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Sailors used to live in fear of the doldrums — when the sea turns placid, and the wind disappears, and your ship is left to float and drift as your fresh water and food stores dwindle ever lower.
You’d think a terrible storm would be worse, and maybe it is (I’m no sailor, so I can’t speak with authority). But at least in a storm you have no choice but to act; you respond to what’s in front of you and hope you make it through, but there’s not much time for reflection or despair.
I have precisely zero experience with either of those situations in a maritime setting, but a lot of experience in the proverbial sense.
And I can confirm that, at least when it comes to personal development, it’s way easier to coach someone when they’re miserable and at rock bottom (in the “eye of the storm,” so to speak) than when they’re in the doldrums.
Misery is motivating. Being down and out gives you a “what do I have to lose?” attitude. It lights a fire under your butt to make changes, take risks, and let go of crap that’s been holding you back.
The doldrums are the very opposite of motivating. They’re a place of complete inertia and stagnation. We may want to make change, theoretically, but realistically we feel completely uninterested in doing anything.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN THE DOLDRUMS WHEN…
My client Brianna has been “wasting away” (according to her) in the doldrums for a large part of the last year.
She’s been in the same job for a few years. It’s not her ideal job, but it’s not terrible, either. She’s pretty neutral about it.
She’s also been considering moving for a while, but again, it’s not like she hates her apartment or neighborhood. It’s possible she’d like a different space better, but the hassle of moving keeps her from investing any further energy into the idea.
She’d probably be happier if she got back into yoga or Pilates, but she’d have to find a new studio and it’s not like she’s dying to do either of those activities again, so for now her more casual at-home workouts are good enough.
I can’t tell you how many angles we’ve approached these issues from. We’ve tried just about everything to get her more engaged and motivated … and nothing sticks. Total flatline situation.
She’d be the first to tell you (and since she OK-ed me sharing this, she sort of is telling you) that she feels really annoying for not being interested in implementing any of the things we’ve coached around (for the record, I’m certainly not annoyed!).
She told me, “It’s not that I don’t WANT to figure out how to motivate myself. It’s just whenever we come up with new ideas, I feel zero energy around them. I just can’t make myself care.”
Eventually, instead of spending another hour trying to find a magic workaround, I tried a different tactic. I had to get a bit blunt by saying: “Here’s the deal. I could come at you from every angle I can think of, but we both know that everything I say is going to be met with a big, fat ‘meh.’ So instead of that, why don’t we just EMBRACE the doldrums?”
EMBRACE THE DOLDRUMS, YOU SAY?
In my experience with Brianna and hundreds of other people (not to mention my personal experience of the doldrums) … I can tell you that it is nigh impossible to force someone out of the doldrums. It’s equivalent to manufacturing wind when you’re drifting at sea on a wooden ship.
Humans, for better or worse, are excellent at maintaining the status quo. We’re wired to preserve our energy and not waste it unless prompted.
So if things are in neutral — they’re OK, but not great — it’s hard to want to rock the boat because things could very well get worse.
Which is why I’m personally a fan of letting the doldrums run their course, instead of trying to force yourself out of them.
Because what I also know, after many years of experience, is that life will almost always rock the boat for you. Like when…
- You’ve been meaning to clean up your diet for a while … but you aren’t exactly suffering, so the deprivation doesn’t feel worth it. And then all of a sudden you get hit with a less-than-desirable health crisis, and boom, you’re suddenly motivated to throw out all the junk food.
- You’ve sort of been interested in yoga, but never got around to trying it out, and then your hips start to feel super uncomfortably tight, and you find yourself signing up for a class.
- You’ve been intending to search for new jobs, but your current job isn’t that bad … and then you get a new boss who’s super toxic, and suddenly you can’t get out of there fast enough.
- You’ve wanted to get your financial life in order, maybe even start investing, but it just felt like one more thing to figure out. And then you get slapped with an unexpected expense that throws your finances out of whack, and you’re finally ready to get serious.
BUT WHAT IF I GET STUCK FOREVER?
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think waiting for life to slingshot you (as in, pull you back in order to rocket you forward) is necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be lazy to embrace the phases of idleness and mediocrity that life occasionally throws our way.
In fact, I think it’s often necessary and part of a larger picture that we can’t see. Sometimes the doldrums are an opportunity for us to just be for a while; go on autopilot and save up our energy before life throws us the next big challenge or opportunity.
(I’ll offer one caveat, however: Sometimes the lack of interest in anything is a sign of depression, and waiting around for that to change may not be the wisest course of action. If this doesn’t feel like a phase, but rather something you’ve struggled with for a really long time, then that may be indicative of a more serious problem. And some therapy could be a good idea!)
In Brianna’s case, this was definitely a phase. She hadn’t felt this overwhelmingly neutral in the years leading up to 2018, and it felt extra uncomfortable because she wasn’t used to having so little interest in anything.
For Brianna, and for most of us in a doldrums phase, the fear naturally becomes: What if I embrace this and get stuck here forever?
I told Brianna that was very unlikely to happen for two major reasons: One, because life will always find a way to rock your boat, positively or negatively. (It’s not always about waiting for disaster to strike. Good things can just as easily change the game.) The only constant in life is change, right?
And two, because eventually you’ll get sick of yourself. You’ll simmer and simmer and simmer, and then, all at once, reach a boiling point. You’ll get to the point where the frustration of staying the same outweighs the pain of changing. And all of a sudden, you’ll find yourself “all in” for the things you once had zero energy for.
WHAT DO WE DO IN THE MEAN TIME?
So, if instead of trying to go against the force of the doldrums, you decided to trust that the doldrums will end — the wind will return, the current will pick up, and you’ll be on your way again — then what do you do in the mean time?
In Brianna’s case, I had to ask her what she did have the energy for. And it was really small things — delving into new fiction books, trying some new recipes, going on walks in neighborhoods she didn’t normally venture into. All she felt capable of doing were seemingly insignificant things that soothed her soul by degrees.
And you know what? That’s more than fine! Rather than fight against the doldrums, you’re allowed to surrender to it and do what feels good to pass the time.
What you probably won’t realize until you have sufficient hindsight is that, in those moments when you thought you were whiling your time away with no larger purpose, you were actually quietly preparing for the next “big thing.”
So, are you in the doldrums? Or have you been in the past? How did you get through it, and how do you feel about embracing it? Come share with me, in the comments.
Rachel (& Kristen)