What To Do When We’re Checked Out Or Withdrawn

How to re-engage

By “engagement,” I mean investment; giving something outside ourselves our attention, devoting energy to it. We all get into spaces where we sort of shut down, tune out, withdraw, or check out, getting lost inside our heads — and some of us are much more apt to do this than others.

It feels good, especially at the time. But it’s not actually the key to happiness unless it’s balanced with external engagement, and I think most people who do it would agree.

Engagement, however, isn’t only about “extroversion,” though can start there.

Here are a few ways to get engaged.

1. How to engage with PEOPLE

Even introverts stand to benefit here — not only the conventional approaches (conversation, spend time with friends, etc.) but the more abstract ones.

Signs of UNHEALTHY DISENGAGEMENT from people:

Priding yourself on being “a lone wolf” or “disliking people.” Being critical, suspicious, gossipy, judgmental, anxious, angry, dismissive, defensive, etc. Lashing out, obsessing over others’ mistakes/incompetence/flaws, etc. Thinking people are against you (or having it out for them.) Withdrawing from others because they don’t “understand” you, or “validate you,” or “aren’t logical,” aren’t helping with your goals, or put your certainty at risk.

How to engage with people healthily:

Listen. Absorb. Not simply listening to speak, but listening to understand. Ask questions. In ways that elicit trust, rapport and camaraderie. Be present. Don’t drift off. And, still importantly: Speak. Share your own thoughts and work.

Share something new. Create something for them (maybe even to solve a problem.) Test things, play with things. Get feedback from them and make it better. Express sincere care — and love. Actively generate desired reactions, guide, lead, persuade, etc.

Signs of UNHEALTHY OVER-engagement:

Priding yourself, basing your identity on, or your self-worth by: “other people” (including relationships and/or their opinions.) Seeking validation, accolade, appreciation, affirmation, or “love” as security or a status symbol, etc. Going to any lengths to please others, regardless of whether it’s reasonable, and stress / burnout. Being unaware of your own feelings (and/or the fact that we all have them), or feeling critical, defensive, or angry.

If these happen, work on self-love.

Signs of healthy engagement

Healthy relationships (romantic, family, friends, work.) Positive views of “people.”

2. How to engage with OBJECTIVE MEASURES

Doing things that can be measured in numbers or clear, binary results — i.e., pass/fail, win/lose, etc. — in the real world (not in our head.)

Signs of UNHEALTHY DISENGAGEMENT with objective measures:

Basing our identity / sense of self on immeasurables (i.e., emotions and creativity), esp. if external, objective measures are seen directly conflicting with them. Never achieving something measurable because you’re “unmotivated,” “uninspired,” “don’t know if it’s what you really want,” or “just don’t wanna.” Pulling away from goals because they aren’t “true to you.” Being individualistic to the point of making external measures the enemy; priding yourself on being a “starving artist.” Believing that our personal experience or identity alone will bring wholeness.

How to engage with “objective measures” healthily:

Set measurable, external goals that are within your control and directly complement your values, identity or experience. Brainstorm ideas, take new approaches, take action. Line up a bunch of them in a row and build / create / achieve something increasingly bigger

Signs of UNHEALTHY OVER-engagement with objective measures:

Basing your identity or sense of self-worth on conventional measures of success; being preoccupied with objective external validation. Sacrificing creativity, feelings, and personal values, believing that pragmatism is more important. Pursuing external goals regardless of whether they’re logical, authentic, or honor relationships that matter to you. Believing that external success will bring you “wholeness.”

If this happens: checking in with your true feelings and making sure that whatever measurable goals you are pursuing is what you want.

Signs of healthy engagement

Seeing measurable achievement of the goals you want and set for yourself.

3. How to engage with NEW IDEAS

Ideas are first “thought exercises” and then secondarily actual, tangible attempts, ideally with some sticking, at least temporarily.

Signs of UNHEALTHY DISENGAGEMENT with new ideas:

Shutting down or disregarding all new ideas or possibilities in preference of what’s conventional, tried and true, certain, and proven. Imagining worst case scenarios and negative possibilities. Dismissing new ideas as “unrealistic” or“not worth it.” Believing that acting dutifully, according to past precedent, will bring you “wholeness.” Fear of uncertainty. Fear of change. Boredom. Anxiety. Basing your identity — priding yourself — on being practical and consistent, rejecting change or unknowns as “the enemy.”

How to engage with “ideas” healthily:

Brainstorm. Play. Conduct thought exercise or experiments. Engage with something open-ended, where “anything can happen.” Find comfort there. Build on one, with success measured both internally (does it express your feelings? and/or is it logical?) and externally (does it serve others in some way? and/or does it meet objective, measurable goals?)

Signs of UNHEALTHY OVER-engagement with “new ideas:”

Believing that “something new” will bring you “wholeness;” always chasing novelty and opportunities; dropping each one to pursue the next; sparkly things for the sake of sparkle. Pulling up roots just as one endeavor starts to take hold and compulsively moving on to the next one. Lack of satisfaction. Anxiety. Basing your identity — or priding yourself — on being innovative and pioneering; rejecting what’s known and established as “the enemy.”

If these happen: regain a sense of balance and structure with best practices, using what’s worked before, and develop the discipline to stick with something.

Signs of healthy engagement

Openness to new ideas. Comfort with change.

4. How to engage with: THIS MOMENT

And, quite simply, just get the heck out of our heads.

This is about the here and now and what’s in front of us and nothing more — it is not in our heads, or in the past, or in the future. It is mindfulness and being here.

Signs of UNHEALTHY DISENGAGEMENT with the present:

Dismissing anything aesthetic or tangible as “stupid,” “shallow,” or “meaningless.” Hiding away in “meaning,” “logic” or sensitivity / feelings. Believing that holding firm to what’s in your head will bring you “wholeness.” Cynicism or depression. Basing your identity — priding yourself — on “meaning” and “insight;” rejecting aesthetics and pleasure as “the enemy.”

How to engage with the present:

Meditate. If you can’t, learn how. Mindfulness. Action over “thinking” (planning, etc.) And definitely stop overthinking. Let things go. Let them be. Jump in, regardless of what’s going on or if you even really care. “Be present” with things that are constructive — see above, people or things. Touch, create, build, generate, etc.

Signs of UNHEALTHY OVER-engagement with the present:

Preoccupation with money, beauty, or other indulgences. This quickly becomes hedonism, plain and simple. Physical recklessness and/or substance abuse of any kind, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, etc. Not enjoying things so much as using them to forcefully obliterate and “kill off” whatever’s in your head; “losing ourselves” in the other direction. Little planning for the future. Basing your identity — priding yourself — on being action-oriented or fun, rejecting seriousness or “overthinking” as “the enemy.”

If this happens: check back in and get grounded with yourself.

Signs of healthy engagement

Being present. Living each moment. A sense of energy and lightness.

All that matters, really, is *engagement*

Because though we may find comfort in our heads, or withdrawn into safe spaces (real or figurative), and even though that may “feel good” at the time, it’s not how longterm happiness and meaning happens unless it’s balanced with external engagement. Engagement brings awareness, aliveness, a sense of color and vitality — that gives us a great deal of satisfaction in the long run.