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Taking the anguish out of languishing: One small step at a time

By Gaynor Word-Smith

A line in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reads: “The heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage.”

This quote reminded me that when experiencing difficult or challenging times, it is easy to forget the adage that this too shall pass, and when it inevitably does pass, there will be a return of joy and courage. A return of something to look forward to. A future focus.

We have all noticed the emergence of another malaise occurring alongside the global pandemic - a high percentage of us are experiencing a diminished sense of fulfilment and satisfaction coupled with an increased sense of discontentment and a lack of flow.

You may also have heard the term languishing being used to describe this unpleasant and unfamiliar feeling? It is described by psychologists as feelings of “emptiness and stagnation”; a “quiet despair”; feeling “hollow”, “empty”, “void” and feeling like a shell of your former self.

Languishing has been associated with being unable or unwilling to carry out daily routine activities like exercise or daily chores like housework, and just showing up to social events and work requires a huge effort. To state it in clearer terms - languishing is associated with poorer emotional health and mental functioning. While languishing does not meet the criteria for depression, it is a risk factor for mental illness.

How to tell if you are languishing

An article entitled ‘What is languishing and what can we do about it?” identified the following factors to help recognise symptoms of languishing:

  • A sense of feeling stuck, or that life has become stagnant

  • Feelings of emptiness

  • Lack of motivation

  • A sense of mental malaise

The Newport Institute describes themselves as an organisation “dedicated to transforming the lives of young adults and their families and loved ones struggling with mental health issues”. They list the following 7 factors as indicators that you may be in a state of languishing:

· Lack of motivation

· Foggy thinking, feeling unfocused

· Low enthusiasm about life in general

· Feelings of emptiness

· Dullness and ennui (boredom)

· Not highly engaged or passionate about work or school

· Working toward goals in order to avoid something negative rather than achieve something positive

The last point bears further explanation and can be described more accurately as avoidance behaviour. Brendon Burchard, an author and high-performance coach said “avoidance is the best short-term strategy to avoid conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering”.

According to The Psychology Group, avoidance behaviour can be described as follows:

Avoidance is a maladaptive coping skill that offers the mind an escape from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and/or experiences. It may seem like avoiding discomfort could be helpful, however, it results in never addressing the actual issue. In fact, avoidance may create a cycle of behaviour that exacerbates feelings of anxiety and depression, making it much harder to problem solve, cope, and heal.

Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering. - Brendon Burchard

Taking small steps towards flourishing

The opposite end of languishing on the mental health spectrum is known as flourishing. Psychologist Corey Keyes defines this as “a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time”.

Before languishing turns into depression, it’s important to take a proactive approach towards flourishing in order to stop any further mental and emotional decline. The key takeaway message is to take one small step towards improving your mental health as soon as you can. It could be as simple as acknowledging that you are languishing or talking with someone you trust about how you feel. Doing something, no matter how small, is the first step to making improvements towards positive mental and emotional health outcomes.

The key takeaway message is to take one small step towards improving your mental health as soon as you can.

Here are some small steps to consider in your journey as you move yourself from a state of languishing to a state of flourishing:

· Perform an act of kindness for someone. This can be something small such as offering to make someone a cup of tea, to offering to pick up their groceries through to volunteering your services at a local school, church or charity organization. Know that somebody out there needs your help and kindness.

· Practice gratitude. When you wake in the morning and before you go to sleep at night, reflect on what is good in your life and identify 3 things you are grateful for. It can be the seemingly small things we often overlook and take for granted…for example: I am thankful I have a pillow on which to rest my head. I am thankful I have walls and a roof offering me shelter. I am thankful I am breathing.

· Notice your language for patterns. When you notice a negative pattern, make a decision to flip the script and create a positive pattern. Instead of thinking “I hate going to work when it is raining!”, turn that thought process into something like, “I am grateful I have work. The trees and plants must be loving this rain!”.

· Practice self-compassion. Silence your inner critic and instead practice being kind to yourself. It’s okay if you didn’t get through everything or anything on your ‘to-do’ list today. Don’t judge yourself, don’t criticize yourself. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can within the context of these challenging times. Grant yourself grace under pressure.

· Celebrate your successes – large and small. Make a list of all of your significant achievements and successes in life so far, and feel that sense of accomplishment. Now make a list of everything you have accomplished today. We easily overlook the small things, but these small successes are integral to our overall sense of wellbeing.

· Maintain friendships and relationships. Connect with others who you enjoy being around. Meet up with a friend or family member for a coffee, a walk on the beach, a game of golf or a movie.

· Connect with nature. There is a body of evidence to suggest that spending time in nature seems to benefit mood and mental health. This connection can be achieved through a simple practice that Brian Mertins, the Nature Mentor calls ‘The Sit Spot’. A sit spot (or secret spot) is simply a favourite place in nature that you visit regularly (it can even be a spot in your backyard). He says:

This is the core practice I’ve been using since the very beginning of my own journey with nature connection, and it’s always the first activity I give to new students. The beauty of the sit spot is you begin to organically absorb connection just by being immersed in natural surroundings. As you have repeated experiences with the same birds, plants & trees at your sit spot, you gradually gain a deeper appreciation for the subtle flow of seasons, daily cycles, life cycles and weather patterns.

· Go online to The Small Steps website at and start your ‘small steps’ journey to wellbeing by checking out their tools and resources.

· Seek professional help by talking to a coach or therapist who will help you clarify goals and next steps, and offer a support system that will help you flourish.

The heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage. – Harriet Beecher Stowe

One small step at a time

There is no way to sugar coat the state of limbo we have been experiencing since 2020, namely: a global pandemic; the social isolation of strict lockdowns; the threat of a world war; and the unfolding economic aftermath of it all. We are not yet on the other side of this strange, transitional period, but there is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in this collective experience.

On the one hand, we can acknowledge these anguish-inducing times and that doing anything at the moment is challenging; while on the other hand, we can also acknowledge that doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

Take one small step. Do something small. Remove the anguish from languishing. Find your ‘sit spot’. Remind yourself that joy and courage are waiting around the next corner and all that is required from you is to move forward in that direction, one small step at a time.

Teacher Leadership Mentoring and Life Coaching. Personal and Professional Development.

About me : Gaynor is a teacher educator and mentor facilitating personal & professional leadership wellbeing outcomes for teachers.

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