“Life, friends, is boring.” -John Berryman, “Dream Songs 14”
My psychiatrist and I have a “joke” that goes something like this:
I tell her how, for me, our 45-minute sessions fly by. How I relish our conversations, and feel engaged for the first time all week. Then I laugh and tell her not to worry — I get how bored she is. I know she’s just sitting there, forced to listen, probably looking at the clock, thinking, Really? This bullshit again?
My therapist insists my assessment is inaccurate. She loves her work. She finds it deeply rewarding to help patients get to the bottom of things keeping them stuck, no matter how repetitive. I shouldn’t worry about being interesting. That’s not why I go to therapy.
She’s right. I go to therapy to feel happier and less consumed by my most stubborn demons. Still, I can’t help but find this joke (which is really my joke, not ours) darkly funny. If I were my therapist, I’d certainly be bored by me. Bored by the fact that I continue to engage in the same destructive thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, despite knowing how bad they make me feel, that I could be making better choices. Bored by my relentless appetite for self-blame, even though I’ve learned — both experientially and through extensive research — just how unproductive it is. Each week, my session is somewhat of a carbon copy of the last. After 19 years of therapy (and counting), I still have to remind myself that self-awareness alone doesn’t change behavior. Here we are.
As I’ve thought about and worked on this blog post, it’s dawned on me that what I seem to find funny about this “joke” is the irony — namely, that I find the repetitive, incessant nature of my suffering (and the active role I play in perpetuating it) boring. The joke is the fact of my projection. I am the one who is bored by my own bullshit.
This realization is bizarrely comforting, in part because it makes my bullshit (for lack of a better word) feel a little less … heavy, solid, real. By creating a bit of space around the habits I find painful, my boredom functions as a shock absorber. It lets me take a step back, so I can see myself and say, Ah, cleaning on your hands-and-knees again. It’s 1am and you’re exhausted. Perhaps this is not the best idea.
The comfort of boredom
There’s certainly a degree to which I could perceive such a distressed image of myself with self-blame and condescension: “You freak, what’s with the OCD again?” But I don’t — and it’s as if I am unable to in the midst of boredom. I can’t judge the pain as much if I am bored of it. Bored of my habitual decisions that keep me in pain. Bored of my self-awareness. The only reason I am able to see these painful behaviors with such clarity and focus is because I am so damn bored of them.
Boredom encourages me to witness my emotional pain with more distance than I’m used to. In a state of boredom, I cannot help but yearn for something more interesting on which to focus my energy. I furrow my brow. I get curious. And with that curiosity, I can be more compassionate. Instead of playing victim — what’s wrong with me? — I step into the role of explorer. Now what?
Ultimately, that sensation of curiosity feels good, or at least better than the boredom preceding it. There’s an element of humor in it, too: it feels a funny to separate yourself from your behaviors in order to see the patterns as merely uninteresting, rather than pathetic, stupid, or frustrating. That’s because draining value judgment from how we perceive our actions certainly isn’t automatic. After all, we have all evolved to possess what psychologists call negativity bias, the instinct that makes negative experiences seem more important than they actually are. Although negativity bias is originally a survival instinct meant to help us readily identify danger and predators, most of us know it best as the inner critic — that voice that always gives more weight to our mistakes and flaws than successes. We often regard ourselves, our own minds, as the predator from which we are trying to flee.
We’re all mammals
Now knowing the evolutionary roots of self-criticism, it’s easier to understand how and why so-called “bad habits” (which I’ve also been calling “bullshit”) self-perpetuate. When we act against our best interests, we tend to meet ourselves with criticism, guilt, and blame. Our brains make us feel bad about the “mistaken” action so that we recognize it as a threat we should stay away from. But since the “threat” in this case is within us, we end up simply making an enemy out of ourselves. We feel unsafe in our own midst. We rebel against our interests again, because who cares, we are the enemy anyway. We do the bad thing again, we feel bad again. The behavior continues. Soon enough, it’s a habit. A bad habit on its way to becoming bullshit.
Recognizing that you are actually bored of feeling this way is what can interrupt the cycle. Staying with my survival-metaphors, boredom signals “safety” to the brain. Think about it: if you are able to feel bored by something, that situation is not requiring you to be on “high alert” (e.g. you cannot bored in the presence of a tiger). No, you won’t suddenly manufacture the feeling of “safety.” But your brain, which does not know it is 2019 and that your inner critic is probably among your greatest threats, will feel calmer. And with that calm is opportunity — for something different.
Boredom is not a gut reaction to pain (it certainly is not mine). But it’s a framework to consider. A perspective shift to explore when you find yourself deep in the ditch of victimhood and self-blame. This is all an experiment. A pendulum swinging between habit and exploration, again and again.
Best of all, none of this involves any forced optimism. The glass may not be half full, and that’s okay. But rather than humoring your survival instinct to fixate on and overthink recurrent missteps, you can choose to see doing so as uninteresting. You can look at the image of yourself with investigative eyes, because curiosity is the natural antidote to boredom. Remarkably, this shift from boredom to curiosity doesn’t require that much effort. It just unfurls, like petals of a flower beginning to open in spring.
Experimentation, not solution
This perspective shift is a lot easier to try than a lot of the self-help “hacks” out there. (I am not a fan of “hacks” nor of “self-help,” really, despite my tendency to write in a kind of self-help-y way). If you’re sitting there thinking, “I am so hard on myself, there is no way I could feel better,” take a step back from how miserable you are (I’m right there with you) and ask: Are you bored of feeling this way? My guess is you can probably find part of you that genuinely can answer “yes.” It’s actually quite easy to convince yourself that you’re bored of feeling like shit. And it is remarkably empowering.
A bored brain won’t blame you for your dysfunctional habit of cleaning on hands and knees at 1am. And by mitigating that blame, the well-rehearsed choreography of the inner critic, there is space for something new, something far more interesting.