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Languishing Is 2021's New Burnout – Here's Why You Feel So Unmotivated Right Now

2020 saw the term 'burnout' becoming one of the most talked-about and relatable mental health terms. But now, people are transitioning from feeling mentally and physically exhausted to feeling "meh" or "blah". Sound all too familiar?

Here, a psychologist breaks down everything you need to know about this feeling labeled 'languishing' – 2021's new 'burnout'

What is 'languishing'?

Languishing is a phenomenon that describes people being stuck in a sort of limbo phase of life. Technically, the term languishing describes a person who continues to exist in an unwanted or unpleasant situation for a prolonged period but doesn’t make any moves to change or fix it (even if they can seemingly change their circumstances very easily). An example of languishing that happens quite often is someone staying in a job they don’t enjoy - and yet they stay there for years on end. They might constantly complain about their job, but then never actively try to fix it. 

The term languishing was originally coined by sociologist Corey Keyes but was recently brought to the forefront by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who defined it as the following in a New York Times article

“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either."

"You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.”

Languishing is now considered by many as the dominant emotion people might feel in 2021. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has caused many people to find themselves in a state of languishing and this is likely due to the fear of uncertainty and not knowing if things will actually work out. Many people are hesitant to make changes in their lives for fear of things turning upside down again. That means they might feel like their life isn’t moving forward or may even lack any motivation to do things with their lives.

What are the key signs and symptoms of languishing? 

There are a few key signs of languishing to look out for. These include:

  • Generally feeling unenthusiastic about life or unmotivated to do things.
  • Feeling very indifferent about the future prospects or things you might normally be excited about.
  • Having no clear sense of direction for your life or where it might be heading.
  • Hesitant to make any changes even though you know that it will make you happier.

How to tell the difference between languishing, burnout, and depression

Many people find it difficult to distinguish the difference between languishing and other mental health concerns such as burnout and depression. Languishing can be tricky to define, however, it isn’t the same as these other concerns.

While languishing and burnout can both be tricky to define, the key difference between the two is the level of interest and enthusiasm towards life and goals. Someone that is experiencing burnout will likely still be enthusiastic about their ambitions and feel motivated to achieve them or make changes, whereas someone experiencing languishing might not have the drive. Someone experiencing burnout will feel as though they have been constantly pushing forward in their life without a moment to take a breath, whereas someone experiencing languishing will feel as though they haven’t moved forward.

When it comes to comparing languishing with depression, one of the key differences is the persistence of low mood that is seen in depression, but not necessarily in languishing. Languishing may cause someone to have a low mood, but is more commonly associated with feeling apathetic (that is, showing no interest or enthusiasm). An easier way to distinguish the difference between languishing and depression is looking at both concerns from the lens of mental health as a spectrum. 'Clinically unwell' sits on one side and 'flourishingly stable' on the other - languishing is somewhere in the middle, while depression sits closer to the scale of 'unwell'. With languishing, we’re not struggling as much as someone that is suffering from depression, but we’re certainly not feeling that same sense of meaning if we were flourishing.

How to overcome languishing

Turning from languishing to flourishing isn’t always easy, but there are steps you can take to try and get yourself there:

1. Try to make peace with the fact that we are still living in uncertain times, however, life needs to move forward. While there are still risks associated with making plans, failing to make any plans at all is still a big risk.

2. Break your big goals or big changes down into little tasks by writing a list. This will allow you to not feel overwhelmed by any big daunting change, and from there you can methodically tick off the little tasks from your list.

3. Have the perspective that making a change is better than making no change. Yes, sometimes things just don’t work out in life, but living a life thinking ‘what if’ and feeling miserable at the same time isn’t necessarily a better alternative.

4. Try to find some meaning in your life again by ensuring that you are doing things that bring you enjoyment. This might mean going for a walk to your favorite coffee shop each day, having a bath or watching your favorite movie. Try not to feel guilty about indulging in your favorite past times because these things can make you feel fulfilled.

Final word

With any concerns regarding mental health, if your thoughts turn towards self-harm or suicide, you should seek emergency services or professional advice immediately. It's also helpful to seek advice if you do feel stuck in a rut and any tactics you’ve tried to get out of it hasn’t helped.

While it can be helpful to track your own mental health and keep track of any symptoms, there are also many dangers of self-diagnosing mental health concerns - and in some cases, it can be life-threatening. There certainly are some general signs or symptoms of languishing, however, the issue is that many of these signs can also be signs of other mental health or physical health concerns.

Furthermore, languishing can unfortunately lead to other mental health concerns so it's important to ensure you don’t experience it for prolonged periods of time. Sometimes simply voicing your feelings can help make you feel supported and a professional can arm you with coping mechanisms that will allow you to push forward.

Lifeline and Beyond Blue are services that provide free over-the-phone counseling with trained experts who can help you to understand your feelings. Services like Lysn provide access to psychologists via phone or video chat, which can be accessed from the comfort of your own home around the clock. These services can be instrumental in providing the support you need.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000. If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, you can also speak to your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

Did you know there are three stages of burnout? Here's a rundown of each stage, according to a psychologist.

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