The Roots of Chronic and Painful Boredom
Why understanding emotions brings relief.
Posted Feb 25, 2020
Many people struggle with chronic boredom. But what exactly is boredom and what are some ways to move beyond it?
Wikipedia describes boredom as “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 it’s a symptom of something deeper that needs tending.
What Causes Chronic Boredom?
In my psychotherapy practice, I see a few main causes for chronic states of boredom:
- Boredom that functions as a protective defense against emotional pain. Childhood traumatic and adverse experiences, like being raised in a chaotic household, make a child feel unsafe. The lack of safety triggers overwhelming and conflicting emotions, like rage and fear. 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 also manifest as boredom. Boredom, in this case, is a byproduct of being out of touch with core emotions like 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. To heal, we must re-connect safely with our vast emotional world through the body.
- Boredom that functions as a signal that we are under-stimulated. In this case, the feeling of boredom tells us about an underlying need to find interests and novelty in our life. To overcome boredom, we must discover any obstacles that get in our way of finding new interests.
- Boredom also cuts off access to knowing our true wants and needs. To be in touch with wants and needs, especially when we think they are unattainable, is to feel pain in both the mind and body.
- For some people, boredom stems from a combination of all of the above and may also be recognized as procrastination or disengagement. It’s particularly distressing because a person may want to focus but cannot. Instead, they feel a miserable mix of boredom and anxiety, with no escape because it’s impossible to get engaged in an activity due to the inability to concentrate.
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 discomfort. But it also disconnected her from the energy and vitality that being emotionally alive brings. She was plagued by boredom, a feeling she described as deadness, which was only alleviated when she drank wine.
For Rachel to feel better, we had to understand boredom’s protective purpose. In AEDP psychotherapy we invite patients to envision parts of themselves that hold distressing beliefs and emotions so we can help them transform.
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 that experience of boredom, we learn the purpose boredom serves and what we truly need. Almost always, emotions from the past need validating, honoring, and to be felt in the body until they fully move through and out. As a person recovers from past traumas and wounds, defenses like boredom are no longer needed.
Rachel’s vitality and zest for living emerged as she processed the anger at her parents and mourned for herself for 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 she was now strong enough and supported enough to deal with life’s challenges and the emotions they triggered. And she leaned into more adaptive ways of coping like listening to her emotions and then thinking through how best to get her needs met and solve her problems proactively. Through this work, Rachel ceased to be bored, as she became engaged in all aspects of her life.
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 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 sense of boredom about life. He told me he was used to being preoccupied by agitation and irritability which was now gone. “There is so much more room in my head. I guess my anxiety and ruminations used to occupy me so now I feel weirdly bored,” he told me.
Relief Through Awareness
We decided to get very curious about this newfound boredom. As with Rachel, I invited him to get some separation from the bored part so we could talk to it. Craig and I both marveled at the power of talking to discrete parts like they are separate people to figure out what we need. The trick is when you ask a question to a part of yourself, you must then listen to receive the answer. Craig’s bored part told him he needed to engage more with his hobbies and interests. So, he and I spent 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 all he had been through, he felt he deserved to care for himself in new and satisfying ways.
Boredom is a difficult experience. But one doesn’t need to get stuck in that state. With a stance of curiosity and compassion, we can learn the roots of boredom. When 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 we are bored because we are defending against deeper emotions and needs, we can absolutely discover those deeper emotions and needs, honor them, and think through how to address them in safe and healthy ways. In this way, we reconnect to our vital and most authentic self. And if the boredom is mixed with agitating anxiety, we must lean into that anxiety with the help of a skilled psychotherapist to find the cause and heal. If we don’t, we are likely to escape the torment with self-destructive escapes routes like drugs and alcohol.
Practice Exercise To Work With Your Boredom
Want to experiment with talking to your bored parts? Ask yourself these questions:
- 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 better?
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.)
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books.
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House.