So I went through this unusual mental health ‘complication’ in recent weeks.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s many out there sharing a similar experience.
I wrote this post mostly as a guide for my own use.
Maybe it worked as I think I’m back on track now.
If you’re going through something similar, this is for you.
Objectively, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have excellent mental health these days.
Physical and financial health. Check.
Partner, family, friends. Check.
Work, hobbies (reading etc), and the ability to go around to places. Check.
I mean, I’m in Australia. The lucky country. Objectively, the best place to be right now:
Besides international travel, life in Australia more or less resembles pre-COVID.
Topping that, most of my family and friends are all physically here with me in Sydney. COVID hasn’t ripped my life apart like it has for many others.
Rationally, there is much for me to to celebrate.
Yet irrationally, I couldn’t ignore the strange feeling that something is off.
It’s extremely difficult to articulate this state of being.
Perhaps I simply don’t understand what I’m feeling.
Or maybe, the confusion stems from never having experienced this particular emotion before.
It kind of feels like eating a pretty good dish. But it’s been contaminated with a stale ingredient. The flavours and textures are all there. Everything seems to be in place. Yet you’re pretty sure something’s not quite right.
It’d be a stretch to say I’m feeling depressed, stressed, or burnt out.
But this state of being is clearly not the picture of sustainable mental health either.
Maybe the current state of Australia serves as a good metaphor for this feeling. Things are actually pretty good. Not much to complain about. Things seem to be “back to normal” on the surface. Yet, you just know it’s not quite.
1. At first I tried the suck-it-up-be-grateful approach
“Chill dude. You don’t have to feel 100% all the time. Be patient.”
“Be grateful. The world is burning and you’re objectively living a good life. What’s wrong with you?”
A moderate dose of guilt lingered.
Then I noticed this sub-optimal, emotionally off-balanced state was taking a bigger toll than I thought.
2. The symptoms are subtle
Usually, when I’m emotionally off-balance, the first thing I like to do is acknowledge it.
For more extreme emotions this is easy. But for the subtle and complex ones, this can be quite tricky.
For instance, I only recognized I was emotionally off-balance because I noticed I was reading 10x less than usual these days. Took a couple of weeks to notice this.
And here’s what makes diagnosing mental health issues so difficult: The entity performing the diagnosis (your brain) is the same as the one being diagnosed (your brain).
In my experience, at least, this is why it can take a while to become fully self-aware of what you’re feeling.
3. There’s a term for this: languishing
The second thing I do when emotionally off-balance is to label it.
More specific, the better. Not just happy, but ecstatic. Not just sad, but empty.
The wheel of emotions helps.
Once you label it, you start to understand it better.
And once you understand it better, you can start figuring out what to do about it.
So back to this feeling I’ve struggled to describe throughout this post.
Turns out there’s a term for this: languishing.
Best-selling author and psychologist Adam Grant describes languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.”
“It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
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.”
Check out the full article here.
Yes, languishing. That’s exactly it.
Now that I have labelled it, any effort to overcome this now has so much more power.
Labeling emotions is much like mechanical leverage. Without it, no matter how hard you try, the results are mediocre. With it, even a humble collection of small initiatives gets you back on track.
I felt exactly this when dealing with imposter syndrome.
4. Building momentum with small, simple actions
A common cognitive bias when dealing with intimidating, confronting problems, is assuming that the magnitude of the solution needs to match the magnitude of the problem.
More often than not, this is just not true.
For instance, in 2005, the US army analysed videotapes of recent riots in Baghdad. He noticed that crowds would gradually gather in a plaza. Grow in size. Then food vendors would show up. Someone would throw a rock. Then all hell would break loose.
So the major made an odd request to the city’s mayor: keep food vendors out of plazas.
A few weeks later, a crowd gathered again, growing in size and aggression. But at dusk the crowd got hungry without the food vendors there. And one after another, people started to go home. By 8pm, everyone was gone.
With this in mind, here’s some things I did to get back on track:
(i) Create small wins.
- Cleaned out stuff I hadn’t used for over 2 years. Sold some, gave some away, and threw a lot out. Lots of Marie Kondo moments.
- Crossed out lots of small life-admin items that have been sitting in my to-do list for too long. e.g. close old bank accounts, book overdue yearly dentist check-up
- Made a delicious meal that’s a little more extra than usual.
(ii) Proactively create new things (or remind myself of already in-flight things) to look forward to.
- Arranging something for my upcoming 30th.
- Setting up more catch-ups with friends and family.
- Order some new books.
- Plan details of upcoming things in next few months with partner 🙂
(iii) Less quantity, more quality
I said no to more things. So that I could do better with the things I said yes to.
There were just too many moving pieces.
So I let go of trying to do 10 things at once and doubled down on the 3 or so most important things in my life.
I know I can always come back to the others once I’m back on track.
(iv) Share it with others.
If you’re anything like me, you prefer to deal with emotional matters by thinking it through rather than talking about it. Then I encourage you to talk about it with those that care about you.
For me, this actually revealed that there were other issues going on that I hadn’t been paying attention to. Including relationships and work.
If you’re the type that prefers to talk about it rather than internalize it, then I encourage you to try writing about it. With a pen on paper – it makes all the difference.
To my surprise, that was basically it.
The collective sum of these relatively small actions yielded results far greater than the sum of its parts. Complexity scientists call this emergence.
5. To intervene or not?
See, I’m torn between two contrasting philosophies.
On one hand, there’s the interventionist approach: “If something’s broken, fix it quickly before it gets out of hand.”
On the other, there’s the let-it-be approach: “When you find yourself in times of trouble… let it be.”
A good analogy to illustrate these two approaches is comparing modern Western versus traditional Eastern medicine.
“Western medicine emphasizes surgery too much. Doctors want to take out the things that are not wanted. When we have something irregular in our body, too often they advise us to have an operation.
The same seems to be true in psychotherapy. Therapists want to help us throw out what is unwanted and keep only what is wanted.
But what is left may not be very much. If we try to throw away what we don’t want, we may throw away most of ourselves.
Instead of acting as if we can dispose parts of ourselves, we should learn the art of transformation. We can transform our anger, for example, into something more wholesome, like understanding.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
The interventionist tends to go against antifragile principles.
But the let-it-be approach can also be dangerous. Like Steve Jobs dying from cancer because he refused to undergo surgery.
Maybe this is all just a false dichotomy.
Most likely, though, the answer lies somewhere in between.
If something’s broken do something about it.
But also have the humility and patience to recognize that big changes can take time right.
Thanks for reading.
Take care of yourselves during these strange times people.
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