Unmasking the genius of apathy and boredom
We’ve looked at anger and shame, and this week, we’ll focus on what I call the masking state of apathy and boredom. Empathically, when I look at behaviors, I sense the emotions that underlie them. In apathy and boredom, I see a state that serves to mask fatigue and depression, certainly, but most of all, I see that apathy and boredom mask anger that can’t be dealt with openly for some reason. And this isn’t a bad thing!
APATHY & BOREDOM: The Mask for Anger
GIFTS: Detachment ~ Boundary-setting ~ Separation ~ Taking a time-out
ACTION REQUIRED: Apathy is a protective mask for anger, and it arises in situations where you cannot or should not (probably) express your anger openly. Apathy can give you an excellent time out, as long as you don’t let it take you completely out of commission. The questions for apathy will often unmask your legitimate anger (and other emotions), so be ready to work with those subsequent emotions as well.
THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What is being avoided? What must be made conscious?
From the Apathy chapter in The Language of Emotions
Repression in any emotion causes trouble throughout your psyche – but anger is so vital to your health that repressing it actually brings up a specific state in response. This masking state of apathy (or boredom) arises when you’re unable or unwilling to deal with your true anger.
Apathy is not an emotion, but it does protect you and set boundaries (which is anger’s job). However, since it stems from repression, it can lead to trouble if you’re not aware of it. It’s fine to feel apathetic, but it’s important to know what’s happening in your emotional realm when apathy appears. In unmasking apathy, you can learn about the anger trapped within it (and how that entrapment is sometimes a very helpful thing), and how to support yourself in addressing the true angers beneath your mask.
When you don’t have the time, energy, or ability to work with your anger properly – when you aren’t able to protect your boundaries or the boundaries of others, when you feel unable to speak out against the injustices you see, and when you feel incapable of affecting your surroundings – you’ll often fall into the masking state of apathy.
In a masking state, you cover yourself with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations. Apathy squelches emotions by affecting an “I don’t care, I can’t be bothered, whatever” attitude. Apathy sets a boundary, but it also shuts down communication and relationships. Apathy seeks distractions such as TV, fun food (as opposed to nourishment), new loves, travel, money, shopping, instant fame, instant meaning, and a quick and easy way out. Apathy is a dissociated state, usually related to being stuck in the wrong environment for your needs. Because it masks emotion, though, apathy doesn’t have much power – it longs for change, but it doesn’t have the emotional agility to make conscious change happen.
If you can let your apathy flow freely, you’ll let yourself take small vacations from focus and industriousness – you’ll be able to daydream, detach yourself with diversions or comfort foods every now and then, or plop yourself in front of the tube or a mindless book when you need a break. You won’t fight your movement into distractions by throwing yourself into overwork or hypervigilance. If you welcome your apathy, it will move on quickly; but if you inhibit it (or wallow in it), you’ll plummet into imbalance. Here’s how to maintain your equilibrium around your need to detach yourself and take a time out.
The message in apathy
Apathy often masks anger and depression, both of which arise in response to inappropriate environments and degraded boundaries. You can see apathy trying to slap some boundaries together – trying to define itself with sarcasm, distracting behaviors, material possessions, addictions, or dreamy perfect-world scenarios. Apathy points to a loss of boundaries, and to a distinct and urgent need for change, but it does so in an ineffectual and distractible way. Apathy chatters and gripes, but it doesn’t accomplish anything lasting. Conscious Complaining (see The Language of Emotions), then, is an excellent antidote for apathy, because it takes that griping and turns it into an intentional empathic practice.
Apathy and boredom can serve important functions in many situations where effective action cannot be undertaken. Adolescents, for instance – whose lives are controlled by schools and parents just as if they were still toddlers – are often plagued by apathy. Since we no longer have rituals for the complex transitions of adolescence, we don’t often notice or honor the ascent into adulthood, nor do we often honor the individual who’s trying to emerge.
The human trapped in adolescence is ripe for ongoing bouts of boredom and apathy; she’s in an environment too small for her soul, and she can do nothing but wait until trudging, stubborn, endless time sets her free. Apathy can help mask and staunch the incredible angers within her – angers that might incinerate the only home she has. Sometimes, boredom in teenagers can be seen as a very good thing.
Apathy and boredom in adults is another story, however. Boredom is a sign of becoming a product or a victim of your environment – instead of an active and aware participant. Boredom in adults (who have choices and options teenagers can’t even imagine) is often a sign of emotional repression, avoidance, or dissociation. However, this is no reason to consider apathy and boredom as entirely odious things. We actually need the masking state of apathy if we’re unbalanced or dissociated and can’t use our emotions properly – and many of us use apathy to provide the flow that should come from our emotions.
For some of us, apathy and the distractions it requires are the only things that can get us from one place to the next. We get bored with one job and take another; we tire of one relationship and grab on to someone else; we trudge away at work to get enough money to buy this perfect car or take that perfect vacation; we survive. We don’t understand ourselves and we don’t live full lives, but our apathy keeps us going and provides a certain shielding from our deep issues (and the deep issues in our culture).
Apathy masks our true selves and gets us through the inanities of modern life. It helps us believe that another car, the right lover, a different job, or the perfect slice of pie will cure us. Apathy lets us be shallow, and sometimes, that’s all we can manage. Sometimes, all we can do is mask our true feelings and stay on the surface with shiny and meaningless activities.
Our emotionally confused culture makes us believe that deep empathic living is impossible – as if true feelings or brilliant visions would slow us down unnecessarily, or prevent us from meeting the rent, raising the kids, or turning the thankless crank. That’s not true, of course, but the overriding message in our culture tells us that we can’t stop to feel or dream, because we have to keep moving. In response, we can become highly distractible automatons. This next practice can help us become living, breathing human beings again.
The practice for apathy
It’s important to make distinctions between apathy that arises from your unwillingness to rest, and apathy that arises from your inability to set boundaries and channel your anger appropriately. Here’s how to tell the difference: If you’re filled with apathy right now, honor it – but feed it with a deeper version of what it wants. Take the reins and become its master, instead of letting it pull you around by the nose.
For instance, if your apathy wants a perfect lover, work on making yourself a valuable love partner instead of passively waiting for some super person to appear. If your apathy wants a better house, a better car, a better body, or a better wardrobe, put your best critical energy into your current house, car, body, or wardrobe, and make those things better right now. If you begin to act consciously and deepen the demands of your apathy, you’ll be able to unearth your true issues.
If your apathy is a mask for anger, this practice will bring your anger forward. You might feel indignant, perturbed, open to attack, or trapped in your current surroundings. The Language of Emotions contains many practices for anger so that you can learn to work skillfully with this awesome emotion. If apathy and boredom are habits for you, you may need to perform these practices for a while before you can break the cycle – but the cycle will end when you bring your full awareness to it.
It’s very important to listen to your apathy, but not to follow its demands mindlessly – because mindless action only invites more mindless action. Break the cycle mindfully by answering your apathy and boredom in conscious and honorable ways – but remember that both apathy and boredom act as tourniquets or shut-off valves for your anger and your energy when you’re not in a position to affect change. If you’re truly unable to affect your surroundings, let your apathy be, and simply deepen your responses to its demands.
We’ve all been in scholastic or work situations where we really can’t do much besides go through the motions, and in these situations, apathy and distractions can be a godsend. When I look back at the binders I have kept for past college classes, I can tell how tedious they were by the amount of doodling I have in my class notes. In some classes, I had the time to draw an entire town, mock up a website, and recall all the steps of the quadratic equation. My apathy protected me and my classmates, because otherwise, I would have been interrupting the class to alleviate my boredom or angrily confront the boring professor. Apathy rocks!
However, if you can affect change but you’ve been hiding from your responsibilities and diminishing your boundaries in the masked state of apathy, please ask the questions for apathy: What is being avoided? and What must be made conscious? Listen to your answers, peer out from under the mask of your apathy, and find out what you’re really feeling.
In the next post: Discovering the gifts (yes, I said gifts) of hatred!