I don't know I Feel...
This neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.Adapted from the original article by Adam Grant.
At first, I did not recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines available, they were not excited or even particularly optimistic about what lies ahead.
I was, like many others I suppose, binge watching, binge eating, and trying hard to stay motivated while working from home. Managing the myriad of contending priorities of on-again-off-again school rotation and remote working. Adapting to the physical restrictions of remember -the- mask shopping, restricted visits for friends, and extended family especially grandparents, the morbidity of the never-ending news cycles of increased infection rates and deaths and the realisation that my family is not untouched by this.
I was not bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, scanning the news of the day, skimming social media, knowing that I needed to get up but for some reason feeling like a few more minutes in bed would give me the motivation to do so. It never did though.
It was not burnout; I still had energy. Once I was up, I was rearing to go. It was not depression, I did not feel hopeless, because despite the restrictions I found opportunities to learn new skills and experiment with new interests and hobbies.
I just felt joyless, neither particularly happy nor particularly sad and aimless. I felt like I was stuck in a holding pattern, a nebulous place where I was not moving forward, nor was I moving backwards. In fact, I was not moving, just kind of hovering in place. Waiting; waiting for something to happen, good or bad it did not really matter, it just needed to happen, whatever IT was that I felt I was waiting for. It turns out there is a name for that: It is called LANGUISHING.
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness and waiting. It feels as if you are muddling through your days. There is a sense of uncertainty as to when it will end. Your life feels as though you are stumbling around through a fogginess that just will not dissipate. This might be the dominant emotion of 2021.
As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of the long-haul of Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional effects of this extended period of the pandemic. It has hit some of us to a greater extent than others. Very few, if any, have been left untouched by this pandemic and we were [and still are] unprepared for the intense fear and grief that seems only to intensify as we continue to navigate and manage this virus and its many variants.
In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, we were all on high alert for fight-or-flight. Learning to discern fake news from facts. Determining who to listen to and which truth resonates with you. We learned to adapt to wearing a mask and to sanitise our hands as we entered every store. We developed routines that eased our sense of dread, as we adapted to remote working and home schooling and disconnecting from friends and family and other social engagements.
Initially we anticipated a swift end to this pandemic, we held the hope that the medical fraternity would provide definitive solutions, unrefuted practices, and rapid results that would allow us to resume our lives as we knew it.
The pandemic has dragged on though. The practical guidelines provided, refuted, and contested, and the rapid results questioned. The truth convoluted and muddied. We have been left to face this demon and decide for ourselves what we believe the best course of action is for ourselves and our families.
This extended and acute state of anguish has given way to this chronic condition of languishing.
We tend to think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being. A space where you have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression on the other end of the spectrum is the valley of ill-being where you feel despondent, drained, and worthless.
Languishing is that space somewhere in the middle. It is the void between depression and flourishing That space where you do not feel depressed, but you do not feel like you are flourishing either.
You are not functioning at full capacity, but you are not on empty either. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you will cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression and, it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
Sociologist Corey Keyes, realised through his research that there were many people who were not depressed BUT were also not thriving. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade do not have those symptoms today. However, the people who are languishing right now are more likely to experience major depression later.
Part of the danger of languishing, is that you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You do not catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude. You do not realise that you are indifferent to your indifference. When you cannot see your own suffering, you do not seek help or even do much to help yourself.
Even if you are not languishing, you probably know someone who is.
Understanding it better can help you help them.
Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. During the acute anguish of this pandemic, describing our collective discomfort as grief, along with the loss of loved ones, we are mourning the loss of normalcy.
“Grief.” It gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand this unfamiliar experience. Although we (our generation) have not faced a pandemic before, most of us have faced loss. It helps us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity.
While there is still a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to cure it, naming it might be a first step. Naming a condition helps to defog our vision. It reminds us that we are not alone. It shines a light on the proverbial monster under the bed. Languishing is common and shared. It gives us a socially acceptable response to “How are you?”
It gives us permission to not be ok and say so out loud, instead of saying “Great!” or “Fine,” in mildly sarcastic tones. We can answer honestly, by saying “I’m languishing.” It would be refreshing to be able to honestly answer this question and avoid the toxic positivity.
When you add languishing to your lexicon, you start to notice it all around you. It shows up when you feel let down by your short afternoon walk. It is in your kids’ voices when you ask how online school went. It’s in your friends and families’ responses to that “how is it going” question. It’s better than responding with “Meh!”
An antidote to languishing
So, what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful activity, where your sense of time, place and self, melts away. Some people call this a hobby or a passion but really it is a head space where you can escape into and occupy yourself with activities that energise you, give you a sense of peace and joy and happiness. It is that space where you feel the world is back in sync and despite what is happening around you Everything will be OK.
During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being was not optimism or mindfulness it was flow. People who immersed themselves in projects or activities that provided meaningful mental distraction and allowed for the development of a new skill, managed to avoid languishing and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness.
While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work are all possible remedies to languishing, it is hard to do so when you cannot focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic. People were, and still are habitually checking emails 90x a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes.
In the past year, many of us have also been struggling with interruptions from kids around the house, colleagues around the world, and bosses around the clock.
Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence.
Give yourself some uninterrupted time
That means we need to set boundaries.
We know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress. Treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.
Focus on a small goal
The pandemic created a big loss. So, appreciate and relish the small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of solving a soduko without using the hints or discovering a love for herb gardening.
One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty. A challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you. An interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step towards rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you have missed during all these months.
Languishing is not merely in our heads; it is in our circumstances. You can’t heal a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges. As we continue to navigate the effects of a global pandemic and the associated global grief, perhaps it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being.
“Not depressed” doesn’t mean you are not struggling. “Not burned out” does not mean you are all fired up. Simply acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving a voice to the quiet despair and start lighting a path out of the void.
How are you managing languishing? Drop your ideas in the comment section. Would love to hear from you.