In our first session this year, my coaching client Jane told me that she has rested, given herself permission to feel down, and lowered her personal bar, just as we all have been advised to do as we wearily approach the third year of the pandemic.
But even as she goes through the motions of self care, she told me, she still feels blah. “I’m just kind of stuck,” she said. “And I don’t exactly like it.”
Jane, a 50-year-old entrepreneur who lives in New York City, isn’t alone. Many of us felt seen when, last April, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote of languishing, “a sense of stagnation and emptiness … as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” There was a relief in having a name for our experience, and a kind of solace in realizing that we weren’t alone in experiencing it. But now, nearly a year later, as with just about everything related to Covid, we’re sick of languishing too.
We want to feel motivated, and to get unstuck. The question, of course, is: How? Sometimes when we are languishing and feeling exhausted — emotionally, physically, socially or spiritually — the best thing we can do is rest. But at a certain point, rest creates inertia. Our minds and our bodies are as recovered as they’re going to be. Yet we still feel off. At this point, many can benefit from deploying a psychological concept called behavioral activation.
First developed in the 1970s by the clinical psychologist Peter Lewinsohn as a way to help people work through depression, apathy and negative moods, behavioral activation is based on the idea that action can create motivation, especially when you’re in a rut.
To be clear, this is not about trying to think positive thoughts, a mantra that became a pillar of the self-esteem movement last century, with mega-best-selling books such as 1952’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” arguing — we now know, falsely — that if you just think positive thoughts and suppress negative ones, you’ll gain health, wealth and happiness. If anything, research has shown that those strategies often backfire: The more you try to change how you feel, the more stuck in your current mood you’re likely to end up. As much as you might want to, you cannot control your thoughts or feelings.
The challenge with behavioral activation is mustering enough energy to start acting on the things that matter to you: Make that phone call, schedule that walk with friends, write that email, get off social media and start on the creative project you’ve been procrastinating on. This may sound simple, but when you are languishing, simple does not mean easy.
But a mind-set shift can be a powerful tool. When you feel down, unmotivated or apathetic, you can give yourself permission to feel those feelings but not dwell on them or take them as destiny. Instead, you shift the focus to getting started with what you have planned in front of you, taking your feelings, whatever they may be, along for the ride. Doing so gives you the best chance at improving your mood.
It can be helpful to think of this initial oomph as activation energy. Sometimes we need more, and sometimes we need less. For many of us, even the little things require more these days, and that’s OK. It won’t be like this forever. If anything, the more we get going, the easier it becomes. Just as rest and languishing can create inertia that builds on itself, action and energy can be self-reinforcing. It just takes some extra work to overcome the initial stasis and friction — it can feel like the laws of physics apply to our psyches, too.
If you don’t know where to begin, a good place to start is by reflecting on what matters to you most, what provides you with a sense of well-being and groundedness. Then ask yourself how to apply that activation energy strategically. What actions will give you the oomph you need? For example, if improving your fitness would make you feel better, you might start with 30 minutes of daily movement. If creativity is what you’re missing, writing for an hour three days per week could restart that engine. If you lack loving connection, try planning an adventure (that feels safe) with your family or friends, or even schedule time for physical intimacy with a partner. You may not feel like getting started, but get started anyway, then see what happens. Your doing influences your being.
This isn’t to suggest that you beat yourself up or give yourself a drill-sergeant lecture every morning. Indeed, a key step in the strategy is accepting its imperfections. Many of us are operating in less-than-ideal circumstances — dealing with illness, financial stress, work anxiety, a lack of child care. Overcoming the inertia of languishing requires fierce self-discipline — and a fierce compassion for oneself. You may think of these two qualities as opposites, but they are not. Research shows that being kind to yourself during hardships and challenges can increase resilience and strength.
A mantra I use in my own life is, “This is what’s happening right now. I’m doing the best that I can. Just get going, and see what happens.” I remind myself that sometimes the kindest thing I can do for myself is also the hardest thing to do — and that what seems hard today might just make tomorrow feel a bit easier.
(This first appeared in The New York Times under the title, “You’ve Languished. You’ve Done Self-Care. Now Try This.)