It’s taken me years to better manage my mental health. I have experienced severe depressive episodes and near-daily panic attacks. I can identify the early signs before I begin spiraling (loss of interest in anything, inability to get out of bed, an overwhelming sense of dread, overall executive dysfunction), and I now know how to prevent potential mental health breakdowns. But there’s an in-between state I could never identify. That moment when you wake up and feel blah; supremely dissatisfied for no particular reason and completely devoid of motivation—but not depressed or tired. And until I read about it in The New York Times (I'm sure you did too, the term was practically viral by the time I finished reading the article) I didn’t know what it was. Folks, it's called languishing. And it's real.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Manly, “languishing often results from unremitting stress, disempowering experiences, and frustration. Languishing can feel like a gray cloud of 'blah' has settled over you." In addition, Dr. Hafeez, a licensed (neuro)psychologist, says "languishing is the opposite of flourishing and waking up in the morning with excitement. Those who are languishing now are likely feeling a lack of emotion, emptiness, and unmotivation."
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Carla Marie Manly is a clinical psychologist, public speaker, and wellness expert who specializes in anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. She’s written two books, Joy from Fear and Date Smart.
- Dr. Sanam Hafeez has been practicing as a licensed (neuro)psychologist in NYC. She founded a center for assessments and evaluations, Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, and her topics of interest range from the effects of social media on brain function to ADHD and depression.
"One of the reasons it might be a neglected concept is it does not register as an 'official diagnosis' the way obsessive-compulsive disorder, bi-polar, or clinical depression do," Hafeez says, when asked her how languishing can be such a common phenomenon with such minimal awareness. "It is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which serves as the principal authority for psychiatric diagnoses by The American Psychiatric Association. Although the idea of 'languishing' has been in existence for decades, it took the pandemic to bring it to the forefront again. [The] article in May of 2021 gave a name to what many were and are feeling. That spurred more conversations on the topic both on and offline."
Differences Between Languishing and Depression
It can be easy to mistake languishing for depression or even burnout. But there are distinct differences between each. “Clinical depression tends to be unremitting and affects an individual’s ability to engage in daily activities,” says Manly. “But unlike depression, languishing lacks the element of hopelessness. And, while languishing has a depressive quality to it, is often more temporary in nature.” When compared to burnout, languish doesn’t imply an absence of energy, just direction and motivation. According to Hafeez, “French existentialists long ago coined this experience as "ennui," which is “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction."
Maybe these feelings feel familiar and you think you’re in a state of languish. You now have a more concrete concept for how you’re feeling. So, how do you address these feelings?
How to Address Feelings of Languish
Choose something fun and doable: "You can begin to break the “languishing habit” by taking tiny, actionable steps every day,” says Manly. “Pick something that feels fun and doable to begin with, such as taking a walk with a friend. Over time, you might feel comfortable hosting a group picnic outside It’s important to reward yourself for every positive step forward." The goal is progress—so take every single victory. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant steps are still steps. Stop working early, enjoy your skincare routine, eat something comforting and nourishing, and watch something that will make you laugh (like a stand-up special, or Haikyuu). As you continue to mentally progress, build off that momentum with a slightly bigger, but still doable action. Slow and steady progression accumulates over time.
Draw on positivity: Hafeez also recommends drawing on the positivity of your friendships. "Positivity is contagious in a good way," she says "Call the most upbeat (vaccinated) friend you know and ask to spend time with them in person, even if it's at a distance. Listening to the way they talk and view things will be helpful. Ask them how they are spending their time and if there are any activities, Zoom meetings, or groups they are involved with that you can join. People who are 'doers' under any circumstance always find constructive ways to stay busy."
Create a vision board: Manly suggests making a vision board. "Let your imagination take you into an empowering realm where you 'wake up your spirit' through inspiring, healthy images. Simply cut lively, compelling pictures from magazines or online resources and glue them on poster board. Your vision board can help you move out of a languishing energy and into a realm where you see the fresh possibilities in life."
Get involved: Hafeez recommends bringing more direction and purpose into your life with charity work or volunteering. "When life has you in the doldrums, you likely feel undervalued and invisible," she says. "There are so many worthwhile charities that can use the time and skills you have. Giving back to others will give you purpose and bolster your self-esteem. Having a time and place to be somewhere will also give you a set routine." If your life doesn’t currently have the bandwidth for volunteering, a project at home is just as good as an idea. Hafeez says that it doesn’t have to be huge, as long as it fits within your budget. "Starting and completing something will give you a sense of purpose," she says. Re-decorating can be very therapeutic, as it pushes your to see your surroundings as changeable, rather than fixed. It'll help that feeling of stagnation.
Move your body: Changing up the way you’re moving your body will help get you out of a languishing rut. "If you have been doing yoga the entire pandemic, maybe it’s time to switch it up or mix in more cardio," Hafeez says. "There are more online workout platforms than ever before. If you’re in a rut, perhaps your workout is languishing as well. Shake it up with a new method of fitness."
The Bottom Line
Languishing is a completely common and natural thing to experience—it is not a reflection of character or capability. Even the most empowered and ambitious of us experience it. When you find yourself languishing, don’t be hard on yourself. Remember to stay mindful and check in with how you’re feeling, as that makes it easier to identify your emotions and thought patterns before they snowball. And slowly, but surely, things will get better.