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Are You Languishing?

By Lucy Wormald (she/her)

This lockdown has not really been going that well. I am disorientated and torpid and weary. Adrift in a sea bound and plotted by my own mind.

The first two weeks were spent in or on my bed. My dressing gown, my constant companion. My electric blanket, like family to me. I scrolled and refreshed RNZ’s Covid-19 live blog continuously, finding grounding and order in the news cycle. I have watched four seasons of Will & Grace. I have worn my track pants so consistently that they have begun to rapidly pill. I have not read. I have not hand-washed my woollens. I have not made gnocchi. I have not become a Pilates maestro. All my lockdown aspirations have been stream rolled by a monster truck of lethargy.

It seems the pandemic has a tendency to erase the body even as it threatens it. I walk, I sleep, I eat. But the experience of these things feels muffled. Like a weak pulse. Or like I am trying to watch a movie through a wall. I am disassociated from my sense of body and my sense of being.

It feels as though you are muddling through time. Not quite in a mode of crisis, it is also not a state of contentment. You just are.

And then the pandemic also dares to demand endless productivity. I am contrite when I do not work or make. I am ashamed to choose indolence. And time is fickle now – unforgiving, moving erratically. I have forgotten how to use time. Or maybe I am using it incorrectly. It appears that when I am given such an expanse of it, I abuse it, neglect it. This internalised capitalism nibbles at my mind, ever-hungry, ever-destructive, souring my aimlessness with guilt.

This feeling is not a normal one for me. I certainly have not experienced it in such protraction. Mustering motivation feels mammoth. I feel like I am wearing a heavy coat, shoulder pads like barbells, bearing down, making it difficult to move and to think. I am not burnt out. I have energy. I am not depressed. I have hope. I am joyless and unfocused and listless. I am removed from myself. I am languishing.

Adam Grant, organisational psychologist, says languishing is characterised by the absence of wellbeing. We have grown to understand mental health as a spectrum. At one end lies depression, a valley of ill-being dominated by feelings of despondency and worthlessness. At the other end lies flourishing, wellbeing coloured by a strong sense of meaning and mattering. Grant says languishing is the forgotten middle child of mental health. It is the void between depression and flourishing. A liminal space, it leaches outwards, delta-like, touching both ends of the spectrum, making it difficult to recognise, easy to neglect. It does not exhibit the classical symptoms of mental illness, but it does not possess a picture of mental health either.

The term was first coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It is difficult to focus and motivate. You are not functioning at full capacity. It feels as though you are muddling through time. Not quite in a mode of crisis, it is also not a state of contentment. You just are.

While this is not a mental illness, research suggests those who languish face the risk of falling more seriously ill further down the line. Part of the danger of this space is its inconspicuousness, its insidiousness. How can one chart the diminishing interaction with life around you? And then how to care? Languishing breeds indifference to indifference. When such suffering cannot be seen or acknowledged it is hard to seek help.

Emotions don’t just happen. They are made by your brain, which is in constant conversation with your body, with your reality, with the world raging around you. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that languishing appears to be the dominant state of many in 2021. The term pre-dates the pandemic, but lockdown and uncertainty is fertile ground for such a state. As scientists and doctors work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of an enduring pandemic, many are struggling with the emotional fall out of such an experience. As the fear and grief and frenzy of the early stages of a lockdown fades, many of us are unprepared for the emotional landscape that exists beyond that. Sitting and worrying and doom-scrolling, days defined by monotony, punctuated by uncertainty, tempered by nihility. The world begins to feel like something that happens to you, rather than something you can participate in.

When I look up “languish” in the thesaurus words such as wither, droop, and deteriorate show up. These words make sense to me, give language to what I am feeling. Grant says that from a psychological standing, one of the best strategies for managing emotions is naming them. Last year, during the early days of the pandemic, there was much effort in the media and amongst ourselves, to accurately describe our collective emotional experience. One that struck many was the description of our reaction to the pandemic as one of grief. Along with the loss of health security and for some, loved ones, we also were mourning the loss of life as we know it. The naming of this experience as grief gave us a familiar word with which to understand what was an unprecedented experience. Our intimacy with grief as a human experience helped us navigate what we were going through and how we may use familiar tools to deal with it.

While languishing is not as recognisable as grief, naming provides acknowledgement and a degree of acceptance of what I am experiencing. As such, the act of naming such a state may be a first step to working through it. It could help to de-mist what would have been a blurry and confusing time. It makes me attentive to what I am feeling. Now that I know I am languishing during my lockdown I can try, by small effort and without being too hard on myself, to make things better. When you add languishing to your lexicon, you start to notice it existing around you. It reveals itself when you cannot be bothered to cook.

It’s in the absence of joy usually found in leisure. It’s in many friends’ voices when you ask how their lockdown has been. This last one is a reminder that languishing is not unique. It is common and shared and very much a product of the world we currently find ourselves in. Last week, when I recognised I was languishing, a lot of things made sense. This week, I have felt a little better and a little clearer. The premise that a lockdown can even go well, or be done well, is kind of bemusing. I am being easier on myself. I realise this is a mental state borne from being isolated, from being confused, from being cut off from the usual frivolity of life. It is not a flaw of my personality or a measure of my drive and creativity. It is simply a barometer of my mental health during this time.

I try to engage with things that usually bring me joy. It does not always work. But sometimes it does. I feel what I feel. Sometimes when it is particularly sunny, or when I buy a ten-pack of croissants from my weekly supermarket trip, or in moments of feeling excited when a friend calls or realising I have chocolate, I am reminded of what I suspected all along but cannot feel. In amongst this pause, this chaos, this absence of life and friends, I still exist.


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