Boredom in the Time of COVID-19, Part II

Mostly theoretical.

By: Kyle Kermott, Psy.D.

Part II – Two Models of How Boredom Can Develop

Note: Unlike other sciences, it’s nearly impossible for psychology to come to concrete answers about how the mind works. Many subfields – namely cognitive psychology – give us great theories about the inner workings of the mind, but they are just that: theories. We cannot peer into the brain and record what we see. What follows are, similarly, just theories about how boredom might manifest itself – and like all theories, these are up for debate, disagreement, and to ultimately be discarded.

What follows are two working models for how boredom can develop in the mind. Both of these models involve a shift in an individual’s world which has, in some way, left their existence feeling like it is lacking. Additionally, both models assume a difficulty in accepting and working through this change.

Model One – A lack of authenticity

The first model of the development of boredom centers around a change in an individual’s life which makes it difficult for the person to live in an authentic way. The loss of this authenticity then results in the person losing a sense of vitality and liveliness in their day to day existence.

For example, imagine a teacher who has been let go because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their internal view of themselves relies heavily on their profession of teaching and mentoring others. This person may have developed a lot of meaning and purpose around this calling, and finds that having a positive impact on others mentally and emotionally fills them with contentment. But now that they have been displaced from their job, they find themselves without the most important factor that has given their life meaning. They spend time at home, trying to stay current with their material, trying to stay connected with others, and trying to be active in self-care. But how can someone be a teacher without a student? They have lost the defining characteristic of their identity.

What can result from this change is a decreased sense of pleasure and purpose in life. And this person, lacking their main drive for waking up, can feel like they are overcome with boredom. They are bored because they can no longer engage in the most important activity of their life, which prevents them from feeling like they are living how they were meant to live. Sure, the individual can watch Netflix or read books, but these are experienced as boring because they don’t allow the person to genuinely connect the most meaningful parts of themselves. The person has become completely disconnected from being a teacher, and so all other activities lose their vigor or energy because of the complete loss of teaching. Boredom sets in as a result of the loss of the ability to be themselves in the truest sense—the loss of being able to be a teacher, their authentic self.

Psychoanalysis has a term called “ego ideal.” This is a blanket idea about all of the—mostly unconscious—expectations we have for ourselves which, if we meet them, will make us feel like we have become the person we need to be. We can have ego ideals of being patient, smart, a hard worker, successful, respected, etc. The closer we get to these ideals, the better we feel about ourselves. And we feel worse the more we move away from them. To say nothing of their validity, these are the demands we place on ourselves.

In the example of the person losing their ability to be a teacher, we can imagine that they have moved away from one of their ego ideals of teaching others. And this is why they experience a loss of the goodness of their life. One of the things you can reflect on are the ego ideals you carry for yourself. Knowing these expectations can help you possibly revise them (if they are too unreasonable) or meet them in alternative ways during the quarantine. And even if you can’t perfectly recreate the authentic purpose you lost during the lockdown, maybe you can find useful surrogates that will help stave off some of the boredom you feel.

Model Two – Deadness on the outside and inside

The second model is closely related to the first. This model doesn’t center around a person experiencing a loss of a major aspect of their personality, but rather experiencing the world around them as losing the ability to adequately meet their needs. Whereas model one is a loss of something internal, model two is a loss of something external.

This individual finds themselves in circumstances that, in some way, feel deadened to them: not interesting, not worthwhile, not fulfilling. And instead of maintaining an internal sense of their own liveliness to contrast with the world’s deadness, the individual unconsciously deadens themselves internally to match what they experience externally. We find it difficult to live in disharmony with our surroundings, and so the person deadens themselves in order to bring them into harmony with the world. But in doing so, the individual opens themselves up to the deadness of boredom.

Imagine someone who is very extroverted, and who find themselves filled up by interacting with others. But because of COVID-19, this person is prevented from being able to live out this need. Sure, they communicate to others on the phone or through video, but these are poor substitutes for sitting across from someone at lunch, or for going out after work with friends. This person’s world has lost its color. Not having human interaction has turned the individual’s existence into one seriously lacking vitality and fulfillment.

Sitting in their room during the lockdown, this person finds themselves overcome with the heaviness of boredom. They can think of activities to do, but since none of them involve needed human interaction, no activity can fill the hole in this person’s life. They have options for substitute actions, but they are all poor substitutes. Compared to normal, this existence feels dead, and so boredom is the person’s act of internally meeting this deadness.

It’s hard to believe that someone would alter their internal world in order to meet the external world, but don’t we do that all the time? You have a bad day, but then begin to feel perceptively better when you meet up with friends for dinner, or talk with a loved one on the phone. Or you are enjoying a great day at the beach only to find that you forgot sunscreen and realize that your great day is completely ruined by an uncomfortable sunburn. More than we are conscious of, our minds are constantly monitoring the world around us and are synchronizing our thoughts and feelings with what exists externally. And when the mind syncs up with a world that feels dead and lacking, boredom is one of the feelings that can result.

Conclusion – A unifying theme

While boredom can be one of the feelings that results from experiencing a deadness around us, it’s not the only feeling we can experience. Additionally, while boredom can set in when we are prevented from being our authentic selves, many other feelings can come from this shift as well. In both of these examples, feelings of anger, sadness, loss, fear, helplessness, etc. can also result. But why is it common for boredom to take over instead?

Compared to getting angry at the COVID-19 lockdown, feeling bored by the situation can feel relatively benign. Similarly, settling into the sadness and fear over the state of our lives and the lives of our loved ones can be overwhelming, especially if we also settle into the feelings of helplessness over changing our current state. Instead, boredom can be consciously experienced as a more manageable state. One unifying way to look at boredom, then, is as an “ego defense.”

We’ve all heard of someone being labeled as “defensive,” but the original usage of the term “defense” has a far different meaning. Defenses are used as a way to keep us safe from intolerable feelings and thoughts. The mind (unconsciously) determines that certain things are too much for us to experience, and makes an executive decision that it will prevent us from being aware of these intolerable things. The mind directs our attention away from the intolerable, and towards something that is more manageable.

Instead of experiencing the despair associated with COVID-19, boredom can act as a more tolerable stand-in. Boredom can be seen as a defensive action by the mind to help us get through these difficult times. But what this also means is that boredom is covering up some other, deeper and more painful feelings. So on the one hand, boredom-as-defense helps keep us together, but on the other hand it can also prevent us from seeing what’s really going on inside of us.
Should you be so inclined, you can spend some time reflecting on what boredom might be protecting you from. This is an act that’s not for the faint of heart. And, in truth, you might not be able to get to the bottom of your feelings without the aid of a psychologist who can help you make sense of what you are feeling. But the benefit of trying to look past the boredom is that it can put you into greater touch with yourself and your mental life. Working through defenses brings you into closer contact with yourself. And in so doing, will allow you to live a more fulfilling, meaningful life.