Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Ennui

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 22, 2013

After writing about Marty, https://shirahvollmermd.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/spice-it-up/, I began to think about ennui, the feeling of having a perfectly fine life, and yet, lacking excitement. Is ennui or  boredom a euphemism for depression? I wonder. Is boredom a shameful feeling for the affluent, who often say “I have nothing to complain about,” suggesting that they have a lot to complain about, but they are ashamed. The protest suggests the difficulty with the topic of complaining, rather than the lack of difficulties in life. In the cartoon above, the little boy wants to blame, or project his ennui as someone else’s fault, which is funny, but often true, both in childhood and in adulthood.

“I think you are bored,” I tell Marty, as he agonizes over his next camera purchase. My hunch is that the agony over the camera serves to create an arc of excitement, where there is build-up, followed by the purchase, thereby leading to a sense of relief that the task is complete. This arc production makes me think that he is searching for other, perhaps more stimulating arcs, where he needs to anticipate and get excited, followed by an action, followed by relief. This is the arc which often draws folks to marathons and triathlons. The focal point of the arc serves to combat ennui. Marty does not have a subjective experience of ennui, and yet his language and his sense of frustration makes me think about ennui. Boredom, like all difficult feelings, are an opportunity for growth and exploration. If Marty could connect with feelings of ennui, then he would have a more direct solution to his feelings. He would be charged to find new, and as per Jon, deeper ways of connecting with his life. However, if Marty denies feeling of boredom, because that feels shameful or not how he wants to see himself, then he is left with feelings which remain vague and confusing for him. The boring patient, which Marty is not, is often bored himself, and so my boredom is a hint to this feeling. In Marty’s case, his words do not seem to match his feelings, and so he invites an exploration as to what those feelings are. Ennui is just a guess, but one worth playing with.

8 Responses to “Ennui”

  1. Michael said

    I’m curious how you see this conversation going, playing with the idea of ennui. This is speaking towards therapeutic technique. How aggressively do you push him to discuss this. What questions do you ask? We saw his initial resistance in the previous post. In your mind, what would it look it for him to move beyond the resistance. I’m curious about what the ‘process notes’ of this imaginary next session would be. What do you say, what does he say, what are the themes.

    • Hello Michael and Welcome to our Comments Discussion!

      Yes, indeed, therapeutic technique is the broad stroke of this discussion. First, you ask about “aggressively” and I think that is an interesting word. It suggests the therapeutic struggle which I like to post about. The dialectic between active versus passive, between facilitating and waiting. This is a constant question in therapeutic technique. Push too hard and you get increased resistance, whereas laying back and waiting can also create an environment which feels cold, unloving, and hence increase resistance in that way. The sweet spot is the goal: somewhere between aggression and watchful waiting. The journey beyond resistance looks like a deeper and more meaningful discussion about his internal fantasies, including wishes and fears. Process notes are an interesting tool. They are clearly a revision of the session, as they rely on the memory of the therapist, without verification by the patient. Plus, the process notes you describe are “I said, he said” but process notes could also be “He said, I thought, he said again, I thought some more, then he continued to talk,” which shares your “countertransference” or your mentation during his disclosures. Having said that, the themes are one of “I think you want more to your life,” I might say, to which he would respond, “no, I am quite satisfied,” to which I would respond, “that is interesting because you are here to work on the parts of your life that are not satisfying, yet when we try to explore those areas, you want me to know how much you enjoy your life.” This is an example of working with the resistance and holding up a mirror that demonstrations contradiction, which slowly, slowly can create an opening into a deeper discussion about his fantasy life. This discussion of his fantasy life will be our royal road towards hypothesizing about his unconscious mental processes which are ruling his behavior and thereby getting him into a place that I call “frustration-land”.

  2. Jon said

    I would like to explore the question “Is ennui or boredom a euphemism for depression?”

    At one level I would suggest that boredom represents a lack of imagination. The bored person does not seem to have the intellectual wherewithal or fortitude to change the inner state of mind to not be bored. However, this suggestion presupposes that there are physical and psychological resources available. Exploring a limiting case, the person trapped in adamantine but stultifying tasks might become bored until a release form those tasks is possible.

    Now, consider our discussion of Karl Abraham’s concept that depression results form a frustration of gratification. Someone bored will have their gratifications frustrated. Thus, boredom can lead to depression; however, in this understanding, depression is a result of boredom, not synonymous with it.

    • Interesting. I think boredom is a lack of imagination, but this lack could be from lack of intellectual fire-power, or it could represent inhibitions of that fire-power, for fear of failure, for example. And as you so rightly say, boredom can cause depression and depression can cause boredom. Whether it is the journey of depression to experience boredom along the way, or whether certain folks are more comfortable saying they are bored, in exchange for depression, is also hard to say. Expressing boredom, like all of psychotherapy, is a jumping-off point to further exploration. In Marty’s case, it is I, who suggested the word bored, and so I am mindful of where he takes that hypothesis. Thanks.

  3. Ashana M said

    Boredom is an emotion. Depression is not. So, no, I don’t think they are synonymous. Depressed people feel irritable or sad or despairing or angry or frustrated or even bored–in other words, several different emotions and not everyone who is depressed feels the same way internally. Being depressed is like having a cold–it’s a more general state. Boredom is a cough–which can occur with a cold or without a cold. And not all colds result in coughs.

    But many people suffer from boredom because, essentially, generations of people ahead of us have transmitted “wisdom” about how to lead fulfilling lives that don’t actually lead to fulfillment. Having certain things, for example (the camera), is supposed to make us happy. It doesn’t. However, working for the camera, deciding about what camera to buy, researching the camera, learning how to use the camera–those things do keep us interested. It’s the process rather than the result that is so satisfying. But that means you have to keep buying cameras. Unless you can find other things to learn about and work towards (and that actually is the key to a satisfying life).

    • Thanks, Ashana. I am not sure that boredom is an emotion, but I will think about that. I think it is a word that for different people means different things, as is for the word depression. One of the issues of psychiatry is our imprecise terminology. Boredom is not a psychiatric word, but it is a word which stimulates action and more questions.

  4. Shelly said

    No, I don’t think Marty suffers from depression. I think “ennui” is a good word for it. What you described perfectly in your previous post was exactly it…a lack of excitement, a predictability and pattern to his life. Ennui. What I learned from this post is that one needs to watch one’s one reactions to someone and then, in effect, imagine that that is how someone else is feeling. That is interesting. I hope that you will write more about that sometime.

    • Hi Shelly,
      Yes, I am writing about how understanding comes from imagining the other person’s experience, and part of this imagination is to think about what feelings boil up in the listener, and this is a clue as to what the feelings are in the speaker. I teach a lot about this concept, so I am happy to expand. Thanks for the prod.

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