The Dreary Distress of Boredom

Boredom is easily avoided once we discover the inner processes that produce it

Yawn. Nothing interesting going on today. Day after day, the same old thing, going around in a daze, inwardly dead. Life used to be more fun. Why is the world so dull? Why am I bored so much of the time?

Some people believe that boredom is normal. In Boredom: A Lively History (Yale University Press, 2011) Prof. Peter Toohey concludes his book by writing that, “Boredom is a normal, useful, and incredibly common part of human experience. That many of us suffer it should be no cause for embarrassment. Boredom simply deserves respect for the, well, boring experience that it is.”

Toohey, a professor of classics, is wrong to say that boredom—a negative emotion akin to a toothache—is normal and useful. Boredom is a form of unnecessary suffering. Toohey’s book touches on superficial psychological ideas concerning boredom, but he doesn’t explore (or even mention) psychoanalysis where the remedy can be found.

Boredom results from a failure to activate one’s imagination, creativity, and sense of wonder. The bored person inwardly renounces pleasure. Even when pleasurable options or activities are suggested to this person, he or she is likely to decline the opportunity to experience such pleasure. The bored person, in other words, is unconsciously determined to suffer. (Could Toohey’s book be a defense that serves to cover up his unconscious choice to do just that?)

What are the dynamics in our psyche whereby our imagination shuts down? Unresolved negative emotions are the culprit. Until we become more conscious, we can be captives to negative emotions such as feeling refused, deprived, and helpless. Such emotions are experienced in early childhood, and they linger in the adult psyche. As adults, we can be unconsciously determined to continue to filter our experience of the world through these unresolved emotions. As evidence, many of us are able to activate our imagination, sometimes to a vivid degree, only when torturing ourselves with worry, self-criticism, fear, worst-case scenarios, and impressions of being refused and deprived.

Consciously or unconsciously, we are always trying to rationalize our suffering. In the case of boredom, the rationalization, presented as an inner defense, might be expressed along these lines: “I’m not secretly indulging in the feeling of self-doubt and emptiness. I’m not entangled in a stubborn rejection of pleasure. I’m not soaking up the passive feeling of being unable to activate my imagination and my vitality. Look, the world is a boring place. How could anyone feel happiness and joy in such a boring place!”

In adopting this defense, the individual is now required to truly suffer in the depths of boredom. In clinical language, the individual, through the unconscious or subordinate ego, offers up this suffering to the superego (inner critic) in exchange for secretly being able to maintain his or her wish to suffer.

This may sound complicated, but that’s only because the ideas, on first exposure to them, appear rather strange to us. Once we begin to consider the knowledge, we can “see” the dynamics at play in our psyche. This raises and strengthens our intelligence which can now be applied to the problem.

Other dynamics or aspects in our psyche pertain to boredom. Here are four, very briefly described:

1. As children, we experience some activities of our imagination, particularly sexual interests, as forbidden material. An active imagination can be a source of pleasure. Yet such pleasure can be associated emotionally and irrationally with forbidden content. We therefore avoid using our imagination for any pleasure at all.

2. When our fear of the superego (inner critic) is more substantial, we might empty our psyche of all incriminating material. The defense now reads, “I’m not guilty of secret wishes to suffer. In fact, I’m not in possession of any dangerous and incriminating material in my psyche. There is nothing in my psychic chamber—I am empty.” Now, of course, the individual does indeed feel empty and bored.

3. Many different defenses cover up our willingness to carry our suffering to the grave. One is these is called the “negative magic gesture.” It is an unconscious statement or posture of childish defiance that says to one’s parent or educator, “My feelings and behaviors show how little you had to offer me, thereby leaving me feeling bored.” This defense serves the self-defeating purpose of blaming on others one’s entanglement in painful feelings of emptiness.

4. An unconscious willingness to go through life feeling disappointed with oneself and with what life has to offer. A person’s parents may have displayed this approach to life, making it more likely that the son or daughter will adopt the same mentality. Chronic disappointment denotes, among other things, a consciousness that’s inhibited by a failure to feel one’s intrinsic value.