Languishing is the topic of the moment. Psychologist Adam Grant wrote an article about it for the New York Times back in May 2021 and since then his ideas have gone viral with any number of publications recycling his comments. It hit a nerve because the term ‘languishing’ explains perfectly the ‘meh’ feeling that so many people around the world have as the pandemic lingers. What none of the many articles I have read say, however, is how just the way we think and speak about languishing can make a difference to our experience of it.

What is languishing?

Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves. Languishing is not a new COVID related symptom, it was in fact a term coined by a sociologist Corey Keyes. He noticed that as humans we do not operate from a dichotomy, being either joyous or depressed. It’s more of a spectrum and the middle part of the line is a neutral feeling. A psychological malaise if you will. Nothing really wrong that you can point to, but nothing feels good either. Often life starts to feel pointless.  Not to the extent that you actively want to end life but more to the effect that you just can’t be bothered to make any great effort to work towards goals because, well, do they really matter anyway?  You may feel stagnant, bored or empty and hollow. Without any real life purpose. Humans have this feeling available to them all the time, it’s just that more of us are noticing it at the moment.

Adam’s article went viral because it’s helpful to us as humans to be able to name emotions and also helpful to know that we are like other people.  It’s probably not surprising that the experience of languishing is so common at the moment, because we are all spending so much time waiting. Waiting for things to get less risky, waiting to find out what our new normal is at work, waiting to see if we can get back into Australia. We are unable to fully engage with so many of the things that we know bring us joy either because they are simply not available, or because even going to an art gallery we must mediate our experience with a mask over our face if we are to respect others. Waiting is uncomfortable. Indeed, if you google ‘languishing’ you will see any number of articles giving you lists of things to do to get past the feeling. I’m going to take a different approach and suggest that an alternative response that fits our natural psychology is to embrace it but to examine it using a slight shift in language. 

Embracing languishing

Languishing is a form of mental liminal space, neither one thing nor another. It’s not a harmful emotion or a mental illness, it’s just an uncomfortable emotional state in the same way that being between jobs is or hanging about at an airport unsure when your delayed flight will be announced is. However, it feels less specific to a situation and more all pervasive. Liminal spaces are the pauses between events and experiences, and they are an important part of transitions. The Gestalt model of psychology expresses this as a circular experience. First we get an awareness or longing for something, then we connect with it. We fully experience it and then we disconnect from it and then…. There! There is a gap before we connect to the next thing.  Like that pause in a meal before you feel ready for dessert. It’s not a waste of time or space though. Rather it is described in that model as a ‘fertile void’, a time when, like tulip bulbs underground in January, nothing seems to be happening, but unseen growth is going on. 

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Embracing this ‘wintering’ experience can take the pressure of you to power through, to do something about it. Allow yourself to rest, to consolidate your life pre COVID, to regenerate and wait to see what beauty springs up post pandemic. We have created a society in which always being on, always producing and participating is seen as the norm. In fact, nature and human psychology is not like that. We need time to be fallow and mulch. The feelings that come with that being imposed on us are unfamiliar and that often causes anxiety and frustration. Why can’t we be like we always have been? The answer to that is that humans are ever changing, nature is ever changing and we lose a part of the experience of this magical wonderful life if we skip parts because they are uncomfortable. 

Shifting our language around languishing

A part of our resistance to settling into languishing for a time is also the feeling of loss of control. Especially now, it seems that change has been imposed on us by the virus, by governments and we rail against that, gasping for things to do to get us back to where we choose to be. However, it is possible to both sit with the languishing for a while and to take some control by using some techniques from the psychological model of psychosynthesis. 

Its founder Roberto Assagioli noticed that we often talk about how we feel in language that equates how we feel with who we are. For example, someone deliberately scrapes our new car and we might say “ I am just so ****ing angry! Or a friend gets an all clear from cancer and we say ‘I am overjoyed.” However, just by the fact we can name those emotions we can recognise that there is a part of us who is outside of those emotions who can notice and name them and even choose whether to allow them to stay or not. Assagioli called that part of us the True Self.

When we speak of languishing we can choose to say, ”I am languishing’. That choice tends to make us feel that languishing is all we are, that it is our whole experience, that it is a fundamental part of our identity at present. We become the languishing and that is worrisome because we feel we have lost ourselves somehow.  We actually say, ‘ I am just not myself’. If we shift our language to say “I am experiencing languishing” or “I have languishing” then we can set our identity apart from this transitory emotion. We can observe it, deserve it, be curious about it, decide what to do with it. We are back in control. We are not lost, we are having a new experience. And what a difference this makes!

Maybe that seems trite because it truly does feel like the languishing (or the anger or whatever emotion you are feeling) has taken over the whole of you. If so, try going one step further with the language and declare, ‘Oh look, languishing (or anger) is trying to have me’. Those words can help you see the emotion as something external to you which is trying but failing to take you over. You will always be stronger than it because (perhaps unless you are tipped into a mental illness which is a different thing altogether) you will always have the ability to access your True Self to observe the emotion, which is not you, but which is a part of your experience today. 

The benefits of this approach

By both accepting the internal experience of languishing but using language to be able to externalise it and observe it we can start to see positive aspects to a difficult time. Perhaps you can identify that we are connected to thousands of others through this feeling even if we can’t be with them in person. Perhaps you can see how a sense of purpose that drives you forward may need time to renew and come again. Perhaps you can see how allowing your energy levels to ebb and flow like the natural cycle of seasons might bring richness and variety to life. Perhaps, even by following those thoughts you will find the pain of the languishing lessens and you find have found life for the last few moments less pointless and more interesting!