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Abstract

This article will compare and contrast the author’s theory of Habitual Boredom with a phenomenological account of Unipolar Depression. The habitually bored show more external ambivalence, passive avoidance, and shame, as well as a tendency toward passive hope and identity confusion. The depressed show more internal ambivalence, willful (but futile) determination, and guilt as well as tendency toward hopelessness and identity objectification. The article also discusses some of the experiential similarities and developmental differences between the two phenomenon as well as some aspects of the defensive structure that initially prevents the bored from becoming depressed.
Journal of Humanistic Psychology
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DOI: 10.1177/0022167816637948
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Article
Habitual Boredom
and Depression: Some
Qualitative Differences
Richard W. Bargdill1
Abstract
This article will compare and contrast the author’s theory of Habitual
Boredom with a phenomenological account of Unipolar Depression. The
habitually bored show more external ambivalence, passive avoidance, and
shame, as well as a tendency toward passive hope and identity confusion.
The depressed show more internal ambivalence, willful (but futile)
determination, and guilt as well as tendency toward hopelessness and
identity objectification. The article also discusses some of the experiential
similarities and developmental differences between the two phenomenon
as well as some aspects of the defensive structure that initially prevents the
bored from becoming depressed.
Keywords
boredom, depression, ambivalence, hope, passivity, phenomenology, identity
confusion, identity objectification, shame, hopelessness
The overlap in symptoms between habitual boredom1 and unipolar depres-
sion are so numerous that there has been a general cry for some theoretical
and empirical distinctions between the two syndromes. This is the ultimate
goal of this article. Many researchers have theoretically speculated on the
differences between the two phenomena. Turner (1984) has accumulated
1Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Richard W. Bargdill, Virginia Commonwealth University, 806 West Franklin Street, Richmond,
VA 23284, USA.
Email: rwbargdill@vcu.edu
637948JHPXXX10.1177/0022167816637948Journal of Humanistic PsychologyBargdill
research-article2016
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2 Journal of Humanistic Psychology
these speculative differences distinguishing depression and boredom based
on cognitive, affective, and behavioral symptoms.
The cognitive differences she found included that depressed individuals
experience negative self-evaluation (Kovacs & Beck, 1979; Leckart &
Weinberger, 1980); blame themselves and feel guilty (Kovacs & Beck, 1979;
Leckart & Weinberger, 1980); maintain a rich fantasy life (Greenson, 1953;
Miller, 1975); and selectively attend to dysphoric events (Kovacs & Beck,
1979). Bored individuals have a neutral or positive self-evaluation
(Hartocollis, 1972); blame the environment for their condition (Bernstein,
1975; Wangh, 1975); have an absence of fantasies (Greenson, 1953; Wangh,
1975); and level out the impact of all events (O’Connor, 1967).
As for affective differences, depressed people experience a primary affect
of sadness (Kovacs & Beck, 1979); experience the loss of a valued person or
object (Bernstein, 1975); and experience underlying anger (Arieti &
Bemporad, 1978; Greenson, 1967). Bored people experience a primary affect
of apathy or longing (Greenson, 1953, Maddi, 1970); experience emotional
unawareness (Geritsen, Toplak, Sciaraffa, & Eastwood, 2014) but no object
loss (Turner, 1984); and have too little investment to feel anger (O’Connor,
1967).
The behavioral differences suggest that depressed persons experience psy-
chomotor retardation (Lewinsohn, Biglan, & Zeiss, 1976), weight gain or
loss (Lewinsohn et al., 1976), and either increases or decreases in sleep
(Arieti & Bemporad, 1978). Bored persons experience restlessness and agita-
tion (Wangh, 1975; Weinberger & Muller, 1974); if any disturbance, weight
gain (Abramson & Stinson, 1977), and if any disturbance, sleep increase
(Turner, 1984).
Review of Phenomenological Accounts of Boredom
and Depression
Empirically based comparisons between habitual boredom and depression
have been called for but are rare. This section will contrast people’s phenom-
enological experience of habitual boredom as outlined by the author (Bargdill,
1999, 2000a) with a phenomenological structure of people’s experience of
unipolar depression (Carter, 1990). Following this brief overview, the two
experiences will be contrasted using the author’s conceptualization of bore-
dom (Bargdill, 2014) as the main point of departure.
Bargdill (1999, 2000a, 2000b) analyzed written accounts and follow-up
interviews with six participants (three males and three females with an age
range between 16 and 67 years) who described being bored with their lives.
He found that habitual boredom develops as people become emotionally
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ambivalent after they have compromised their original life projects, goals, or
dreams for less desirable goals. The prebored persons’ ambivalence appears
as they foster a split in their awareness about hostile feelings. The prebored
people become very aware of feelings of anger and direct blame toward oth-
ers who they feel have “forced” them to compromise their projects. The pre-
bored persons are less aware of anger, shame, and doubt that they feel about
themselves and their abilities. Boredom develops as these hidden self-directed
feelings, particularly shame, intensify and erode their confidence and their
former positive sense of identity.
As time progresses, people become bored with more aspects of their lives,
and they—eventually and unknowingly—adopt passive stances toward
aspects of their lives. Their passivity leads the bored people become increas-
ingly aware of their boredom and feelings of emptiness, but they feel that
action is futile—that every action would lead to boredom—so their boredom
becomes habitual. Bored people experience their lives as stuck in the present,
estranged from the past, and alienated from the future. Yet bored persons
remain passively hopefully; they magically believe that change will happen
to them, rather than resulting from their own actions.
Carter (1990) analyzed written accounts with follow-up interviews from
six diagnosed participants (six females2 with an age range between 22 and 44
years) who had described their experience of depression. He found that the
person who is vulnerable to depression is someone who has a parent who
withholds or is nonexpressive of love. The child’s fundamental project
becomes to validate one’s own worthiness of being loved. The child begins a
pattern of behaving in ways that will attempt to gain approval from that par-
ent. The implicit understanding is that the child will do what the other wants
and the other will overtly approve of the child. This will become an often
repeated, but unsuccessful, pattern in the relationships with all valued per-
sons as the child develops in to an adult.
The person who becomes depressed is reliant on others for one’s own self-
esteem, and eventually, the predepressed individual becomes involved in a
self-imposed last chance relationship with another person who will also
withhold approval. The depressed person will continually attempt to do what
she thinks the “love-withholding other” expects. The depressed person tries
harder to please the other, but this makes the other pull away more. When the
relationship fails, the depressed person takes complete responsibility for the
break. The depressed individual sees one’s self as a failure. The depressed
person has a sense of hopelessness because the individual believes that one
must do what the other expects but one feels this task is impossible. Over
time, the depressed person experiences emptiness, loneliness, and the loss of
motivation, purpose, and meaning (Carter, 1990).
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4 Journal of Humanistic Psychology
Comparing Habitual Boredom and Unipolar
Depression
The nature and formation of habits is topic is of interest for phenomenology.
According to Moran (2011), Husserl suggests there are two forms of habits:
The first is the result of an active ego making, a reflective decision that once
made is repeated over and over until the reasoning behind the decision is
largely forgotten. For example, on earning voting rights, one might initially
struggle in choosing a particular party to vote for. After making the choice,
the person gets in the habit of voting for that same party without really
remembering those reasons (Husserl, 1931/1977). The second form of habit
includes a passive adoption of prereflective actions that is not entirely known
by the ego and becomes an “embodied praxis” as it is repeated because the
intentions are latent (Husserl, 1938/1975). For example, one might be told by
a friend that he always says the same thing when given a choice. His initial
response is that friend is wrong, but after thinking about it, he realizes that he
did unknowingly have this habit. Habitual boredom appears to be the second
type of habit since it is quite difficult to image that a person would explicitly
choose to be bored, but rather, it appears that people slowly discover they are
bored and then realize that they have been so for quite a while.
Bargdill (2014) put forth a theory of habitual boredom that suggests that it
is a unique and discreet phenomenon based on five themes. Habitually bored
people exhibit an external ambivalence, a passive avoidance stance, a passive
sense of hope, a propensity toward shameful feelings, and these all lead to
identity confusion. Using this model, habitual boredom will be contrasted
with Carter’s phenomenological structure of unipolar depression.
Ambivalence: External Versus Internal
The origins of habitual boredom and depression are similar because they are
both responses to an unforeseen failure. In habitual boredom, the person
experiences the failure to achieve a goal that the individual has set for one’s
self. In depression, the person experiences the failure to receive the love that,
as a child, the individual expects to receive from a parent. In both cases, the
result of this failure is the formation of ambivalence. Ambivalence means
that the person attributes negative feelings about the failure toward others and
also toward one’s self. However, only one set of these feelings will be in
reflective awareness (conscious) while the other set will be prereflective
(unconscious).
According to Bargdill (2000b, 2014), ambivalent feelings develop in pre-
bored persons once they give up on personal goals that have run into significant
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obstacles. These persons, with help of advisors of some kind, accept and begin
to work on compromised or modified projects that they understand as being
less desirable. They soon found their hearts were not into these projects. Those
who became bored, for the most part, would be reflectively aware of anger and
also direct blame toward others who had advised them to modify their goals.
Some of the people who became bored would later come to understand this
“compromise” as being something “forced” on them by others. It is interesting
to note that although the bored person blames and is angry with others, these
others were mostly unaware of the hostile feelings because the bored have not
made these feelings explicit.
The people who became bored were well aware of these other-directed
feelings but were less aware of self-directed feelings.3 The prebored, prere-
flectively, felt anger and directed blame toward their selves since they had not
taken a stand and had given up on their original projects without putting forth
the appropriate effort to maintain them. The prebored people did not seem to
be fully aware of these self-directed emotions, and attempts to deny or ignore
self-directed feelings, ultimately, leads to an intensification of those self-
directed feelings over time. In addition, by attributing the problem to others,
habitually bored people do not feel they can change their situation, and thus,
do not take corrective actions. They began to adopt a passive approach to
their lives.
The ambivalence in depression seems to be of the opposite quality of
habitual boredom. Prebored persons attribute negative feelings toward the
other that seem like they ought to be neutral, while predepressed individuals
have positive feelings toward others that seem like they could easily be less
than neutral. In Carter’s (1990) study of depression, the fundamental project
for those who would become depressed was to “be confirmed absolutely and
unambiguously as worthy of love in the eyes of her parents” (p. 226). The
predepressed child will make an implicit decision that if her4 withholding
parents do not love her for who she is then she will make them love her for
what she does. Thus, the child seeks approval from others and “grants them
sole power and authority to confirm or disconfirm her worthiness of approval”
(p. 226).
The predepressed child does not seem to be aware of the angry feelings
that might rightfully be directed toward the love-withholding parent. Instead,
the child blames her self for the apparent inability to do what is necessary to
draw the approval out of the parent. The predepressed individual attempts to
control the other by compliance and perfectionism. When these attempts fail,
the predepressed person blames her self. Thus, the predepressed individual is
more aware of self-directed feelings rather than other-directed feelings. These
negative self-directed feelings have been often recognized as a signature of
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the depressed experience (Kovacs & Beck, 1979; Leckart & Weinberger,
1980).
Passivity Versus Willfulness
The experience of ambivalence that is present in both habitual boredom and
depression will continue to have opposite effects on the person’s sense of
agency. Agency is largely composed of initiating the action of a project, tak-
ing responsibility for both positive and negative outcomes of that project, and
continuing to work and adjust to a project once obstacles appear. Once again,
two distinct styles appear: a passive style in boredom and a willfully deter-
mined style in depression. In boredom, the person often accepts a handed-
down project, avoids responsibility by blaming outside influences, avoids
seeking help once the project breaks down, and continues to repeat failed
efforts instead of trying new approaches. In depression, the person initiates a
“silent contract” with partners who do not know they are making a deal. The
depressed individual then works hard to keep her part of the contract while
the oblivious other fails to provide her with the approval that she thinks she
has earned. The depressed takes full responsibility for the failure and works
harder, but the person who tries hard to impress often does not. Her redoubled
efforts, while possibly different, continue to push away the person she most
wants to attract.
The bored persons’ passive agency means that they do not initiate their
modified project but, after consulting with some advisor, accepts it as a com-
promise—a reasonable alternative, but less desired, project or sometimes
simply a path of least resistance (Bargdill, 2014). George Vameşul (2010)
suggests, that for Husserl, a person’s passivity mediates the relations between
one’s ownness and someone else’s otherness (also see Biceaga, 2010). In
other words, there must be two persons in order that one can defer to the
other. In this case, the bored person seems to accept the project suggested by
the other but also displaces the responsibility for the project’s outcome onto
the other person.
The bored person does not take responsibility for the failure of their initial
project blaming the failure on others; there is no recognition of the coconsti-
tuted nature of the failure. This points toward the defensiveness that is associ-
ated with boredom (Turner, 1984). In addition, blaming others is an action
that concentrates on the causes of the situation instead of the solution, and
thus is an avoidant practice (Neu, 1998).
A further consequence of blaming is that, ironically, bored people also
seem to expect the solutions to their boredom to be provided by others. Yet,
when these others provide opportunities for change, the bored persons did not
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take advantage of those possibilities (Bargdill, 2014). Greenson (1953) adds,
“When one is bored even the most exciting events can be felt as boring”
(p. 17). When the bored person’s modified project hits an obstacle, the pre-
bored people, for the first time, recognize their boredom. Their attempts to
circumvent the obstacles take on a repetitive quality—they try the same thing
over and over and obtain the same poor results (Bargdill, 2014). Instead of
imagining real solutions to the problem, bored persons turn to fantasizing
about another person, place, or time when the problem will magically be
solved (Bargdill, 2000b).
The benefit of avoiding responsibility for bored people appears to be that
they protect themselves from depression, at least initially. Wangh (1979) and
Greenson (1953) both suggest that boredom is a defensive posture that pre-
vents people from falling into depression since they externalize their prob-
lems. By doing so, habitually bored people understand others to be
constraining them (O’Hanlon, 1981) and retain a positive or at least neutral
sense of self (Hartocollis, 1972). Those who internalize their problems
through self-reproach and self-criticism are more likely to become depressed
(Anthony & Benedek, 1975).
In the developing stages of depression, Carter (1990) suggests that the
predepressed individual demonstrates a willful agency. He writes,
In taking this stance toward her parents she invents a silent contract between
them: she will do what they want, and they will give her their approval. The
child recovers her autonomy through implicitly adopting the illusion that she
can control the feelings and behavior of others, and achieve affirmation through
effort. (p. 227)
Here the project is clearly initiated by the child and only prereflectively expe-
rienced by the parent. The child has decided, for herself, to take her own
modified project, instead of genuine love from a willing parent, she will take
approval from a withholding parent. Carter (1990) writes,
If her parents will not love her for who she is, she hopes that they will love her
for what she can do. Feeling already rejected, the child adopts earning parental
approval as her only way of demonstrating to them, and herself, that she is
worthy of love. (p. 226)
Once the predepressed person begins the silent project with her parents, it
is doomed to run into obstacles. Carter (1990) states, “She implicitly grants
them the sole power and authority to confirm or disconfirm her worthiness of
approval” (p. 226). He later adds, “The child . . . repeatedly brushes aside this
slavish feeling with determined self declarations that she wants to please her
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parents and that she know she can if she tries hard enough” (p. 226). The
predepressed individual shows that she is able to take responsibility for this
impossible project, and reexert her willful agency. Carter (1990) writes,
But having taken responsibility for the feelings and behavior of her valued
other, she believes that her failure to earn his or her approval is . . . evidence
that she is not doing what is expected of her. She takes up the feeling of failure
. . . [T]his can be overcome by trying harder. (p. 228)
The depressed person’s sense of determination and effort is in stark contrast
to the passivity displayed by bored people. Due to this, depressed people will
feel guilt when their impossible project fails, while bored people will feel
ashamed that they did not try harder.
Shame Versus Guilt
One key distinction is that habitually bored people seem to experience a
stronger sense of shame and depressed individuals experience deeper feel-
ings of guilt that have long been associated with depression (Abraham, 1968;
American Psychological Association, 1987; Beck, 1967; Freud, 1917; Klein,
1948; Tellenbach, 1980). Shame is indicated by avoiding others, fearing the
criticism of others, and deceptively avoiding personal responsibility (Tangney,
1993). Often, the bored person’s fear and avoidance of others centers on
imagined expectations the bored person believes others hold for them. For
example, bored people might believe that if they ask a supervisor for help that
this would make them look incompetent; they only find out later that the
supervisor did not hold the same belief. In guilt, a person is likely to blame
oneself—sometimes unfairly (Kovacs & Beck, 1979), is self-reproaching or
self-critical (Leckart & Weinberger, 1980), and is unable to forgive one’s self
for a past event (Boss, 1983).
The habitually bored individual rarely admits to feeling shame; rather, it is
apparent from the way that they hide and avoid others who might be able to
help out. The reason for this hiding is that bored persons are ashamed that
they have not been able to overcome the obstacles to their project by them-
selves. They are afraid that others who believe in them will come to see them
as incompetent or incapable. This appears to be the fundamental project of
the bored—to be seen as capable. They find that they cannot make progress
on their project and they continue to spin their wheels by repeating the same
procedures that failed the previous time. They avoid others, instead of break-
ing the cycle by admitting they need help. Bored people begin to feel stuck
and they experience time dragging since no progress on their project is being
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made. Shame can be maintained indefinitely unless there is an external reck-
oning (e.g., the supervisor addresses the avoidance). At that point, the bored
persons’ other-directed feelings can change in to self-directed feelings as they
are confronted with the fact that they have wasted their time and the time of
others. If shame collapses into guilt, boredom can turn into depression.
In guilt, we see self-flagellation that occurs with deep self-criticisms as if
the child has become the introjected mouthpiece of the withholding parent.
Carter (1990) suggests, “Her self-reproaches express the hopelessness of
simultaneously giving up on, and continuing to nurture a commitment to her
impossible project. She believes this: ‘I am no good. I never was. I never will
be. But I should be’” (p. 229). It is clear from this quote that the depressed
individual has a tendency to objectify one’s personality with totalizing judg-
ments (Beck, 2002).
In guilt, the person is also focused on a past event that depressed cannot
come to terms with. Often this past event is the failure of her to win the paren-
tal approval that is now repeated in the last chance relationship. It is this
failure to maintain the impossible relationship that the depressed person
blames one’s self. Carter (1990) states, “[T]he depressed person feels totally
responsible for having lost her last chance to obtain the approval she needs to
validate herself as a person” (p. 230). With this past event holding such a
magnetic spell on the depressed individual, the future becomes nonexistent
and hopelessness sets in.
Passive Hope Versus Hopelessness
As long as a person is able to experience hope, their future is still open
(Bargdill, 2000b; Straus, 1980). It is no coincidence that Erikson (1963)
places hope as the initial virtue of his psychosocial stages of life since a per-
son’s whole life is entirely ahead of them. Hope keeps us aiming at the future
by throwing forward possibilities that the person can work to achieve. If hope
is not present, then the future closes and the person is stuck living in the pres-
ent or the past. In habitual boredom, the future is held slightly open because
the bored person has the belief that someone will save them from their current
situation. In depression, people frequently experience hopelessness. If all
hope is lost, then so is the future and if every day offers no hope for change,
then the person experiences stagnation and objectification that often leads to
suicidal thoughts and actions.
In habitual boredom, the people retained a sense of hope that was passive.
Their hope was that someone, some situation, or some time would save them
from their predicament. Bored people fantasize about other people coming to
their rescue, winning the lottery, or getting to an age (e.g., retirement) where
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they are suddenly not bored. None of the solutions to their boredom involve
the bored persons actively working toward changing their lives. Passive hope
means that bored individuals simply do nothing and hope that the circum-
stances cause a positive change without their input (Bargdill, 2014). In short,
bored persons appear to believe their lives are controlled by fate instead of
being partially responsible for their own destiny (Bargdill, 2006).
In depression, Carter (1990) places the emergence of feelings of hopeless-
ness as the moment the individual transitions from predepressed to depressed.
He writes,
Depression emerges when the person begins to become hopeless about being
able to do what her valued other expects of her. She expresses her depressive
hopelessness in the conflicting beliefs that she must do what is expected of her,
but that she cannot. The present is lived as a losing struggle in which neither
action nor inaction will bring the approval she must have . . . the depressed
person feels helpless and without choices to change the past or effect the future.
She lives the past as a fatalistic prophecy of a future in which she will be
condemned to life forever with doubt about her worthiness. (p. 228)
As the self-imposed last chance relationship breaks up, the depressed per-
son finds that their present project to heal the troubled past is going to fail.
Since the depressed individual has wagered their future solely on this funda-
mental project, its failure collapses the hope for the future. Without the hope,
the depressed person sees the future as closed off and her self as condemned
to a painful past. Hence, Carter (1990) writes, “The person’s world becomes
increasingly small as she does less and less. It is a dark world whose light and
hope are eclipsed by the looming possibility that she really is unworthy of
approval” (p. 231). As the depression strengthens, the person’s identity begins
to become one dimensional and objectified; she sees herself as a failure and
there is no hope for change. Carter (1990) states, “[T]he depressed person is
almost totally hopeless and begins to unwillingly give up. She believes this:
‘I am unworthy. My life is meaningless. I do not care if I live or die.’”
(p. 231). In the hopelessness of depression—to contrast with the passive hope
of boredom—there is no heroic savior to wait for, no fantastic experience to
believe in, and no future time when everything will be different.
Identity Confusion Versus Identity Objectification
Peoples’ identities are made up of who they have been in the past, how they
find themselves now, and what they intend to become (Heidegger, 1962,
Kobasa & Maddi, 1977; Straus, 1980). To become is to proceed toward the
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future by setting goals in present and then attempting to actualize those pos-
sible goals. Goals are chosen in the present through interpreting experiences
from one’s past and then projecting those goals forward in the future. The past
informs the present but it is not fixed since it can be reinterpreted; we can look
back on a negative event years later and understand this was ultimately a posi-
tive occurrence. Future goals, like a map, set the agenda for the present—if we
want to arrive at a destination, there are certain maneuvers that we have to
make now. Thus, in a healthy situation, a person’s becoming means that the
past, present, and future are all fluid (Kobasa & Maddi, 1977); the past can be
rewritten; the present may require improvisation; and future goals may need to
be adjusted to meet unforeseen circumstances. When becoming is blocked,
people are unable to foresee meaningful futures (Straus, 1980); people no lon-
ger experience themselves as a process; rather, they experience stagnation.
In habitual boredom, the person’s process of becoming also takes on a pas-
sive quality. People experience habitual boredom because they are not
actively working toward goals. They have gotten stuck while working on
their modified projects and they are caught in a cycle of repeating the same
failed attempts at a solution. In addition, they avoid getting help from others
because they feel ashamed of themselves since they believe they should be
able to complete this task easily. At first, they recognize boredom with that
project, but soon their boredom spreads to other aspects of their lives includ-
ing activities they used to enjoy in the past. In fact, bored people start to
notice that they are not the same people who they were in the past; once upon
a time, they had been interesting, active people. Being habitually bored
means being estranged from one’s own past. By becoming passive, bored
people implicitly gave up control of inventing their selves and simply waiting
for change. Eventually, the bored person recognizes that they passively have
changed—only they feel they are becoming people whom they do not like
(Bargdill, 1999; Sartre, 1956). Therefore, habitual boredom means living in
the dragging present, waiting to be saved in the future by the actions of oth-
ers, and feeling estranged from the past when one had been an active person.
This self-estrangement may account for the alienation that Tolor (1989) asso-
ciated with boredom.
In depression, becoming appears to be completely blocked. Depressed
people are unable to hope for or imagine a future that can be any different
from the present or past. Without a vision of what could be, or how tomorrow
might be different than today, the depressed person is left to see the present
as “increasingly irrelevant. She believes that if she cannot do that which
means everything to her there is not much point in doing anything”(Carter,
1990, p. 230). The past becomes the main time orientation for the depressed
(Wyrick & Wyrick, 1977). Carter (1990) writes, “[T]he depressed person
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feels stuck, helpless, and without choices. The past usurps the future as the
person feels condemned to live forever with doubt about her worthiness” (p.
249). The depressed person, also, is not able to reinterpret the past; for exam-
ple, depressed people do not seem to hold accountable their withholding par-
ent for being neglectful which might free them from the unworthy label.
Carter (1990) does mention that some reinterpretation of the past will be
therapeutically necessary to overcome depression.
The depressed person is not confused about one’s identity, rather instead
of the dynamic identity of the healthy person who can see one’s self as many
things such as a worker, a parent, a spouse, an artist, and an athlete, the
depressed sees one’s self as only one thing: a failure. Carter (1990) states,
[T]he depressed person half-heartedly engages in a process in which she tries
to do what is expected, only to rediscover her failure and inadequacy over and
over again. As she becomes caught up in the cycle of failing and trying harder
and failing again, she begins to expect to fail. (pp. 228-229)
Thus, the depressed person is blocked from a future, stuck in the irrelevant
present, anchored to the negative past where the single interpretation of their
existence is to objectify one’s self as a failure.
Discussion
This article suggests that habitual boredom and depression are different based
on Bargdill’s (2014) five-theme theory. The habitually bored person shows
more external ambivalence, passive avoidance, and shame, as well as a ten-
dency toward passive hope and identity confusion. The depressed person
exhibits more internal ambivalence, willful (but futile) determination, and
guilt as well as tendency toward hopelessness and identity objectification.
This section will discuss some of the similarities between the two syndromes,
will suggest some developmental considerations, and will comment on the
defense structure that initially defends the bored from becoming depressed.
The purpose of this article is to demarcate differences between the two
phenomena, yet the two experiences share a good deal of symptomatic over-
lap. Both Bargdill (1999) and Carter (1990) attributed to habitual boredom
and depression, respectively, the following emotional experiences: loneliness,
helplessness, emptiness, futility, lack of interest in previously liked activities,
and feeling overwhelmed. Further complicating matters, Turner (1984) sug-
gests that the bored client sometimes claims to be depressed and that boredom
is also a common complaint of the depressed patient; despite this, she states
that the differences between boredom and depression are “superficial” (p. 81).
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Bargdill 13
Turner (1984) concludes that boredom is not a rare syndrome—it is nor-
mally distributed—and it is, in fact, a more temporally stable experience than
depression, which shows considerable fluctuations over short periods of time.
As for overlap, she writes that her study “found support for an overlap between
the two, mostly in the area of time management” (p. 81). Time management
areas include experiencing a lack of direction for future, feeling harassed by
one’s lack of control of time, and procrastinating. She continues, “In addition,
they are thought to produce similar complaints of fatigue and lack of interest.
But chronic boredom does not include the feelings of guilt and failure that are
so definitive of depression” (p. 81). She concludes that for the chronically
bored, “there is little or no internal investment in that action. Whatever moti-
vation is there for doing it comes from the outside” (p. 77). This is not the case
in depression in which the depressed is both defendant and judge.
Developmentally, there seems to be some other distinctions between habit-
ual boredom and depression. In habitual boredom, prebored people as a group
do not mention any parental love issues (Bargdill, 1999). Their lives seem to
be progressing relatively smoothly and, in fact, their bored troubles only
appear after they fail at a major project in their lives. Here, we are reminded of
Erikson’s (1963) and Marcia’s (1966) work on Identity and Identity Status in
which a person needs to go through a crisis and make a commitment in order
to achieve an identity. Prebored people seem almost on the verge of Identity
Achievement. Certainly, they have picked a goal and they are working toward
it. The individual’s goal is thwarted and then there is a slide that eventually
takes the individual back to Identity Confusion/Diffusion.
Because passivity and shame plays such a role in the experience of bore-
dom, it seems possible that developmentally there could be problem in
Erikson’s (1963) second psychosocial stage “Autonomy vs. Shame and
Doubt.” Here, children are not encouraged to be independent or to explore
their world and newfound bodily abilities. Rather, children are taught to stay
close to home and obey the parent since the world is dangerous. The child,
then, does not properly develop the virtue of willfulness and cannot make a
stand when he or she needs to fight for something one wants. In habitual
boredom, we see all three aspects: a person who fails to fight for their original
project, a person who avoids others out of shame, and a person who comes to
doubt their own past strengths.
Depressed people seem to recognize early feelings of love-neglect from
one of their parents and love needs (Maslow, 1962) seem to dominate their
life projects. Thus, it seems likely that problems arose at the beginning of
Erikson’s psychosocial stages, probably in the first stage of Trust Versus
Mistrust. We have already noted that the virtue of this stage is hope and that
Carter (1990) mentions that the appearance of hopelessness is the moment of
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14 Journal of Humanistic Psychology
emergence from predepression to depression. Erikson (1963) writes of this
first stage, “It is against this powerful combination of a sense of having been
deprived, of having been divided, and of having been abandoned—that basic
trust must maintain itself throughout life”(p. 250). In depression, there is the
sense of deprivation with parental withholding of love, the sense of internal
ambivalence, and the sense of being abandoned in one’s last chance relation-
ship. This seems to confirm that the difficulties lie in this early stage.
The conclusions for Marcia’s identity status for depression are much more
perplexing. From Carter’s account, it is clear that the predepressed have
made a commitment toward approval-seeking behavior. They have been will-
ful and determined toward this project that is ultimately beyond their control
and lacking authenticity. Despite this, depressed people reassert that they
want this project; they have gone through a crisis and they have made the
commitment to identities that will lead to the objectification of themselves as
failures. It is hard not to see the depressed as Identity Achieved since it is
impossible to see the depressed as any of the other three possibilities
(Moratorium, Foreclosed, and Diffused). Yet this strikes us as odd since we
want to believe, maybe in an optimistically humanistic way, that any Identity
Achievement must be a positive experience. In addition, seeing one’s self as
a failure does not mesh with Erikson’s idea of identity as seeing one’s self as
a unique person with a meaningful role. The term “Identity Objectification”
seems more fitting since the depressed individual seems to have eliminated
all other interpretations of one’s being.
It has been suggested by many that habitual boredom serves as an initial
defensive structure against feeling of depression (Bargdill, 2000b; Greenson,
1953; Turner, 1984; Wangh, 1975). Turner (1984) writes,
[T]his type of client may be using the ostensible blandness of chronic boredom
as a defensive veneer. Beneath the unresponsive surface may lie very strong,
perhaps very frightening emotions. This client may prove to be quite reluctant
to shed the protection of defensive chronic boredom in order to face the
underlying conflict. (p. 81)
Bargdill (2014) suggests that those feelings are self-blame and self-responsi-
bility for failing to achieve their original goals or at least failing to go all out
for them. Since these feeling are never directly brought into reflect awareness
the feelings never turn into guilt, but they also do not go away. These feelings
erode what the person’s sense of self-esteem and identity; an identity that may
not have been as well formed appears on the surface (Esman, 1979; Schubert,
1978). Certainly, the consideration that they might fail or be strongly chal-
lenged never seems to cross the prebored person’s mind (Bargdill, 2014).
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Bargdill 15
Turner (1984) adds, “If one has a firm conception of one’s life direction and of
the means necessary to reach one’s goals, this may lead to difficulties in
adjusting when circumstances do not turn out exactly as expected” (p. 80).
The impossible project of the depressed child seems more understandable
to the psychologist. The parent who fails to show affection, who ignores, or
who expresses overt hostility toward a child (Carter, 1990) plants a funda-
mental concern in that child’s mind. However, the predepressed child does
not respond with hostility toward that parent. Freud (1963) reminds us that it
is difficult for a young child to feel hate toward a parent and most hostile feel-
ings are repressed. The child instead will now work toward atoning for a sin
that he or she probably did not commit. In the Trust Versus Mistrust, Erikson
(1963) speaks about the relationship with religion that we see in the depressed
child’s project. Erikson (1963) writes,
Primitive religions, the most primitive layer in all religions, and the religious
layer in each individual, abound with efforts at atonement which try to make up
for vague deeds against a maternal matrix and try to restore faith in the goodness
of one’s strivings and in the kindness of the powers of the universe. (p. 251)
Depressed people fail to achieve atonement because they have placed their
redemption in hands of another human being who they cannot control; the
more they try to impress, the less they do so. In contrast, bored people will
blame others for consequences that are at least partly their fault. They avoid
taking responsibility for their actions and then avoid taking any action or
aiming for any new goals. This passive boredom can be maintained for some
time, until one’s defense against the lack of personal responsibility can no
longer be maintained and then one’s shame is converted into guilt. When this
happens, habitual boredom can become a very different road to depression.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
Notes
1. I prefer the term “habitual boredom” as compared with “chronic boredom”
since people appear to gradually become bored. The habitual bored recognize
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16 Journal of Humanistic Psychology
their boredom as a change from their previous sense of identity or temperament
(Bargdill, 2000b). The term “chronic boredom” has a sense of hopelessness to
it like a terminal diagnosis as if a disposition could change to boredom but then
could not change to some other attunement.
2. The absence of male participants is a noted concern for the comparison being
made in this article.
3. Freud (1989) acknowledges a similar aspect of ambivalence when he writes,
“Contrary thoughts are always closely connected with each other and are often
paired off in such a way that the one thought is excessively conscious while its
counterpart is repressed and unconscious” (p. 200). However, for Freud (1952)
“by [ambivalence] we mean a directing of antithetical feelings (affectionate
and hostile) toward the same person” (p. 435). The ambivalence experienced in
habitual boredom is slightly different that one feeling (hostility) can be directed
at both one’s self and at others (and the world) but due to denial, the feeling of
hostility is only recognized in awareness toward the externalized other.
4. I use the feminine pronoun “her” to remain consistent with Carter’s language.
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Bargdill 19
Author Biography
Richard W. Bargdill received his PhD in clinical psy-
chology from the Existential Psychology program at
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His
dissertation was on people’s experiences of habitual
boredom. He currently teaches at the Virginia
Commonwealth University after spending a decade at
Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He is
the author of An Artist’s Thought Book: Intriguing
Thoughts About the Artistic Process. He is also editor
and coeditor of Living the Good Life: A Psychological
History and Humanistic Contributions to Psychology
101-Growth, Choice and Responsibility. In addition, he
has served as secretary, membership chair, and member-at-large for “The Society for
Humanistic Psychology” which is a Division 32 of the American Psychological
Association. As an artist, he has won awards for his very short poems and for some of
his visual artwork. His sculpture called “I’m a tree chopped down everyday” was
awarded first place at the official State Art show in Pennsylvania. Recently, he had
both paintings and poems appear in Stay Awhile: Poetic Narratives on Multiculturalism
and Diversity and in Capturing Shadows: Poetic Encounters Along the Path of Grief
and Loss.
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