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An illustration of a man working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. The person is low on energy and having trouble concentrating.
Credit: Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock

Many people, including several of my clients, have been feeling some sort of way over the past year. They are struggling to feel energized and concentrate on the day-to-day. They aren’t joyful or enthusiastic about anything.

It’s not depression, per se. It’s not quite burnout. It’s something that they just can’t describe.

But University of Pennsylvania psychologist and TED Talk speaker Adam Grant, PhD, has been able to define it. Recently, Dr. Grant published a piece in the New York Times  that accurately describes what so many people have been feeling during the pandemic: languishing.

Languish, as Dr. Grant writes, is “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”

When I described this to my clients, many exclaimed “Oh yes! That’s it!”

And it makes sense; naming a feeling helps normalize it and brings the vague unease into focus. It has also helped them to take their first step out of the fog.

But where does that first step lead to? People want to “fix this.” They want to “heal.” They want to “move on,” as so many patients have told me.

What they really want, in my opinion, is to stop being so stuck.

I don’t believe we can push ourselves out of languishing. It doesn’t work to threaten yourself with “shoulds.” As in, “I should go see this person since I’m fully vaccinated” or “I should want to go out to dinner on the weekends, since I always did before.”

Pushing yourself out of this newfound comfort zone is not a kind practice and it is ineffective in the long run.

But I have seen clients nudge — rather than push — themselves toward some energy and some lightness. The key is to pay attention to where you feel little sparks, and lean into that.

One client has been feeling indifferent about meals. She misses eating out with friends and, in what Dr. Grant defines as “revenge behavior,” she has become bored and resistant to any kind of eating. But one day last week, she made a cheese sandwich, taking care to put on ingredients that she enjoys, and ate outside while she soaked up the sun. She reported to me she felt a strange sensation — a little bit of happiness and contentment.

When you notice those moments of happiness, build on them. Stop, notice, and savor the feeling — contentment, happiness, joy, love, affection, warmth, or whatever it may be. And then look for the next moment.

It will be a process. After all, we didn’t start to languish overnight. It took a few months of neglect and sadness and loss to shut down our hearts and our bodies.

So it makes sense that moving on from that emotional state will also take some time. But you can start by identifying how you feel, and then discover — and — receive some small enjoyments.

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Grant A. There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The New York Times. April 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html.

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