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The Curse of Apathy: Sources and Solutions

Beware of apathy—it can be your worst enemy.

Key points

  • Apathy has been associated with problematic lifestyles as well psychiatric diagnoses.
  • Negative thoughts, demoralizing events, and tedious routines can all lead to apathy.
  • To overcome apathy, one must give oneself compassion, empathy, and understanding.

What, exactly, is apathy? In a sense, it’s something like falling in love. You can describe it all you want, but until you’ve experienced it, you can only guess what it feels like. Paradoxically, what makes the feeling of apathy unique is that it’s essentially the feeling of not feeling. It’s something that at some point in your existence you’ve encountered. Whenever you feel that something vital is missing from your life, yet lack the drive to pursue it, you’re afflicted with this curiously “emotionless” emotion.

Through much psychological research, it’s now accepted science that you must experience feelings about something if you’re to take personally meaningful action on it. And without any compelling emotion to direct your behavior—and apathy literally means “without feeling”—you just aren’t sufficiently stimulated to do much of anything.

True, apathy is a feeling. But it’s also an attitude. And sadly, that attitude is one of indifference ... unconcern ... unresponsiveness ... detachment ... and dispassion. Such an attitude saps you of so much energy that you feel lethargic, listless, and enervated—almost too “paralyzed” to act—and certainly without the will to do so. This is why apathetic individuals are easily identified by their very passivity. Their interest in confronting life’s challenges is seriously compromised. They just don’t care enough. And frankly, they don’t care that they don’t care.

Where Apathy Comes From—and What It Looks Like

It’s been noted (J. Ishizaki & M. Mimura, 2011) that apathy can occur in such disorders as “schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington’s disease, and dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.” In a less scholarly fashion, many other writers have linked its onset, and duration, to problematic lifestyles characterized by sleep deprivation (and general fatigue), poor diet, and lack of exercise; or to organic defects, such as a malfunctioning thyroid gland or limbic system, As regards more psychiatric diagnoses, it’s also been associated with dysthymia, major depression, and bipolar disorder—as well as with the heavy use of certain drugs (from pain medications, to marijuana, to heroin).

But independent of etiology, the ultimate consequence of all these conditions—and others, too—are pretty much the same. That is, for all who suffer from apathy, what’s lost is the fundamental hope that personal happiness or fulfillment is possible. Either they’ve ceased to believe in the intrinsic value of the goals they’d earlier set for themselves, or they’ve lost faith in their ability to achieve these goals. So they can’t think of anything worth striving for. As a result, the raw mental, physical, or emotional energy for accomplishing what in the past may have been valued disappears. Although feelings of depression frequently go hand-in-hand with apathy (and at times are almost indistinguishable from it), it should be noted that apathy can sometimes occur by itself.

by geralt/Pixabay
Source: by geralt/Pixabay

Here are a few things that might lead to apathy:

  • Have you been having negative thoughts about yourself, or your prospects? Are you afraid to act for fear that you might fail? be rejected? confirm—once and for all—that you’re inferior, incompetent, inadequate, worthless? Or is it possible that not that long ago you actually did experience some failure or rejection—and haven’t been able to rebound from it?
  • Did something recently happen to you, or someone you deeply care about, that has left you not simply disappointed but demoralized, pessimistic—or downright hopeless? For that matter, have any local, or perhaps global, events left you feeling cynical, as though whatever you might attempt to do to change things couldn’t possibly make the slightest difference?
  • Have you become so bored, or worn down, by tedious daily routines that it seems there’s nothing to look forward to? Is there something inside you that’s simply given up on creating a more joyful, gratifying future for yourself? Instead of “seizing the day” (or “taking the bull by the horns”), have you—fatalistically— become resigned to a lifetime of tedium?

If any of the causes above explains your apathy, or you can identify other factors responsible for your non-engaged state of being, it’s likely that you’ll be able to relate to one, or several, of the descriptors below.

Can you recall a time when you:

  • Felt no interest in what, up till now, generated excitement or enthusiasm in you—such as a project, hobby, sport (whether as participant or observer); or getting together with a date or friends;
  • Couldn’t get yourself motivated in your job or profession: were bored by all its repetitive tasks or responsibilities;
  • Wasted time by vegetating in front of the TV, playing video games, or mindlessly surfing the Internet ;
  • Stopped exercising, but told yourself you simply weren’t up to it;
  • Couldn’t devote, or commit, yourself to anything—for no goal, pursuit, or activity seemed worth the effort.

If there’s an overarching cause for apathy, it’s probably pessimism about your future. And that self-defeating attitude could derive either from early childhood programming, which led you to believe that no matter how conscientiously you applied yourself, you still couldn’t succeed—or, more commonly, a series of events in your present life that left you feeling you simply couldn’t win for losing.

What’s to be done? Quite a lot, actually—though effecting an “excavation” is generally a gradual, multi-step process.

Solutions for Apathy

Regardless of what initially caused you to feel so unmotivated, it’s your present-day outlook on it that now keeps you stuck. Your immediate task, then, is to alter this outlook. In short, you’re much better off focusing on how to fix what’s inside your head than what lies outside it. And no question but that you’ll need to force yourself—yes, force yourself!—to uproot what’s already taken residence deep inside you.

So ask yourself: “Am I willing to make a commitment to myself to give this apathy the fight of its life, even though doing so feels like it will take a lot more energy and effort than I’m now capable of?”

Here are some solutions to consider:

Determine where your apathy is coming from, and contest its underlying assumptions. Since apathy is fundamentally about attitude, begin to look at yourself and your history from a different perspective. And that’s one in which you offer yourself greater compassion, empathy, and understanding—and possibly forgiveness for any past insensitivities, transgressions, or shortcomings. It’s time to move beyond whatever negative messages you received about yourself in the past and realize that, as long as you don’t set your sights unrealistically high and are willing to apply yourself diligently to whatever is important to you, your success is virtually guaranteed.

Transition from passivity to problem-solving. What is the easiest, most do-able first step you can take to pull yourself out of the torpor you’ve slid into? Make a list of what isn’t working for you and what could make your situation better. And if your particular circumstances aren’t susceptible to change, can you accept them for what they are, get over them—and move on?

Inject some novelty into your routine. Maybe challenge yourself to initiate a conversation with someone at work you don’t know very well. Or change your exercise regimen. Or make some changes in your diet, trying out new dishes or food combinations. Go on a trip, take a long walk in nature. Whatever might give you a new lease on life is well worth your consideration.

Challenge your apathy in every way you can. What turned you on before you were beset with your present malaise? Any friends you’ve lost track of, but always enjoyed talking to—especially if they made you laugh? Any particular music you found appealing? places that inspired you? The more things you try, the more likely you’ll eventually be able to extricate yourself from the binding chains of your apathy.

Recall—and reawaken—happier times when you felt more enthusiastic and alive. What hobbies or leisure-time activities might you once have engaged in that you found exhilarating? It hardly matters what delighted you in the past. Anything at all will do. I once published a post for Psychology Today called “The Purpose of Purposelessness,” which argued that so-called “purposeless” activity serves the essential purpose of reawakening you to the simple joys life has to offer—apart from their “practicality.”

Direct your attention to a goal you might pursue right now. Considering your values, aptitudes, and preferences, choose whatever goal might best capture your attention and interest, and help you creatively re-engage with life. Even if it means arbitrarily selecting among three or four things you considered in the past, don’t let yourself anguish. Choose something right now. You can always change your mind later on. What’s imperative is that you lift yourself out of your current morass. Don’t choose anything complex.

See a professional therapist. If, after working with the above suggestions, you’re still unable to escape your apathy, chances are you’re suffering from a deeper, underlying depression. And for this, you probably need to get yourself into counseling. I can hardly over-emphasize that what you can’t do on your own could be greatly facilitated by enlisting the assistance of someone who can understand the dynamics of your dilemma—and offer viable ways for you to overcome it.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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