By Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW
Everyone experiences boredom at some point in their lives. Of course, we can all recall times when we were left without anything to do, when we weren’t interested in our surroundings or when we felt that our days were particularly dull. Feeling this way on occasion is perfectly normal.
But sometimes, as I’ve seen in my work as a psychotherapist, chronic boredom can be a symptom of a deeper psychological issue that needs tending.
My client, Rachel, grew up in a chaotic household. When I met her as a young adult, she didn’t seem to care much about anything, ending almost every sentence with “whatever” and rolling her eyes. This kind of behavior (that I refer to as an “I don’t care” defense) protected Rachel from emotional pain and discomfort. But it also disconnected her from the energy and vitality that being emotionally alive brings. Rachel was plagued by boredom, a feeling she described as “deadness.”
My work with clients like Rachel has taught me that boredom can serve several protective functions — and that it can also damage our emotional well-being.
Traumatic and adverse experiences during childhood, like being raised in a chaotic or emotionally neglectful household, can make a child feel unsafe. The lack of safety can trigger overwhelming and conflicting emotions, like rage and fear or sadness and despair. To cope alone, a child’s mind compartmentalizes “bad” feelings to carry on with life. While disconnecting from emotions spares them pain, it can also lead them to feel “deadened.”
Boredom, in this case, is a byproduct of being out of touch with one’s core emotions of sadness, anger, fear, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement. When we lose access to these core emotions, we cut off a vital source of energy that tells us what we like and don’t like.
To move past this kind of boredom, we must learn how to safely re-connect with our vast emotional world. This involves tuning into our bodies, where emotions and their associated physical sensations live.
Being in touch with our deepest wants and needs, especially when we believe they are unattainable, requires emotional vulnerability and puts us at risk for feeling pain. Here, boredom comes from disconnecting with our desires, wants and needs — for love, connection and positive regard from others, to name a few — and convincing yourself that you don’t want or need anything.
Cutting ourselves off from what we truly want is an unconscious process designed to spare us the pain of not having our needs met. Healing requires taking ownership of restoring connections to our true wants and needs.
The feeling of boredom might be telling us that we need to find new interests, people and hobbies in our lives. To overcome this kind of boredom, we must go through a process of self-discovery and trying out new activities.
Overcoming boredom can be a complex task that requires us to build self-awareness and recognize our obstacles, like anxiety or an inability to focus. As you take on this process of self-discovery, it may help to reach out to a counsellor or coach for advice and support.
To explore your relationship to boredom, try asking yourself the following questions:
Boredom is a difficult state. But one doesn’t need to get stuck there. With a stance of curiosity and compassion, we can learn the roots of our boredom and make necessary changes.
When our boredom tells us we need more interests, we can set a plan for trying out new experiences and practicing patience with ourselves until we find the proper balance of novelty and familiarity. If the boredom is a defense against anxiety, deeper emotions and needs, we can dig deeper to discover our buried feelings and desires.
Then by honoring what we discover and working to process emotions (like shame, anger, sadness, disgust and fear), we can think through how to get deep needs met in safe and healthy ways. When needs can’t be met the way we want, like needing validation from another who is incapable, we need to feel that sadness so we can move beyond it. This is the route to reconnecting with our vital and most authentic self.
To help my client, Rachel, we had to understand her boredom’s protective purpose. In Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), we invite patients to envision parts of themselves that hold distressing beliefs and emotions so we can process or transform them.
I asked Rachel if she could imagine the part of herself that felt bored sitting on the sofa next to her. Rachel said she envisioned a 12-year-old girl dressed in goth clothing sitting on the sofa in my office.
By whole-heartedly, and without judgment, welcoming parts of us that experience boredom, we learn by literally asking those parts what their protective purpose is and what they truly need. Almost always, core emotions from the past need naming, validating and to be felt in the body until they fully move through us. As a person recovers from past traumas and wounds by getting reacquainted with their deeper experiences (i.e., core emotions, wants, needs) defenses like boredom are no longer needed.
Rachel’s vitality and zest for living emerged as she worked through her past traumas and eventually came to believe that she wasn’t to blame for her problems. She addressed the underlying anger she felt from her childhood pain and understood how “not caring” kept her safe from being hurt and disappointed by life. Ultimately, she learned as an adult, she was strong enough and supported enough to deal with life’s challenges and the emotions they triggered.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She is the author of the international award-winning book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House). Hilary has also published articles in The New York Times, Time, NBC Think, FOX News and Oprah, and her blog is read worldwide. You can find free resources on her website and you can follow her work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI