How We Abandon Ourselves

“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
Viktor Frankl

I know a magic trick for making boredom disappear.

It’s simple:

When I get bored, I take my phone out of my pocket.

I open up Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube, and, within seconds, my brain slips into a bubble bath of dopaminergic bliss.

And voila: My boredom is flattened by a deliciously mindless lineup of funny dog videos, celebrity impressions, and the latest TikTok trends.

Do you know this trick?

Like many of my fellow millennials, I learned how to make boredom disappear in my early teens.

Growing up with a wellspring of endless on-demand stimulation in my pocket, I rarely had to endure a moment of unwanted boredom. In fact, thanks to this magical device, it was possible to imagine going my entire life without ever having to sit with boredom.

So why is it that when I get my weekly “Screen Time” summary informing me that I spent 6 hours a day last week on my phone, I feel ashamed?

Why should I feel bad for performing this magic trick to relieve my boredom? Being bored sucks, and if I have the option to not feel it, why wouldn’t I take it?

As an experiment, I decided that the next time I felt bored, I would resist the temptation to reach for my phone, and investigate whatever came up.

In about 90 seconds, I was confronted with a deeply unsettling realization:

I am not bored. I am afraid of myself.

And immediately, another realization:

Boredom is not something we feel deeply. Boredom is the threat of feeling deeply.

And because my phone has been an always-available “discomfort kill switch”, I’ve largely managed to keep the threat a threat, depriving the spark of boredom the idle time it needs to erupt into a full-on emotional forest fire.

But like most threats, boredom can serve a very important function. And by resorting to our devices the moment it creeps into our awareness, we may be denying our deeper emotions the opportunity to communicate potentially vital information about ourselves and our condition.

By outsourcing our boredom to our devices, we are, in a subtle but fundamental way, abandoning ourselves.

““Even though boredom is very common, there is a lack of knowledge about it.” Says Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychologist at the University of Southhampton. “There hasn’t been much research about how it affects people on an everyday basis.”

Boredom is like a hot potato: The moment we feel it burning in our hands, we want to get rid of it.

The problem is, unlike a hot potato, our boredom is sometimes (but not always) a symptom of a deeper emotional truth.

For example, in my personal experience, I’ve found that what I have habitually called “boredom” is, more accurately, the threat of feeling lonely, powerless, or angry.

And while it is difficult to ride the tumultuous wave of loneliness or despair or anger, the fact is these emotions are already alive inside of us, and we are riding them, every day, however indirectly and unconsciously.

But by developing a more compassionate and welcoming relationship with these negative feelings, we might begin to build confidence in our ability to be with ourselves, and be less quick to abandon ourselves at that first threat.

I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that we put ourselves through unnecessary pain. Life is overwhelming, and it’s essential that we learn how to soothe ourselves. For many people, scrolling social media is how they unwind.

I simply want to offer a reframe in how we might relate to the feeling of boredom — one that has helped me build greater self-knowledge and confidence.

“For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”
— Rainer Maria

The next time you feel bored, try sitting with it for a minute. Get to know the feeling, and what might be lurking beneath it. See what it feels like. Some stuff might come up that might be uncomfortable.

But if you ride that initial wave of discomfort, you might start to have some new thoughts. Thoughts about your day. Thoughts about what you are doing tomorrow. Thoughts about if you are spending your time doing things that you care about.

You might start coming up with ideas of what you might need to feel better in a more satisfying way: Maybe I need rest. Maybe I am feeling lonely and need to call a friend. Maybe I need to paint. Or maybe I need to consider making a bigger change in my life, like taking a trip, or starting to look for a new job.

And truly, maybe all you really want is to be soothed by social media, and it can be empowering to realize just that.

Your mind, denied its fix, is beginning to entertain itself. It’s beginning to become curious about itself. Interested in itself. It begins to look inside for a cure for boredom.

In Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rilke makes a radical, inconvenient demand of us: “You must change your life.”

What is your boredom threatening to reveal to you about yourself? And how is it telling you to change your life?



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