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What Our Boredom is Really Telling Us — from an ADHD brain

Do you ever catch yourself chasing ‘newness’? Starting new hobbies, dreaming about huge life changes, a crazy hair colour, a new university major, a professional skill waaay out of left field that has you down a Youtube/TikTok loophole for a week at a time?

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This is not only my story, but a reality for so many of my clients and community. Whenever we. feel inadequate or ‘stuck’ in a spiral of all the things we could do, and none of the things we want to do — we find ourselves jumping to find something else to entertain us. At first, it doesn’t seem like that’s what we’re doing. At first, it feels like we’re branching out and following the dopamine (a common suggestion for people with ADHD), but with closer inspection, we are making our best effort to see ourselves progress /immediately/. We’re chasing immediate gratification that in the end and the long-run has us all feeling inadequate.

Here are some telltale signs that your relationship with boredom is negative:

  1. Your new hobbies don’t last long

  2. You find yourself trying to make social value out of your new hobby

  3. You can feel the pressure of the things you actually need to do behind whatever it is you’re doing now.

  4. When you get ‘bored’ with what you’re doing you feel anxiety set in

According to psychologists James Danckert and John D Eastwood, the authors of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, we shouldn’t fear boredom or even try to avoid it. The feelings of boredom have evolved to tell us we’re lacking something emotionally and perhaps fundamentally. Danckert is cited as also having suffered from boredom his whole life, and so he then decided to study it professionally 15 years ago. Boredom, as defined by the two authors is the uncomfortable feeling of “wanting to do something, but not wanting to do anything”. It is not an emotion, as such, but an ongoing cognitive process where we wish to engage our minds, but nothing seems to satisfy. It is neither daydreaming, which we might find highly absorbing, nor, necessarily, vegging out on the sofa. In other words, boredom is not just a feeling of ‘I have nothing to do’, but a tussle between wanting to do things, and not wanting to do things. It’s that feeling of being stuck and paralysed by what we could do, while not wanting to do anything.

When we’re bored, we relinquish our own agency.

Human agency is the ability to dictate and control our own lives. It is our power, our drive, our mobility — it’s what makes us the masters of our futures. Boredom appears when we feel unable to accomplish what we really want in our lives. It’s a shallow expression of much deeper darkness we’re battling with.

There are days when I feel like I don’t want to ‘write an essay’ or ‘read this journal’ that sits on my to-do list. Yet, it’s not really the essay or the journal. Underneath it all, I feel a profound distrust in my ability to accomplish greater things, and so the smaller tasks that add up to greatness bore me.

“All too often when we’re bored, we see ourselves as passive, empty vessels to fill — we look for stimuli that will get rid of the bad feeling in the short term,” says Eastwood. “But it doesn’t foster and grow our capacity for agency — and that’s exactly what we need to be free from boredom and its negative consequences.”

People who are bored are also more highly susceptible to things like anger, aggression and hostility. The fact that our response to boredom is often destructive speaks to just how serious a signal boredom is. A 2014 study found that many people chose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves rather than being left alone with their thoughts. One man shocked himself 190 times in 15 minutes (Hunt 2020). This leaves the floodgates open for anxiety, depression, self-harm, internet trolling, mob mentality — the list goes on.

Neurodivergence and Boredom

As Nds and RGKs, we’ve grown up with a constant reminder that the way we do things is different. Depending on which end of the spectrum you’re on, you may have been addicted to the praise of authority for things you could do in your sleep (due to hyper-focus and heightened processing) or perhaps picked on and ridiculed for your unique ways of handling things. Whatever angle you have been ‘understood’ by neurotypical people, the likelihood is, if you feel like you’re relating to the contents of this blog post, you have some underlying insecurity surrounding your way of doing things and your competency to achieve what you want. It’s easy to find some of that instantaneously satisfying gratification when we start new things. We’re good at things! We’re good at hacking and diving and focusing on learning at rates that other people can’t accomplish. We get a taste of that ‘genius’ vibe when we start something new. We get the feeling that we’re in control — without having to face our executive functions and the expectations of those who expect linear progress. It’s even easier for us to fall into the bad habit of running from our boredom, and by extension, our discomforts and distrust in our ability to see things through.

But… aren’t we just chasing our passions and interests?

Neurodivergent people (Nds) and recovering gifted kids (RKGs) often find themselves in this bucket, where they are jumping rapidly from thing to thing. It would be in bad taste to condemn all of this behaviour as ‘boredom’ and force yourself to ‘focus on one thing’ — which is often, against the very makings of your brain. The difference between chasing dopamine or our interests and being bored from a state of self-doubt is how we feel when while we are looking for our next best thing. You can refer to the beginning of this article for some food for thought questions to help you distinguish. Links to extra reading: Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom Benefits of Boredom by TIME Adolescents’ Boredom Trajectories and Their Health-Related Quality of Life. Let Your Brain Rest

Rae is a mindset coach and language professional helping neurodivergent people and recovering gifted kids heal from expectations and past traumas. Follow to read more articles about mental health, productivity and life as an ND.

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