Apathy & Boredom

The following is taken from: McLaren, K. (2010). The Language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.


Also visit U-TUBE for an 8-minute video of McLaren discussing the function of anger, fear, sadness at Emotion Theater

Apathy and Boredom

The Mask for Anger


Detachment – Boundary-setting – Separation – Taking a time-out


What is being avoided? What must be made conscious?


Monotonous indifference, impassivity,

Or distractibility that halts creative action



Honor your need to be separate and detached

without taking yourself out of commission.

Use the anger beneath apathy to reset your boundaries

 in healthy ways.

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 you.  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’ll learn about the anger trapped within it (and how that entrapment is sometimes a helpful thing), and how to support yourself in addressing the rue angers beneath your mask.

When you don’t have the time, energy, or ability to work with your anger properly – when you don’t protect your boundary or the boundaries of others, when you feel unable to speak out against the injustices you see, and when you feel incapable of affecting our surroundings, you’ll often fall into the masking state of apathy (also known as boredom).  In a masking state, you cover up your inner truths with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations.  Apathy squelches emotions by affecting an “I don’t care; I can’t be bothered; whatever” attitude.  Apathy seeks 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 is a dissociated state, usually related to being stuck in the wrong environment for your needs.  Because it masks emotion, though, apathy is powerless; it longs for change, but it doesn’t have the emotional agility to make conscious change happen.

If your apathy is allowed to flow freely in your psyche, you’ll let yourself take small vacations from focus and industriousness – you’ll be able to daydream, detach yourself with diversions or comfort foods every now and then, or plop yourself in front fo 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 quickly, but if you inhibit it (or wallow in it), you’ll plummet into imbalance.  Here’s how 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 a boundary together—trying to define itself with material possessions, addictions and distractions, sarcasm, or perfect-world scenarios.  Apathy points to a loss of boundaries, and to a distinct and urgent need for change, but it does so in an ineffectual and distractible way.  Apathy chatters and gripes all day, but it doesn’t ever accomplish anything.  Conscious complaining, then, is an excellent antidote for apathy because it takes powerless griping and turns it into an intentional and defined practice.

Apathy and boredom can serve important functions in many situations where effective action cannot be undertaken.  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 notice or honor the ascent into adulthood, nor do we 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 soul, and she can do nothing but wait until trudging, stubborn, endless time sets her free. Apathy helps to mask and staunch the incredible angers within her—angers that might incinerate the only home she has.  Therefore, in our incredibly unaware culture, boredom in teenagers can be seen as a good thing.

Apathy and boredom in adults is another story altogether.  Boredom is a sign of becoming a product or a victim of your environment, instead of an active and aware participant.  Boredom in adults (who have choices and options teenagers can’t even imagine) is often a sign of emotional repression, avoidance, and dissociation.  However, this is no reason to consider apathy and boredom as entirely odious things.  We need the masking state of apathy if we’re unbalanced or dissociated and can’t use our emotions properly, and many of us use apathy to provide the flow that should come from our emotions.  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 understand ourselves, and 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 mindless activities apathy and boredom require can even protect us from falling into the true depressions and anxieties that underlie many distracted and dissociated behaviors.

We struggle against our natural depressions and anxieties with incredible amounts of boredom-relieving stimuli – most of us have instant, in-home access to TVs, phones, music, and computers.  We can be tuned-in to noise, other people, or trivial information twenty-four hours a day.  There’s no longer any socially approved time for rest, quit, contemplation, or privacy because we’ve created a world that doesn’t have room for that.  We scrabble around for money, housing, and relationships; we obsess about our health, our appearance, and our families; we attempt to heal ourselves or others in what often seems a futile race against the ravages of time; and we have very little peace.  People as preoccupied and stimulated as we are certainly aren’t going to drop into a meditative or contemplative mood when we slow down; we’ll either collapse into fitful sleep or fall into deep depression and anxiety about all that we haven’t got, don’t know, or didn’t do.  So instead of slowing down, we surf the Net, turn on the TV, or use our favorite addiction or distraction to ignore our need for rest (or our squashed emotions and dreams) in order to keep all of our balls in the air.

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 be shallow, and sometimes that’s all we can manage.  Sometimes, all we can do is mask our true feelings and stay on the surface with our meaningless activities.  Our emotionally deadening 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 meeting 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 become highly distractible automatons.  This next practice can help us become living, breathing human beings again.

The Practice for Apathy

It’s important to make distinctions between apathy that arises from your unwillingness to rest and apathy that arises from your inability to set boundaries and channel your anger appropriately.  Here’s how to tell the difference.  If you’re filled with apathy right now, honor it, but feed it with a deeper version of what it wants.  Take the reins and become its master, 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 a response to your refusal to rest, this practice will uncover your fatigue and probably some sadness or depression.  Please set your boundary strongly, ground yourself, and replenish yourself by performing your rejuvenation practice as often as you can for a few days (and, of course, rest!).  Also, have yourself checked for a sleep disorder; they are amazingly prevalent and astonishingly under-diagnosed.  If these suggestions don’t relieve your fatigue, or if you drop into depression, please skip forward to the practice for depression…

If your apathy is a mask for anger, this practice will bring your anger forward.  You might feel indignant, perturbed, open to attack, or trapped in your current surroundings.  Please skip back to the anger chapter, set your boundary strongly, burn your contracts ferociously, and protect yourself with the information and intensity your anger brings forward.  If apathy and boredom are habits for you, you may need to perform this practice a few times before you break the cycle – but the cycle will end when you bring your full awareness to it.

It is important to listen to our apathy but not to follow its demands mindlessly, because mindless action only invites more mindless action.  Break the cycle mindfully by answering your apathy and boredom in conscious and honorable ways, but remember that both apathy and boredom act as tourniquets or shut-off valves for your anger and your energy when you’re not in a position to effect change.  If you’re truly unable to affect your surroundings, let your apathy be, and simply deepen your responses to its demands. …

However, if you can effect change, but you’ve been hiding from your responsibilities and diminishing your boundary in the masked state of apathy, please focus and ground yourself.  Ask the questions for apathy: “What is being avoided?” and “What must be made conscious?”  Listen to your answers, peer out from under the mask of apathy, and find out what you’re really feeling.

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