Sometimes boredom is a symptom of something deeper that needs tending.
According to Wikipedia, “Boredom is an emotional and occasionally psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in their surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious.” We all know the feeling. It is part of life. But sometimes boredom is a symptom of something deeper that needs tending.
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 “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, which was only alleviated when she drank (too much) wine.
A 60-year-old man, Craig, did three years of deep emotional work to heal the trauma from having a mother with narcissistic personality disorder (itself a symptom of childhood trauma) and a contemptuous father. Ready to graduate from therapy, he spent much more time in relaxed states. His mind was quieter. But he also noticed a new sense of boredom about life. The absence of agitation and irritability, which had preoccupied him for most of his life, left him feeling strangely empty. “There is so much more room in my head. I guess my misery used to occupy me, so now I feel weirdly bored,” he told me.
My work with clients has taught me there are a few main causes for chronic states of boredom:
1. Boredom that functions as a protective defense against emotional pain.
Traumatic and adverse experiences during childhood, like being raised in a chaotic or emotionally neglectful household, make a child feel unsafe. The lack of safety triggers overwhelming and conflicting emotions, like rage and fear, or sadness and despair. To cope alone, a child’s mind compartmentalizes away “bad” feelings to carry on with life. But disconnecting from emotions, as much as it spares us pain, can manifest as boredom. It's like we are deadened, so life feels dull and meaningless.
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 our core emotions, we cut off a vital source of energy that makes us feel alive and tells us what we like and don't like with clarity. To move past our boredom, we must learn how to safely re-connect with our vast emotional world. This involves tuning into our body, where emotions and their associated physical sensations live.
2. Boredom that serves as a protective defense against knowing our wants, needs, and longings for love, connection, and positive regard from others.
To be in touch with wants and needs, especially when we think they are unattainable, is to feel emotional and physical pain. Here again, boredom comes from disconnecting from deep aspects of our authentic self. It's a global disconnect that numbs our desires, wants, and needs. We can't use our internal compass anymore to discover our interests.
Cutting ourselves off from emotions and wants is an unconscious process designed to spare us pain at a time when our environment wasn’t nurturing to our wellbeing. It’s not our fault that we are cut-off. However, now the responsibility is ours to heal and restore connections to our true feelings.
3. Boredom that tells us we are under-stimulated.
The feeling of boredom might be telling us that we need to find new interests, people, and hobbies in our life. To overcome boredom, we must go through a process of self-discovery and try out new things. The process includes building self-awareness for any obstacles that get in the way. Anxiety about trying something new and failing is an example of an obstacle. Lack of ability to focus is another example. Often the two go together. No matter, we must work to reduce obstacles. Skills to lower anxiety, like breathing and grounding, are very helpful. Reaching out to a counsellor or coach for help and support is always a great idea and something for which you can be proud.
4. For some people, boredom stems from a combination of all of the above and may also be recognized as procrastination or disengagement.
For Rachel to feel better, we had to understand 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, can you imagine the part of you that feels bored sitting on the sofa next to you?”
Rachel could envision the bored part of her. She saw through her adult eyes the image of 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 young parts the protective purpose boredom serves for them and what those parts of us truly need. Almost always, core emotions from the past need validating, honoring, 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 emotions, wants, and needs, defenses like boredom are no longer needed.
Rachel’s vitality and zest for living emerged as she realized she wasn’t to blame for her problems. They were caused by an environment that was unhealthy for her. As her shame diminished, she accessed and processed the underlying anger at her parents and mourned the pain she experienced in her childhood. She came to understand how “not caring” kept her safe from being hurt and disappointed by life. She learned that now, as an adult, she was strong enough and supported enough to deal with life’s challenges and the emotions they triggered. Rachel embraced more adaptive ways of coping like listening to her emotions, thinking through how best to get her needs met, and solving problems proactively. Through this work, Rachel ceased to be bored, as she now felt alive and engaged in most aspects of her life. Craig and I decided to get very curious about his newfound boredom. As with Rachel, I invited him to get some separation from the "bored part" so we could talk to it. The power of talking to discrete parts as though they are separate people is undeniable. The trick is when you ask a question to a part of yourself, you must then be patient and listen to receive the answer. Craig’s bored part told him he needed to engage more with his hobbies and interests. We spent fun time discussing the things he enjoyed in life and how he might like to spend his free time. Relief from boredom was immediate as he was excited to discover new interests. After everything he had been through, he felt he deserved to care for himself in this new way.
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 boredom. When our boredom tells us we need more interests, we can set a plan for trying out new experiences, 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 absolutely go below the anxiety to discover our buried emotions and needs. Then by honoring what we discover and working to process emotions like shame, anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and others, we can think through how to get deep needs met in safe and healthy ways. And, 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. The process of mourning for the self is healing. This is the route to reconnecting with our vital and most authentic self.
You too can change your relationship to boredom. Want to experiment? Here are some questions to ask your bored parts:
Is this boredom longstanding or a relatively new experience?
When was the first time you remember being bored in such a way that you couldn’t stand it?
What does boredom feel like physically?
What’s the hardest part of the experience of boredom: The way it feels physically? The assault to self-esteem? The self-judgment? The impulses to get rid of it? The negative thoughts it causes? Other?
What, if any, impulses do the bored parts of you have?
Is the sense of boredom always there or does it come and go?
What triggers boredom and what makes it go away?
Why is boredom a problem for you? Be very specific about how boredom affects you.
What does your bored part need to feel a little relief? Use your imagination!
For extra credit: Work the Change Triangle! Where is boredom on the Change Triangle? If you moved your bored part to the side, what underlying emotions might you be experiencing? Once you name them, can you validate them without judging yourself?
A+ just for trying!
(Patient details changed to protect confidentiality)
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