How to Get Out of a Funk
Renowned psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner weighs in on chronic melancholy
You have a decent job, a long-term partner, and a few good friends. And yet, you feel bored, sad, and like you’re stuck in a hamster wheel. It’s not quite depression, but more of a persistent feeling of melancholy. How can you make it go away? I hear this all the time.
The experience of being in a “funk” can feel like you’re paralyzed in gloominess. I’ve often seen clients who report being bored or distant or in a funk for no apparent reason and as we talk, a specific issue surfaces. One woman, for example — let’s call her Claire — recently came to me saying similar things. Through our conversation, I learned that Claire had just reached the age when her own father had taken his life, and this anniversary date stirred up a wealth of thoughts and feelings that ran like a river of pain under the felt experience of “boredom and bleh” that she first presented with. If you are feeling totally bored and sad, there is probably something under that feeling that you may want to focus on, even if it’s as ordinary as re-thinking your work goals or taking a closer look at your relationship with your partner.
That said, this is often what adulthood is (if you’re lucky enough not to worry about your next meal, having clean water, or the next aerial bombardment): a sense of stability purchased for the price of a sense of “aliveness.” And yes, it will change. It will change because, well, things happen: a diagnosis, an accident, a loss, or, say, a great opportunity — something will come your way and scramble your sense of the status quo. But we shouldn’t wait until the universe pierces our routine, especially since it may do so in unfortunate ways. And we shouldn’t passively float along until we do something destructive, like fling ourselves into the arms of someone new, or decide to have a baby as a solution to melancholy (common ways of searching out “aliveness”).
This is often what adulthood is… a sense of stability purchased for the price of a sense of “aliveness.”
Here is the good news: Small changes make a big difference. I have a client who recently started taking a dance class, something she had thought about doing for years. It’s exercise, and it slightly changed her relationship with her body. It also opened up other activities — she and her wife have started going to see dance performances together, for instance. It hasn’t changed her life from one of routine to one of bliss, but it is a new thing in her day that has made her world bigger. As another example, I have a friend who is a computer scientist who recently started tutoring kids at a local middle school, just once a week. It’s a good thing to do for the kids’ sake, but it’s also been great for him: It’s a new experience, with new kinds of conversation, and it’s a new topic to introduce when he’s talking to his friends. He feels useful in a way that he doesn’t feel at his job, and being useful is a great antidote to boredom and despair. The point of both of these anecdotes is that there are small things you can introduce into your routine that shake things up without blowing them up like an affair or an addiction would.
But here’s the thing. You can’t wait until you feel some spontaneous desire for dance or tutoring or sailing or cooking classes or sword swallowing. I’m not saying all these things are the same, but I am saying that what you do is less important than that you do something. Force yourself to try something unfamiliar, give it three months, and see what gets opened up by the new activity. And if no matter what you do you still feel totally bored and sad, then you are depressed, or at least there is something deeper going on. There is no shame in that, obviously, but if that’s the case you’ll need to move from talking about things being “generally fine” to figuring out why they are not.