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Languishing – the middle child of mental health

17-06-2021|Anthony Gougeon

Does this sound familiar:

Having trouble concentrating? Vaccinated but still feeling unsure? Summer coming and maybe even some holidays (albeit domestic!) booked, but you are not excited? Watching reruns of the same TV programmes or films late into the night rather than going to bed or even discovering the delights of Minecraft rather than getting up in the morning to do some exercise?

You are not alone.

There has been a lot written about mental burnout and let’s face it, many of us have had a tough year for lots of different reasons.  But there may be a new phase on the horizon. Maybe you still have energy, so you’re not really feeling burnt out as such, but you are definitely not “fired up”. You are not depressed as you still feel there is hope. Instead of looking forward you feel like you have no direction of travel and are feeling flat and empty about everything. You are just feeling a bit…meh.

Turns out there is a word for this.

Languishing

You are stuck, feeling a little bit empty and looking at everything through a very thick fog. Predictions from people in the know are this is going to be a big feature for 2021.

We are now at month 15 of the pandemic. So called “Freedom Day” has been delayed and you have gone from the anxiety of the early days and now feel like you have been stuck in the same stagnant hole for far too long.

Mental health is often talked about in terms of a spectrum with flourishing being the gold standard as you have a sense of purpose and mattering to others. On the other end of the spectrum is the black dog itself, depression, where you feel worthless and like you have nothing left to give.

Between the high and the low mark is the middle ground of languishing. And like many middle children it is often overlooked. You are not a good advert for mental health, but you are doing ok. You are functioning, but nowhere near what you are normally capable of. The worst thing is that languishing eats away at your motivation and drains the desire to move forward and focus on what matters. It can creep up on you as it slowly diminishes your drive and you almost become indifferent to indifference.

In an era that has given us new words such as “Coronacoaster” you could be forgiven for not wanting to add another pandemic spawned phrase to your lexicon, but scientists have conducted research which suggests that naming what is ailing us can be a useful way of helping us to move forward. Once you have named it, you accept that it exists and can acknowledge it as something that needs to be dealt with.

It may also prove to be an antidote to the need to feel always upbeat and give socially acceptable answers such as good, great etc. to the question of “How are you doing?” Authenticity rather than Churchillian spirit.

The funny thing is, once you realise this might be hanging over you, you will start to see it all around you and the benefit to this is that hopefully it will help you to realise you are not on your own. Knowing that others are in the same boat can help to kickstart the optimism and enthusiasm that languishing has been eroding.

Whilst there is no vaccination to combat languishing, one of the biggest ways to push back is to find a way of getting back into what made you happy pre-pandemic (both in and out of work). Over the last year many people have had to juggle work around the clock with home schooling and childcare and the general burden of domestic house chores. Consequently, this has led to people being spread too thinly across many different tasks and only being able to apply fragmented attention to things – ultimately this is a thief of productivity and joy as it prevents you from being able to fully engage with something you might normally enjoy doing. So how can you stop this?

One word… Boundaries. 

Hands up if you have frequently logged on after core working hours and, if you were truly honest, you didn’t really need to. Because work has been an ever-present feature of the home landscape, languishing made it okay to let it creep in and eat up some of your freedom. If you are in front a computer every day, try to set yourself focus time where you get to concentrate on the task in hand and ignore your inbox and phone for a couple of hours.

Freedom Day will come and so will a new reality.  To borrow a quote from Adam Grant on the topic of languishing: ‘“Not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. “Not burned out” doesn’t mean you’re fired up. By acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void.’

So, take a step back, re-set some boundaries, and make time to focus and reconnect.

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