How Worrying and Boredom Team up to Keep You Stuck
Worrying and boredom are two of the most complaints I hear from clients, but more pronounced during the pandemic lockdown. Here are some of the remarks regarding worrying and boredom that have stuck with me:
“I worry that my partner will make me the bad guy again if I don’t reach out first.”
“I’m so bored with the same old tussle with the kids trying to get them to brush their teeth and go to bed.”
“I hate my job, it’s so boring, but I’m worried about having to find something else with these benefits.”
“I’m bored with the once a month sexual ritual we go through – it doesn’t mean anything, and I’m worried we may have even less intimacy in the future.”
“I’m bored having the same old fight with my partner and then cooling down till the next time, but I’m worried that it’s never going to change and may not be any better with someone else.”
Worrying and boredom are linked in ways that may be surprising.
Before the pandemic worry and boredom were linked; in that when you felt bored (an internal experience brought on by a change in your internal emotional state) it spurred the worry that you might do something that would back to bite you later on.
During the lockdown worry and boredom were also linked but in a slightly different way. This time it was boredom due to being restricted by external forces, and worry because control had been stripped from you. The worry came in the form of: ‘will it ever be the same; is it going to be safe; can I cope with the changes?’
Often the external forces that enhance worrying and boredom mask the more serious and underlying internal patterns that are the real obstacles.
Worrying and Boredom are Protagonists in Your Inner World of Conflict
Callum a 36-year-old web designer described his life as boring before the pandemic. He felt obligated to design websites that his clients wanted, but that didn’t mesh with his creative instincts – so the work was boring but necessary.
The thought of daring to step out and do more of what he desired filled him with anxiety. He smoked weed to dampen the anger and anxiety that came with having to fulfill contracts that were boring but well paid. His cyclical confrontations with his wife who nudged him to be more proactive infuriated him. He was too bored to assert himself with her as he was with his work. Boredom and the lack of motivation that it entails meant that Calum could keep one foot in the camp of feeling self-sufficient and autonomous since he didn’t do as she ordered – and another foot in depending on her presence to avoid emptiness and loneliness – by being submissive.
In his essay, ‘On Being Bored,’ Adam Phillips (1994). On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. Harvard University Press.) says that “boredom is … waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated”.
Calum is too scared to take the risk and find the desire that could alleviate the boredom, but uses boredom as a space to hope through fantasy, that something might come along ridding him of the dependency he has on his job. He doesn’t want to feel a strong desire that he would have to own and act on it, and, take responsibility for the outcome. Boredom then becomes useful, because it acts like a dulling mechanism that shuts down thinking and desire – leaving him with worrying and boredom. While the “boredom is a defense against waiting” (Adams, 1994) for something to come from inside him to fire up his life, worrying is filling that space as a distraction from tuning into desire. The sources of the worrying become the perfect antidote to thinking about and feeling the desire to take action to improve his life.
Worrying and boredom keep you cocooned in a victim place
Before the pandemic Fleur, a 42-year-old bank teller was bored with her predictable job, rude and impatient customers and demanding manger. She was bored with her routine of going to work five days a week at the same time, in the same traffic with a similar return journey. As a divorced woman with grown up children she came back to an empty house and worried that she would always be alone. Insecurity ruled her life. Worrying and boredom became her mantra, a kind of whining that kept her safe from having to do meet new people or find new interests. She was ‘waiting’ and hoping that something or someone would drop into her lap so that she didn’t have to risk anything. She worried about being bored for the rest of her life and she was bored with herself for always worrying!
During the pandemic Fleur shifted the onus for her worrying and boredom on the covid19 virus and the lockdown that ensued. Now it was a powerful world force that was causing a drop in customers at the bank and making her manager even more demanding. Now it was the health scare that made it impossible to socialize and date new people. Now there was no point thinking about doing different things because things would never be the same.
What did she get out of this combo of worrying and boredom?
The dullness of boredom ensured that she had no incentive or energy to find more fulfilling work or a more active social life where she might find a life partner. However in that dull space she could fantasize about what kind of relationship she craved and live in a fairy tale world for those moments. But to make sure the fantasies didn’t pierce the shield of boredom and actually stir her up – worrying came to the rescue. The series of threats that worrying brings, douses any possibility of desire and acting on it. She is safe from having to face the dread of having to be in a real relationship where there is mutual care taking, and reciprocal attention and support. Adams, (1994) says “As a medium of exchange…worrying regulates intimacy, and it is often an appropriate response to ordinary demands that begin to feel excessive….it domesticates self-doubt.”
Worrying and boredom are symbols of a ‘stuckness’ in personal development
Calum and Fleur have something in common that keeps them stuck in the same loop of worrying and boredom – a particular type of parental neglect.
Calum was allowed to do as he pleased as a little boy, but there was no attentive adult who witnessed and processed his experience of expectation, fear, excitement, frustration or awe as he played. So, he didn’t build any mental apparatus to hold these emotions. He devalued them and become comfortable with boredom. However, he did worry that his parents may not see him as someone to be proud of. Worrying and boredom become his defenses against feeling useless and rejected.
Fleur on the other hand had no space to think and feel and play experimentally. Her parents filled up her time with specific activities and she became fearful of her own desire to go outside those bounds. She had no attentive adult who witnessed, encouraged and processed her experiences of being stifled and scared of disobeying her parents. So, she became bored with having to do what others wanted, and worried about the risk of losing them if she gave into her desires to do what enticed her. Worrying and boredom became her defenses leading to stagnation.
Neither had what they needed at that young age to proceed to their next developmental path – the space to explore their worlds with an attentive, non-intrusive but interested parent who could wait for their child’s excitement and encourage pursuing that path. They didn’t have parents who were patient and eager to foster excitement and risk as worth engaging, while they were around to help manage disappointment and frustration. Without curious parents who follow their own desires and model it for their children, Calum and Fleur’s capacities for developing their own curiosity and desire were foreclosed – with worrying as the tool to bludgeon any wisps of curiosity and desire. The primary focus became dependency on parents, little faith in themselves and the endless waiting for something to happen to relieve them from this two-jab hit of worrying and boredom.
Both are currently working in individual counseling where they are getting the opportunity to have those missed experiences so that the clogs in their development are cleared and they feel safe and energized to use boredom as a space for brewing creative thoughts and feel the drive to realize their potential.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2020
You may also like: