“How are you?” is a question most of us often ask and answer without giving a second thought. Societal norms have taught us that regardless of what your real answer may be, there’s an expectation of a short, positive reply, unless something truly catastrophic has happened. As an American, I’m particularly prone to a cheerful response to this question such as, “never better!” However, even I, in my eternal optimism, have heard my responses lose steam over the last year. And I’ve noticed how many others around me when asked, “how are you?” are more likely to mention their lack of motivation, that they’re tired of it all, feeling depleted, and, well… Just. Not. Doing So Great.
A few weeks ago in mid-April, The New York Times published an article in the U.S. that seemed to hit the nail on the head and sum up in one key word the psychological state of so many people at this point in time: languishing.
What exactly is languishing? It’s the gray, middle ground between depression and well-being. You’re not in crisis, but you’re definitely not thriving. It’s a blah state of being, where you’re still managing to get things done, but you no longer have the same motivation or excitement for much of anything.
As a mental health professional, I’m keenly aware of just how emotionally taxing the last 15 months (and counting) have been for people of all ages and backgrounds. My colleagues and I agree that we’ve never worked harder, and there is no slowing down in how many people are seeking professional support. The topic of mental health itself has never been more in the spotlight, and if there was ever a moment to capitalize on reaching as many people as possible about how to gain a bit more understanding into what we’re experiencing and how to manage the effects, it’s now.
When I discussed this idea of languishing with friends, colleagues and clients in the last few weeks, the term is usually met with something along the lines of, “yes, that’s totally me,” or “wow, that’s a perfect way to describe it.” The concept resonates with us immediately and highlights something many of us haven’t had the awareness or vocabulary to talk about in a concrete way: the notion that we’re mostly ok, but also really not ok. While there has been unspeakable loss and grief for so many during the pandemic, the concept of languishing is different. It’s a low-grade, lingering and cumulative feeling in a quiet way. It’s the gradual awareness of not feeling like yourself, of not wanting to engage in the things you used to enjoy and it’s the vague sense of “what’s the point?”.
Being able to talk about languishing is a first step toward managing it. Like we often teach children, “if you name it, you can tame it.” This concept is definitely not just for kids though, and now that we have a name for what so many of us have been experiencing, how do we address it?
Lowering the bar
Something I’ve worked on with clients repeatedly over this last year is lowering the bar. It cannot be said enough that we need to go much easier on ourselves while we’re continuing to get through what feels like a never-ending crisis. Rather than focusing on things getting back to normal, we need to be able to meet ourselves where we are. For example, if you realize you’ve been struggling to do your regular workout routine, or if you’ve let physical activity go all together lately, set a very manageable goal for yourself that you feel you can reach fairly easily, e.g., one workout this week instead of none, or 20 minutes instead of an hour.
The point is to give yourself a win, which in turn builds motivation and positivity. The opposite of this is what a lot of us have been doing: setting expectations of ourselves in multiple areas of our lives that are just too high for now. You think, “I’m fine, I can and should do all this, nothing is wrong.” Yet, somehow you just can’t get motivated to do what you’re supposed to. Lowering the bar isn’t being lazy or having low expectations. Instead, it’s practicing self-compassion and good self-care.
What does self-care actually mean? It’s exactly what it says – all the ways you take care of yourself – and this is an extremely important concept when we talk about addressing an on-going sense of languishing.
Self-care can be addressed in five categories, which include physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and energetic. More specifically, it’s everything you put in your body, including food, drink, substances and stimulants. It’s the quality and quantity of your rest. It’s the physical movement and exercise you get. It’s the social and emotional connections you maintain. It’s the ways in which you manage stress, and it’s the meaning and purpose you create in your life. The good news is that unlike external factors such as the pandemic itself, each of us can start taking small steps today to improve these healthy habits to offset the blah we’re experiencing.
You can start by making a simple chart with the main five categories of self-care:
Take a look at how you’re currently doing in each category. How has your nutrition been? Are you drinking or smoking more than usual? How are you sleeping? Are you staying up too late and finding it hard to get going in the morning? How well are you staying connected to friends and families? Are you putting time into your relationships? How much physical activity and daylight are you getting? How are you managing your stress?
Most of us will easily find one or more areas where we can make improvements, but again, go slow. Remember that it’s about small, manageable changes that we feel we can achieve fairly easily. Doing this will likely have a knock-on, or ripple effect, leading to other positive changes like a boost in motivation which in turn improves our mood, helping us move slowly but steadily from a state of indifference to one of engagement. The aim isn’t necessarily to completely eliminate this gray, in-between languishingstate, but rather to recognize the signs and to know that small steps can lead to a better overall sense of well-being. So the next time someone asks you “how are you doing?”, a genuinely positive reply might not feel so far away.