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When "Languishing" Morphs Into Full-Blown Rage

Many people aren't burning out; they're boiling over.

Key points

  • Many therapy patients are experiencing agitation and rage after the past two years of the pandemic.
  • The emotions people are experiencing include stress, fear, grief, and anger.
  • Perhaps this anger should not be managed but channeled into broader societal change.

The concept of burnout has gotten some much-deserved cultural attention over the course of the pandemic. Many voices are finally being heard: healthcare workers putting their lives at risk to take on extra shifts, working parents juggling a wasteland of extinct child care options, and small business owners pivoting constantly to try to save their livelihoods.

But for a few months now, I’ve been taking note of a different narrative: one playing out in my clients, my students, and community members. I’m seeing something less obvious but just as menacing, less of an “emergency” but responsible for just as much distress. Some clients, I’ve noticed, even dance around the word “burnout” apologetically, careful to express their gratitude that they are not working 80 hours shifts or in danger of losing their homes. But they still feel that something is very, very wrong.

So maybe it’s not that they’ve burned out. Maybe it’s that they are boiling over.

Last Spring, Adam Grant wrote movingly of “languishing,” a term coined by psychologist Corey Keyes. The sense of stagnation and emptiness he described resonated with many people, and it’s been a prevalent feeling for a while, a baseline malaise that’s become synonymous with this pandemic.

But for plenty of people I’ve been hearing from, neither burnout nor languishing captures the depth or complexity of their experience, especially for women and people of color. What I’m seeing is much more active and agitating than malaise or feeling stuck. And it’s not the classic disengaged, numb experience of burnout, where a spark has died.

It’s more akin, if we’re being honest, to a simmering rage.

The suggestions for overcoming languishing don’t take into account that for many, it’s more than just the (nearly) universal pandemic blahs. For the folks I talk with, their “blahs” are running quite hot indeed. They’re seething from the cumulative extra emotional labor they’re expected to manage in their home or workplace, or the systemic biases affecting their ability to rebuild their post-pandemic lives. Or they’re enraged that for so long they’ve held it together and done what’s been asked of them, sacrificing for the good of the community, and yet increasingly, it seems that that didn’t work—or that others aren’t willing to do the same. They’re losing faith that they live in a society that looks out for its most vulnerable, or that their children have a secure and certain future. How does someone nourish their way out of that?

Grant’s otherwise excellent advice—take uninterrupted time for yourself, set small goals, find your flow state—won’t do much if those very suggestions serve to exacerbate resentment. If your uninterrupted time includes an instinct to schedule overdue dentist appointments and catch up on those school emails while your partner just plays on their phone, your small goals list reveals extra barriers because of your skin color, or your pursuit of flow with creative new hobbies lands you an exposure notification, a search for a PCR test, and a debate about how long you should quarantine, then those exercises don’t serve as a solution. They just raise the boil even hotter.

So if languishing is emptiness, many of my clients aren’t feeling it. In fact, they’re feeling like they’re so full of churning pressures—stress, fear, grief, and anger—that it makes them want to scream.

The screaming is even playing out literally. Stories abound of women and particularly mothers gathering for primal scream sessions (I have my own take on when these can backfire.) Make no mistake—it’s not the search for joy that drives these gatherings. No one’s playing beautiful music, suggesting scenic vistas, or bringing the good cheese. Languishing is important and deserves attention, but something much more volatile is brewing. These are people desperately grasping for the pressure release valve on something huge that is threatening to explode.

The classic symptoms of burnout are disengagement, exhaustion, and cynicism, and physical signs of chronic stress like headaches, stomach issues and insomnia. I’m seeing plenty of all that, but there are often some important additional layers.

You might recognize this boiling pressure in yourself if you’re feeling particularly resentful, are bone tired even of the people you love, and you fantasize (even idly) about starting completely over in a different type of life—or you keep playing the “what if” game while grieving your kids’ disrupted childhoods. Maybe your humor has grown caustic, you are frequently on the verge of tears, or you no longer trust the people, institutions and ideas that used to ground you. Many people feel they’re developing an “us versus them” mentality (despite knowing it’s part of the problem), and are noticing a growing gap between their feelings and their behavior: they’re putting on a show, biting their tongue, or just going through the motions, trying to hold it together. I’ve seen people perseverating on what they can’t control, or letting go of control altogether and giving up on responsibilities, to a point far beyond procrastination. And things that would normally be their escape valves—talks with friends, exercise, creative pursuits, vacations—seem to carry their own annoyances (yet another group text or Zoom link?) and feel like they’re just too much.

So what is the path forward? Surely, individually, we can benefit from reexamined expectations. Surviving, itself, is productive—and some days, that’s enough. We must reject the “should”s that tell us that post-pandemic life needs somehow to barrel full steam ahead, without a true reckoning of the accumulated grief, outrage, and helplessness of the past two years.

And psychological science says that labeling our feelings—even when they’re inconvenient or scary—can be empowering. And that sharing our experiences with others helps build our strength further, and being honest about the patterns that are weighing us down is the surest path to changing them.

We could also discuss a whole host of mental and physical strategies for anxiety management—from outdoor time to body movement, from truly adequate sleep to meditation. But if the forces causing our angst are what really need to be changed, then working harder to minimize our response to them feels a bit like, once again, taking on an outsized and unjust share of emotional labor.

So what, then, of our anger? Maybe it’s not for managing, but for channeling into change. What if we started a genuine conversation not just about our own languishing, but about the cultural threats that are burning us up inside: the increasing polarization, the constant expectation to be “on” and available at work, at home, and on smartphones, the idea of busy-ness as a status symbol, and the notion that any failure or vulnerability is a threat to our personal brands? We need another reexamining of expectations—this time a societal one, where we demand more, not less: more child care support and family leave, better mental health coverage, more attempts to address systemic inequalities, more clarity in public health messaging, and more reasons to have faith in our government’s and school systems’ responsiveness to crises. This moment calls for flexible return-to-office policies that are adaptable to new realities, and a pushback against the bulldozing of the boundary between time on the clock versus off.

Finally, it’s crucial to devote more local resources to strengthening our sense of community, and to hold all types of media accountable when they sensationalize conflict and oversimplify nuanced issues—just as we all must acknowledge that full understanding of those issues demands more of us than consuming a sound bite or a meme. We need to elevate empathy and compassion for their own sake, and reprioritize doing right by each other, not only when it makes us “win” or serves our image, but because it’s part of being connected to others and breathing the same air. That very connection, in fact, is one of the biggest factors that helps us find meaning in times where it’s otherwise hard to come by.

After all, there’s a reason those primal scream sessions aren’t happening alone.

And if we can channel, together, our collective anguish, grief, and pain into pushing for real change, then maybe those screams become music after all.

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