Updated: Mar 6
In April 2021, the New York Times published an article about languishing during lockdown. For many people (including myself) there was a sense of finally feeling seen. According to the modern psychologist Corey Keyes languishing is described as “emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair...” but two years later, with the availability of a vaccine and the idea of COVID as the new normal, why am I still struggling, and how has this feeling evolved?
For a while, I thought it was just burnout but I have pretty sustainable energy and things are still getting done so what has changed? Firstly, I find that my capacity to compassionately support others and practice active listening has gone from a ten to about a two. Secondly, I feel disengaged from my friends and family, with their concerns and conversations feeling trivial. Thirdly, I have nothing left to offer except ongoing aggression and NOBODY wants to be on the receiving end of that. Mostly, I just want people to leave me alone.
I'm out of empathy and I'm out of gas. This is not a great look for a Health Coach.
Then I read this insightful piece written by psychotherapist and counselor Tania Glyde of Queer Menopause titled, Negligent apathy - the pandemic gift that keeps on giving.
"When you’re already on the edge, small setbacks feel like big ones, and big ones feel like catastrophes. If you haven’t had time to recover from one thing, and another one happens, you are dealing with more than one layer of response, and these layers can quickly pile up. This over time is likely to reduce your capacity for empathy and your energy to receive others’ bids for attention or help, let alone your capacity to respond to them."
Finally, someone named the thing that had been hanging over me for all these months, and guess what? We've come full circle. It has EVERYTHING to do with burnout.
And trauma response.
And collective grief.
Since most people understand the idea of burnout, let's unpack the latter.
This comes in four flavors:
Flight: defined as getting away from the situation as quickly as possible
Fight: defined as pure self-preservation
Freeze: defined as pausing instead of running
Fawn: defined as keeping someone happy to neutralize the threat
I'm a freezer. When I'm overwhelmed by ten things that I have to do, my response is to do none of them. At this moment, just ordering takeout is difficult because I have planning fatigue and if my husband can't decide on dinner, I'd rather not eat at all.
This is defined as the reaction of a group of people (usually a nation, region, or community) who experience the death of a significant figure from that nation/community or experience multiple deaths. I would argue that it's about more than death. I would say it's also about a mutual feeling of powerlessness and loss.
Loss of our reproductive rights, loss of trans and non-binary folks' rights, and the continued marginalization of the BIPOC community (and ongoing denial that it's even a thing). Also, let's not forget the mass shootings, war, earthquakes, and the constant reminder that climate change is coming for us all. We have heard the phrase "grim milestone" so often that it feels cliché. The evening news cycle is less poignant and, sadly, more familiar. This is where individual and shared grief intersect.
In these moments of despair, my GenX soul misses the 90s, despite their imperfections.
As we struggle to take stock of these losses, how do we process our trauma - personally and as a society? My reaction has been apathy. To stick my head in the sand and disengage. Stop showing up for people.
The truth is that even professionals are a bit confounded about how to fix this. Still, referring back to Tania's piece on negligent apathy, she and most psychologists agree naming the thing is the first step in making the "unconscious conscious." Only then can we discover what it takes to heal.