The genius of apathy and boredom

Unmasking the brilliance

We’ve looked at anger and shame, and now, we’ll focus on what I call the masking state of apathy (or boredom). Empathically, when I look at behaviors, I seek 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 (or 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.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What is being avoided? What must be made conscious?

From the Apathy chapter in The Language of Emotions

This information comes from my book and audio learning program, 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 what you value 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 it’s protecting (this is sometimes a very helpful thing), and how to support yourself in addressing the situation and the anger 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 – the masking state of apathy will often arise.

In a masking state, you cover yourself with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations. Apathy protects your other emotions by affecting an “I don’t care, I can’t be bothered, whatever” attitude. Apathy sets a boundary, but it also shuts things down.

Apathy may also seek distractions such as TV, fun food (as opposed to nourishment), new loves, travel, money, shopping, instant fame, or instant meaning. Apathy is often related to being stuck in the wrong environment for your needs. Because it masks anger, though, it doesn’t offer the emotional agility you need to get yourself to a better environment.

If you can let your apathy flow freely, you’ll let yourself take vacations from focus and industriousness – you’ll be able to daydream, detach yourself with diversions 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 hyper-vigilance.

If you welcome your apathy, it will move on naturally; but if you inhibit it (or wallow in it), you may fall into imbalance. Here’s an emotionally respectful way 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 repetitive activities, distracting behaviors, sarcasm, material possessions, 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 a sort of sideways fashion. Apathy may gripe about things, but it doesn’t often accomplish much. Conscious Complaining is an excellent practice for apathy, because it takes that griping and turns it into an intentional empathic practice.

Apathy can provide a needed time out when you’re in a situation that doesn’t suit you, or when your needs are completely unimportant. Apathy can help you go inward when your outward situation is meaningless, unsuitable, or even abusive. Thank you, apathy!

Apathy can serve important functions in many situations where you can’t take effective actions. 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 needs and her dreams, 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, apathy in teenagers can be a very good thing.

Apathy and boredom in adults is another story, however. Apathy can be a sign of becoming a product or a victim of your environment – instead of an active and aware participant.

Apathy 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 as a problem.

We actually need the masking state of apathy in unhealthy or unproductive situations where we can’t use our emotions properly.

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 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).

The often mindless activities apathy chooses can even protect us from falling into the true depressions and anxieties that underlie many distracted and apathetic behaviors.

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 live on the surface, and sometimes, that’s all we can manage. Sometimes, all we can do is mask our true feelings and stay afloat 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 paying 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. This practice for apathy can help us find our meaning again.

The practice for apathy

Your apathy may arise in response to your unwillingness to rest or feel, or in response to a situation that stops you from setting boundaries and channeling your anger intentionally. Here’s how to address your apathy without repressing or overemphasizing it: If you’re filled with apathy right now, honor it – but feed it with a deeper version of what it wants. Turn toward it intentionally and become its partner 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 masking anger that is repressed (because your situation is unhealthy or because you’ve been taught to ignore your anger [or both]), 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 in conscious and honorable ways – but remember that apathy act as a tourniquet or shut-off valve 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.

How apathy protected an entire classroom

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’ve kept for past college classes, I can tell how boring 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 interrupted the class to alleviate my boredom or angrily confront the boring professor. Apathy rocks!

However, if you can affect change but you’ve been avoiding your deeper life 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, thank your apathy for giving you an excellent time out, and find out what else is going on.

In the next post: Discovering the gifts (yes, I said gifts) of hatred!

25 Responses

  1. Mary Ann Ribble
    | Reply

    I am loving your book, Language of Emotions and took your online course at Sounds True when it was Live.
    I am going to offer a “reading group’ /discussion of your book at a local education center/store owned by two psychic/medium/empaths that I know and respect.
    I want to share the journey with others who are interested in learning the clarifying, deep and informative teachings you present in your book, and of course the practical and grounding skills!
    Do you have any feedback that you think would be useful from your experience. Thank You!
    Hope to do another class/retreat with you in next year – I live in the Northeastern US.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mary Ann, and thanks for bringing more empathy and emotional awareness to our waiting world!

      I’ll be doing a week-long retreat at Kripalu in Massachusetts in January — the 5th to the 10th. It will be the inaugural intensive retreat for The Art of Empathy, and I’m really looking forward to it!

      Let me check in with you on the reading group idea by e-mail. Talk soon.

  2. Bill
    | Reply

    Great post!

  3. judy
    | Reply

    brilliant insights into apathy/boredom; really admire your work

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Judy!

  4. Jenny
    | Reply

    So grateful to have found your work – I think that the insights I’m gaining about how to better understand emotions are going to be life changing. Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome, Jenny!

  5. Kristen
    | Reply

    Karla/Mary Ann – did yall come up with a readers guide? I love doing book clubs and like when there is a guide to use 🙂 And LOE is SUCH a foundational tool to use with people. I have learned so much from it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oh hey, thanks for the nudge — this ball got dropped. I need to look into the creation of a reading guide. Kristen, do you have any guides that you like? I’ve never worked with one, and I need to research the form.

  6. Kristen
    | Reply

    Karla – I did have a question about this post too. When you say that it is a mask for anger, do you mean boundaries have been broken in the sense that you aren’t taking responsibility for bringing joy into your life? You have broken boundaries with yourself because you know what you like and don’t like and are choosing what you don’t like? And anger tells you what you don’t like?

    PS your example reminds me of how, when I was at summer camp, we would listen to these very long classical music concerts and my apathetic coping mechanism was to dissociate and go off into an imaginary fantasy land, lol. Which ended up being a bad habit that can still be hard to break sometimes and takes me away from the present moment.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Kristen, good questions. I see apathy and boredom as masking states for anger that can’t be displayed honestly or openly for whatever reason. So something is challenging your sense of self or offending against you, but you really can’t do anything about it, and no use of anger would work. I see apathy and boredom as protective mechanisms that help people while away the time until they can get away from the situation or person that doesn’t care about them.

      I’ve had some courses at school that were just terrible, and the teacher wasn’t skilled, and I just had to make it through the class. I knew that anger, expressed openly, would do nothing, and that I just had to knuckle down and make it through the class in one piece. Boredom helps me mask my anger and get through. I’ll often doodle during the course or think about something else. I have to be there, but I don’t have to be there, if you see what I’m saying. Apathy and boredom are awesome when you need them, but if people get stuck in those emotions and can’t get out of them, then I want to know what’s going on inside them, in their relationships, or in their surroundings.

      I hope that makes sense?

      • Max
        | Reply

        Hello Karla being a college student who is indecisive and feels lost, bored, unmotivated, and apathetic I relate to this article. I’m at a point in my life where I what I can do is make sure to pass my classes and kill the time. To get a bachelor’s degree is at least 3 more years away for me. My life feels like a waiting game. Do you have any tips to connect with repressed anger? And is having no attention span a sign of repressed anger?

        Thank you for this article Karla about repressed anger causing apathy.

        -Thanks, Max

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Hi Max!

          Oof, school. I might not be the best person to ask about this, because I find school to be mind numbing. What I did in my bachelor’s program was find professors who were doing research and offer to help them as an assistant and editor. I was able to do things that really interested me and get course credit for it. It really made the tedium of the other courses livable. I found that the boredom let me know what I wanted to do (which wasn’t what I was doing).

          Your boredom will have something different to say, and will lead you in a different direction than mine did. It’s very individual. Something good to ask boredom is, “Well what do I want to do? What would be worthwhile?” And then within the confines of school, find a way to do it.

          I’m not saying it’s easy, or that it will reduce the boredom of required courses, grading, and assignments, but it might help you unearth your own interests and direction again.

          I hope this is helpful!

          • Max

            Can you simply feel your repressed anger without openly expressing it to break the cycle of apathy Karla?

          • Karla

            Hi Max, yes. You can use the questions for anger: What must be protected? and What must be restored? to see what’s going on, and why the anger was repressed in the first place. Usually, people repress their anger for a very good reason, or because they were trained to do so.

            Engaging with the anger can lead to self-awareness and a new approach to anger. If the anger was being repressed as a function of training, then Burning Contracts is a great skill to use.

          • Max

            There are things where I know/think that any repressed anger expressed would not accomplish anything. And what contracts do you mean by burning contracts? This is presumably a reason for my repressed anger.

  7. May
    | Reply

    Wow, this just really opened me up to facing what is happening in my life. Outwardly I seem to have everything going for me, but I have been apathetic for months now, with my kids, work, home.
    I’m basically stuck living somewhere (for the last 10 yrs) in a situation where my husband feels comfortable and has support, but I don’t. I do feel trapped, because it’s not as though we can pick up and leave, having established businesses etc. And my husband doesnt want to anyway.
    Not sure what to do.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello May, and welcome to what sociologists call the “circumscribed life.” It is fairly normal for married women to have lives that are not entirely free, but are circumscribed — drawn and built around the needs of their children, their husband, their parents, or their families. The apathy you are experiencing may move to anger that will help you express and define yourself, or it may move to depression if you can’t find ways to express yourself.

      The quick solution is a surprising one: Do your art. Find some small way to express your private thoughts, desires, needs, and dreams — and even if you can’t get to them from where you are, don’t shut down in deference to the circumscribed life; instead, make an art of it. It is a regular feature of the lives of married women and moms, so welcome to the club. You are not alone.

      This post on the specific healing powers of art may be helpful. There is also a wonderful book called Wishcraft by Barbara Sher that is all about finding your dreams and creating meaning in your life from exactly where you are. Barbara is awesome, and when her book went into public domain, she posted it online for free. It’s here:

      I send you many blessings!

  8. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Hi Karla! I’d like to clarify one item if I may– Apathy & Boredom (as well as Confusion) are not consideration emotions? Right. That’s what is meant by “masking state?” In and of themselves, neither Apathy & Boredom or Confusion are emotions?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Lisa, good question.

      I would definitely put apathy and boredom into the “soft” manifestations of anger, because they’re a sign that someone is angry, or that they’re masking it for a reason that tracks to anger.

      I’m not sure about confusion, because it’s an effective time out from overwhelm. However, in that time out, people really don’t have their focused fear instincts available to them. Confusion is a diffuse every-focus instead of a defined, orienting focus. I’m not confused about confusion ; ), but I don’t know that I’d say that its not an emotion. Not sure.

  9. Sadie
    | Reply

    I realize this is an older thread, but I’ve just discovered your work. This post is EVERYTHING for me right now. Apathy has entered my life in an intense way that it never has before. This is helping me learn to honor and use it in my spiritual path instead of thinking something is wrong with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing in the light.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Sadie!

      Isn’t apathy an amazing little sweetie? Thank you, apathy, for your gifts!

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