the city is almost unparalleled and creates an environment in which one can learn and grow intellectually and emotionally. Bizarre encounters on the subway become funny stories to tell friends back home.
However, for many (myself included), the appeal of the city can diminish as the reality of trying to make a living and get to work with millions of other commuters sets in. For me, after about three or four years, the crowds were no longer always exciting, but instead became overwhelming and frustrating. The noisy streets and sidewalks became more of a nuisance than anything else. The novelty of navigating the inevitable umbrella wars at rush hour on rainy days transitioned from a funny, unique experience into pure exhaustion and resentment. It often seemed as if my tolerance for the city had run dry.
To be clear, for the most part New York remains exciting and enjoyable to me. However, there are days when it can feel like one big, annoying obstacle course. From delayed and crowded subways to people meandering down the sidewalks without looking up from their phones, it is easy to become frustrated, and even angry, on an otherwise pleasant day. I am sure I’m not the only person who has experienced the annoyance that comes from just missing a train because the person walking down the stairs in front of me was going too slowly. Rationally, in those situations I know that another train will likely come along in just a few minutes, but the irrational part of my brain often takes over and I find myself feeling anger and blame toward the unsuspecting stranger who simply did not feel the need to run for a subway.
As a therapist with Citron Hennessey Private Therapy, I often focus my work with clients on thought patterns and how unhelpful cognitions can lead to negative feelings. Such unhelpful cognitions can take shape in a number of ways, some of which can lead to the development of, and engagement with, unrealistic expectations. Having positive expectations is not in itself a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that allowing oneself to be guided by positive expectations is in general a good way to live one’s life. What I am referring to here is the irrationality of continuing to engage with expectations that have been proven to be unlikely or even impossible many times over. Doing this can generally only serve to upset us further.
I will provide an example from my personal experience. Years ago, I lived in Hell's Kitchen and was fortunate that my office was only a 25-minute walk from my apartment. I was grateful for this, as it allowed me to save money by not needing to purchase a monthly subway card and provided me with some free exercise. Something for which I was not grateful was the fact that my walk took me right through Times Square. Each morning and evening I would walk through the crowds of tourists and vendors which, even at 7:30am, were energetic and seemingly always growing.
Despite the fact that I would walk the same general path each day and would experience the same crowds and noise each time, I continued to be frustrated. Looking back, I realize I brought this all on myself. Yes: Times Square can be objectively overwhelming, but I allowed myself to get worked up and angry despite the evidence that the circumstances of my walk would not change. Did I think Times Square would suddenly become obsolete? That no tourists would want to go there anymore? Did I think it was possible that a memo would be released alerting all people in Times Square that they were no longer allowed to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures or look at a map? Obviously I did not think any of the above things would actually happen, but on some level I was allowing myself to expect that things would change. If I had accepted the reality of the situation and had expected that I would encounter annoyances on my commute, I probably wouldn’t have become so frustrated each day.
The concept of a person allowing oneself to feel a certain way may be new to some. It was new to me not too long ago. I had always thought that my feelings were things that happened to me - that events or people made me feel certain ways. What I have come realize, though, is that I have a choice in how I allow myself to feel. For example, when I would prepare to walk to or from work, I could have adjusted my expectations and told myself that I would be encountering crowds and annoyances. Then, when those things happened, I would have reacted in a rational way. Instead, I upset myself by letting my expectations remain unrealistic. I engaged with thoughts like, “People shouldn’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk!” Well, why shouldn’t they? There is no law against it and it is a very understandable behavior considering the surroundings. For me to not only expect that people wouldn’t do such a thing, but to then also entertain my irrational thoughts about how they shouldn’t do so only served to make my walk, which could have been a pleasant start and end to my work day, full of unnecessary frustration and stress.
In retrospect, I realize I could have tried to reframe my experience in a more positive way. For example, I could have focused on how in many ways I was lucky to be dealing with this problem. I got to walk through a place people traveled across the world to see not once in my life, but twice each day. There was a time in my life, prior to when I thought moving to New York was a possibility, that I wanted to see Times Square just once. By reminding myself of that, I probably could have altered my perspective and engaged with healthier thoughts. I also could have allowed myself to recognize that my actions were ultimately a choice. I could have lived elsewhere. I could have taken a subway or bus to work. I could have walked a little out of my way to avoid the most high-traffic areas of that part of the city. In the end, I was choosing to put myself in a stressful situation and I was choosing to become upset about it.
I learned these things too late to change my attitude toward and experience of my walking commute, but I often think back on that time as a reminder to apply these simple lessons to my present-day life. Although I no longer have to walk through Times Square regularly, I still commute to a job in New York City. I admit that it is not always easy and I do not always succeed, but in general I have managed to alter my expectations of life here. Accepting the reality of the crowded trains and human obstacles has allowed me to not only upset myself much less, but I think it has helped me to enjoy more fully the things that make New York the iconic city it is. And perhaps these two things go hand in hand. Realistically, I suppose it wouldn’t be New York without a little noise, a big crowd, and a lot of readjustment.