The genius of apathy and boredom

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 Protective Mask for Anger

GIFTS: Detachment ~ Boundary-setting ~ Separation ~ Taking a time-out

WHAT YOUR APATHY DOES: 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.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: 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 can 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.

Your anger and your sense of boundaries are deeply important to your sense of self and your ability to take your place in the world.

Why does apathy arise?Book and audiobook covers for The Language of Emotions

However, there are many places where your needs are not important, where your voice is not welcome, and where your sense of self simply doesn’t matter (think of a tedious course in school, an unloving relationship, or a soulless job).

And because your anger and boundaries are so important, there’s actually another emotion that I call a “masking” state that arises when you cannot (or will not) set your boundaries or speak your truth.

It’s apathy (or boredom), and sadly, it’s valenced very negatively. It’s hard to find any welcoming messages about apathy, and it’s usually treated as a sign of laziness or a lack of imagination.

Sometimes, it’s true that apathy is a sign that a person has lost their energy, their imagination, or their ability to care, but I would always ask why?

Why is apathy necessary?

What is happening around people that makes apathy so necessary? Why can’t they set boundaries or speak honestly? Where is the vulnerability that could help them deepen their relationships and identify what they truly value?

Why is this protective mask for anger necessary?

When you don’t have the energy or permission to work with your anger properly – when you aren’t able to protect your boundary or the boundaries of others, when you feel unable to speak out against the troubles or injustices you see, and when you feel incapable of affecting your surroundings – you’ll often move into the masking state of apathy.

Apathy is protective

A masking state helps you cover up your inner truths with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations. It can give you a necessary break from the situation, and its “I don’t care; I can’t be bothered; none of this matters” attitude can give you a sense of control.

Apathy may also seek 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 can be a dissociated state that’s related to being stuck in the wrong environment for your needs. It can take you away from the situation and set a boundary in a quiet and indirect way, and it can help you distract yourself when you cannot or will not use your anger openly.

Apathy is valuable

Apathy is a valuable and necessary emotional state, but as you may have discovered, it may pull you into a form of powerlessness or voicelessness if you rely on it without awareness. If apathy becomes a go-to state for you, you may lose your ability to set effective boundaries and relate to others openly in the face of difficulties and conflicts.

Luckily, there’s an empathic way to support your apathy and maintain your equilibrium around your need to detach yourself and take a time-out.

The protective message in apathy

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 is protective, and it can serve important functions in many situations where you can’t take effective actions. It’s important, and bringing consciousness to it can help us work with our apathy, instead of being worked over by it.

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

Apathy can give us the freedom our situation won’t

Apathy can help you go inward when your outward situation is meaningless, unsuitable, or even abusive. Thank you, apathy!

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 can mask our true selves and help us make it through meaningless times

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 a lie, 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, and apathy can become the boundary-setter in our lives.

In the post below, I’ll share a practice for apathy can help us find our values, our boundaries, and our true meaning once again.

Related post: A healing practice for apathy


29 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!

  10. Karen
    | Reply

    I have been searching for a very long time, trying as hard as I might to work out what was wrong with me. I am someone with tons of tenacity but yet have found myself unable to do the slightest thing for way too long. So confused, so scared, so hopeless…….and now I feel I have found the root of the problem …..I am in an apathetic state. My body has put me there to protect me but I can’t stay there as if I do for much longer I will lose many things that are vital to my survival. I need to find a way to work through it. I am trusting that reading more of your writings on this matter will help me find a path out of the ‘torturous treacle’ I find myself trudging around in!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Karen, and welcome.

      A thing to be aware of: Apathy can only protect you for a short amount of time. If there’s a situation where your boundaries and your needs are not being respected (regularly and reliably), another emotion may need to step forward: Situational Depression.

      Look at this depression inventory and see if you can identify where the problem is:

      And remember that your emotions don’t cause problems: they respond to problems!

      And they bring you the precise intelligence you need to work through them.

      With depression, we almost always need support, so please reach out to someone who can support you.

      Take care,

  11. Nicholas Burch
    | Reply

    wow i have not so deeply connected with a piece of another person’s consciousness in a long time. it makes me feel a little bit less lonely. i am definitely going to buy and read your book.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Welcome! [we have cake]

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