Early Sign of Burn Out or the Step to Flourishing?

As a coach I often see and support people who are finding the everyday world difficult but don’t meet the criteria for a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. These are people who appear to outwardly be in control, competent and able to manage their responsibilities, but internally: feel cynical about work, have trouble getting started on things, are irritable and impatient, lack energy and motivation, use food and alcohol to feel better. If you’re feeling like this you may be languishing.

What is Languishing?

Said simply, your joy, satisfaction and flow in life isn’t present most days. I’ve experienced it in the past year, feelings of frustration, disinterest, easily triggered emotionally. A product of feeling things were beyond my control and the uncertainty mostly brought on by COVID.

Psychologist Corey Keyes coined the term 20 years ago and never has it been more applicable.
He describes languishing as…“Emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair… individuals who describe themselves and life as hollow, empty, a shell, and a void.”

The term languishing can give some people comfort in believing there is a state that describes how they are feeling, that’s not a mental health illness. They may be right… perhaps maybe only in the short term.

Keyes found the risk of a major depressive episode was:

  • two times more likely among languishing than moderately mentally healthy adults
  • almost six times greater among languishing than flourishing adults

So, languishing could help us better understand and support people as a preventative phase.

It is the point at which most success could be achieved if support and help was sought, provided and accepted. It is the place before the spiral downwards occurs into serious anxiety and depression which may be harder to treat or recover from.

Languishing was also found to co-exist within 4.7% of research participants diagnosed with major depressive disorders.

Are You Languishing?

Some people misinterpret languishing to be a ‘safe’ state rather than understanding languishing is a risk indicator for mental illness.

It warns that emotional states are being stretched and physical reserves are being used. Signs of languishing could be seen as changes in usual behaviour in the individual i.e. increased absenteeism from work, increased physical aches, fatigue, procrastination, decreased productivity, poor sleep. Be assured if you are feeling like this you are not alone.

Signs of risk can be missed and as a result, these individuals fall through the cracks of being noticed. They are most likely to be high performing achievers, holding responsible positions, who have become accustomed to managing their outward appearance. Keeping it ‘together enough’ when people are noticing.

Even in languishing, behaviours become more difficult to mask as the body and mind begins to fatigue and needs support but usually not enough initially to raise concerns for clear or obvious intervention. These are the signs daily function is impaired and burn out is imminent or in play.

What Can We Do

  1. At this point, if there is acknowledgement and support sought, recovery and healing can be highly successful. Keyes suggests that helping people move from languishing to ‘flourishing’ can help.

‘Flourishing’ is at the other end of the mental health continuum from languishing.

“… a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time.” – Keyes

Six core components of psychological well being that influence where someone falls on this continuum.

  1. Purpose in Life – a direction or meaning in life
  2. Self-Acceptance – like most things about ourselves
  3. Positive Relationships – form supportive, warm and trusting relationships
  4. Personal Growth – see ourselves becoming better people
  5. Environmental Mastery – believe we shape our world to meet our needs
  6. Autonomy – reasonably in control of our decisions

How might you help yourself and others move from languishing towards flourishing in these areas?

Wider social factors, not just our psychological functioning, also affects our ability to flourish, such as our workplace culture, family context and current mental health. The pandemic continues to play it’s role in shaping us in 2021, where the promise of normal is within reach but could also be snapped away at any time.

Feeling we have purpose, we belong, and we are loved are critical elements that impact the severity of our feelings and state of our mental health. It’s important to understand this looks different for each individual, there is no one measure or utopia. It varies according to our individual values, belief systems and lived experiences.

Similarly, to be considered ‘flourishing’ we do not need to be rating highly on all six areas of life at the same time. The balance of majority is the focus. If most of our needs are met across most of the life areas, we can be in ‘flourish’.

In life since COVID more organisations than ever before are discussing mental illness in the workplace. Workplace mental wellbeing measures at work has become a requirement. Although our collective awareness has been raised, a pattern that I see repeated too often is, issues around employees’ mental health are not discussed until things have deteriorated significantly.

Understanding and identifying signs of languishing helps to have conversations earlier so support and assistance can be offered and provided sooner. This in turns allows the move to flourishing so you can regain your control, purpose and be happier, getting back to high performance.

Book a consult for a free well being check of your workplace or yourself, this 20 mins could change your life.