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I’m Bored


Of all of the feelings I’ve written about, I’ve conveniently avoided describing boredom in detail. Because boredom is perhaps the hardest one of all for me to tolerate. And it’s the hardest one to write about when I’m experiencing it because I have no motivation to do anything.

I think of the way my niece Sadie says she’s bored. A fleeting feeling at a party where she’s been riding go carts, dancing, and playing with her cousins all day because, at the moment, she’s not doing anything exciting. So then she’ll ask me to play with her and she is no longer bored. Problem solved.

As a child, I experienced boredom in the same way. But as an adult, boredom has become much more sinister. It feels personal. Like I have failed at something. Like I am the only loser who is sitting here at home doing absolutely nothing while other people are getting sunshine or being productive or having fun. Which doesn’t make any sense, because I know that at some point I will be motivated to get sunshine and be productive and have fun. But in this moment, I feel trapped in this endless nothingness.

Actually, nothingness doesn’t seem to capture the intensity of how I experience boredom. It is actually some agitated state. Some less extreme hybrid of depression and anxiety combined with paralysis of will. Yes, I could go read my book. Or knit. Or call someone. Or write. Or anything, really. Except I can’t. Boredom has me in its grip, and it won’t release me.

Last week I was having lunch at the lake with some friends, and I asked one of them if she was enjoying retirement. To my surprise, she said no. She was having a hard time with the quietness of lake life. She missed the city. Missed activity and excitement. And she’s been retired for 2 years. That’s a long time to be bored. I felt bad for her, but in a way it was a relief to know that boredom feels as terrible to other people as it does to me.

I know that’s why some people are workaholics. Why some people don’t take vacations and don’t want to retire. Plus there’s a kind of pride in being stressed, even if it’s not enjoyable. It’s almost like a contest. I bet I’ve had less sleep than you! I bet I can juggle way more than you can! Whereas there is nothing to be proud of when you’re bored. No one brags about how they slept 15 hours because they had nothing better to do.

Perhaps boredom is necessary in order to feel excitement. Sort of the way ordinariness is necessary in order to experience something extraordinary. Or how paradise cannot exist without living in some place that you want to escape from. The whole yin yang thing. No one likes darkness, but without it, there can be no light.

Do you think Adam and Eve would have gotten bored in the Garden of Eden eventually, even if they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge? Maybe they were already getting bored. Maybe they were like, it might be nice to try some different fruit for a change, just to spice things up.

Maybe boredom is inevitable, even when you live in paradise.

I’m trying to treat boredom the way I treat any other feeling. I remind myself that it’s just a feeling. Nothing to be alarmed about. Everyone experiences boredom. And it will pass eventually. You might even feel better later today.

And you know what? I do feel less bored than I was when I started this post.

Although I still might take a nap.

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.