Being 'bleh': revitalising ourselves in a time of languishing

Updated: Jun 1


In a recent article for the New York Times, author and psychologist Adam Grant named the dominant emotion of 2021 'languishing', calling it the 'forgotten middle child of mental health' between flourishing and depression. It struck a chord with many of us struggling to name our sense of weariness and stagnation and spawned more articles giving us '*(pick a number) Steps to Stop Languishing'.


This approach of giving a name to a pervasive state or behaviours and offering actions can help us feel empowered in a time in which we are feeling powerless. But it may also pander to our desire to avoid uncomfortable truths. When we opt too quickly for 'solutions', we miss the possibility of enquiring more deeply of ourselves and discovering something deeper from which we might grow. As Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "No Mud, No Lotus".


The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man without trails.

– Confucius


In Integral coaching, like all forms of developmental coaching, we work with the 'self' and so if we, or a coachee, resonates with a so-called negative feeling or state, rather than moving straight into solutioning a way out, we encourage them to stay with and explore more deeply what is going on for them before finding practices that might support forward movement.


Had we but world enough and time...


Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term 'languishing' as a way to describe the specific state of 'the absence of wellbeing' and that's the sense in which Adam Grant and others have used it. No surprise then that proponents of positive psychology suggest as antidotes to 'languishing' the practices that have been shown to promote flourishing. These are: gratitude and mindfulness practices, connection to others, good deeds and doing novel things.


These well-researched practices have in normal times been shown to move us from 'okay' to 'great'. But we are decidedly not okay. As we face wave after wave in our second year of pandemic, the stagnation we feel is deep and festering. It speaks of more than existential 'bleh'. We are dealing with anxiety, uncertainty and helplessness and in many cases ongoing high stress and trauma.


In literature we often come across the term in the context of some form of physical or emotional constraint. You might languish in jail...or in unrequited love. It's a state of 'stuckness' in which last year seems like yesterday but a 'new dawn' seems an eternity away. Indeed the sense of a changed relationship with time is a characteristic of languishing.


In "To His Coy Mistress", Andrew Marvell's famous ode to seizing the day, the poet writes of 'languishing in the slow-chapped (jawed) power of time' so that:


"... at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity"


This sense of time passing both too quickly and too slowly seems paradoxical - yet underscores how our experience of time depends not on quantity of clock time spent but on how meaningful the time is to us. Thus 'quality time' is time imbued with meaningfulness. We languish when we are disconnected from experiencing what is meaningful for ourselves - but since what is meaningful for you and for me are different, what we need are processes rather than simple one-size fits all practices to revitalise ourselves.


How much 'resilience' is too much?


This month Singapore was dubbed the 'best place to live during Covid' by the Bloomberg Covid Resilience Ranking. But recently as new covid clusters emerged we were thrown back into increased restrictive measures, including extending an already strict hotel quarantine period for those wishing to enter or re-enter the country at a time when many foreign residents were hoping to travel to see families overseas after long separation.


A BBC news article referred to wealthier migrants feeling trapped in 'gilded cages' for the foreseeable future. And for the legions of low income migrant workers in the city, the increased time, cost and isolation incurred in leaving and returning is prohibitive: the cage is not even gilded.


While the resilience of withstanding and bouncing back may be useful for facing individual, temporary adverse conditions, after 18 months many are feeling resilience fatigue. When spirits are shrivelled, faking it until we make it with positive psychology practices may feel like 'going through the motions'. In order for us to stir from our languishing we need to reconnect with things that are meaningful to us and may require us to navigate the entwined relationship between joy and sorrow of which artist and mystic William Blake wrote:


"Under every grief & pine, Runs a joy with silken twine".


To rediscover joy, then, might we first need to surface and express our sorrow? Could lamenting be part of the process away from languishing?


Grief is not a competition .....and no-one is winning


As well as wishing to show the much-vaunted 'resilience', our stoicism may be fuelled by a measure of survivor's guilt. Since my family are thankfully safe, well and in good spirits, who am I to be grieving that I have not seen them for nearly two years, when friends in India are losing loved ones for good? Who am I to bemoan my losses when so many have lost so much?


As social beings however, our ability to feel our own grief and sorrow builds our empathy for the plight of others and hence our sense of connection to others. Properly mourning the time I am missing with my own family and allowing myself to really feel the sadness connects me with the universal feelings of grief many are feeling at the loss of their loved ones. None of us are getting back the time lost with loved ones. My mourning that lost time does not belittle the suffering of others - it illuminates it.


Rather than distracting ourselves away from our 'negative' emotions and chide ourselves into positivity, we can turn towards our sorrow and allow it to inform us. We can allow absence to make our hearts grow fonder and more tender for what we miss and maybe in doing so we will see our deepest sources of joy more clearly than we ever have. If we allow it to, our yearning for what is meaningful will power our creativity Letting myself really feel into what I miss will help me better find different paths to bring those specific sources of meaning back into my life.


Let the tears flow


Humans are the only species known to produce tears as an emotional response as well as in response to a physical trigger. We feel relieved 'after a good cry' because tears released as an emotional response contain stress hormones - we might think of them as a form of stress detox. In Japan there are rui-katsu, crying clubs, where people can come together to watch tear-jerker movies and unburden their stress. We can take a leaf out of their book and give ourselves permission to unburden, with others or alone.


Allowing ourselves to feel and acknowledge what we deeply feel is an important part of the process towards greater well-being. By following the rivers of our sorrow back to the source, we reconnect with what brings us alive and is meaningful and from there we can ask our most ingenious selves to find new ways to keep bringing that into our lives, despite the constraints we are facing.

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Here are some things you can try as part of a process of revitalising yourself:


Listen to music, watch a movie, consider a picture or read a poem that touches you. Or take a walk in nature and let your eyes wander. Let beauty move your heart. Allow yourself to feel into what you are really, deeply feeling under the stoicism, weariness or numbness.


Sit in a quiet place and think about what you miss. Allow even the smaller things that you miss to surface. Let yourself notice and feel what you are feeling. Write, draw or share with others. Express yourself.


Indulge in some 'wishful thinking'. Let yourself remember the things that make you feel alive and hopeful and that fill your heart with joy and describe to yourself in detail what is meaningful for you in them. Describe the qualities they connect you with and let your mind wander to how those qualities can be invited into your life at this time.