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The art of boredom

Why it can do us good to just stare at the wall sometimes

Perhaps the title of this article directly stirs up resistance in you? – “Boredom? Pah! I wish I could afford to be bored, but I’m way too busy for that!” Or: “The only time I get bored is when the plane still doesn’t arrive after a two-hour delay.” You haven’t been bored since you were a kid, right?

At least in times of Corona, the phenomenon of boredom seemed to become more present again for some of us. What to do with all the time that could no longer be filled by going out, meeting friends or eating out? Articles and videos in social networks with tips on what to do now, during the lockdown, seemed to enjoy great popularity, even if it was often mentioned in the subordinate clause, to please not stress yourself out even more by the call for productivity in your own four walls. Many people seem to want to avoid boredom as much as possible. But what is boredom actually?

Boredom as an emotional state

If you think back to the last time you were bored, whether in the departure lounge at the airport or as a child at family gatherings, most would probably agree that boredom is a thoroughly negative state of mind. One does not know what to do. Time seems to stretch into infinity and that feels terrible.

A piece of history

A brief digression into history. After all, boredom is by no means a modern invention. The Middle German word “Lange Whîle” initially referred to a pure concept of time: a long while. It was only with the Enlightenment and the assertion of the idea of a mature, self-determined person who expresses his or her self-determination through meaningful activity that boredom was defined in a dictionary of the High German dialect from 1777 as “an unpleasant sensation of the empty, business-less duration of time.[1]  According to this definition, boredom is therefore the unpleasant opposite of work.

Boredom in psychoanalysis[2]

In psychoanalysis, boredom is seen as a state of the ego characterized by a restless search for an external stimulus or an object, a counterpart, which is supposed to free from boredom. A person who is bored does not know what he or she wants and what the person desires, in other words what he or she is longing for. Usually a bored person demands the environment to tell him or her what to do. In analyses, boredom can often be understood as a defensive event unconsciously staged by the patient, sometimes also jointly staged by the patient and the analyst, through which, for example, explosive love transference or aggressive impulses are fended off. In his book “Sleep of the Analyst”, Zwiebel (1992)[3] impressively describes how the analyst experiences sudden feelings of intense boredom, is made sleepy, sometimes as if he is numbed so that he cannot feel and interpret the patient’s violent transference movements.

Always eliminate boredom immediately?

When children are bored, this sometimes seems to be more unbearable for their parents than for the children themselves. Countless suggestions are made, which are usually all rejected by the children. This can mean that children want to remain in a state of boredom. They need this time to realize where their curiosity and desire will take them next. For Philips (1993)[4] the bored child is “an ensemble of present possibilities”. The author Masud Khan (1986)[5] also describes in his work on “The fallow” mental transitional states with an undirected searching movement, which however ultimately strengthens the ego. With the image of a field that has to lie fallow for a year so that living things can continue to grow on it, the soul needs empty times and empty mental spaces. Boredom is seen as a modification of this emptiness and can then be a regression in service of the ego, a creative, regenerative performance of the ego.

For the analytical relationship, as well as in psychodynamic coaching, this means, first of all, in analysis boring hours or in coaching which is much more limited in time, to tolerate feelings of stagnation or helplessness. It means being able to wait and see without knowing what will happen in an hour, during a phase of analysis or coaching. Psychoanalytical working models such as “evenly-suspended attention” or the “third ear” describe an analytical attitude and perception that is not goal-oriented but (ideally) undirected. This undirectedness is also found in boredom. Direction and goal are still hidden. Philips (1993) speaks of an “attentive boredom” necessary for analysts. Such an almost meditative state takes into account the timelessness and shapelessness of the unconscious.

Boredom as a secret guardian of the drives

Another, more drive-economic view of boredom is offered by Fenichel’s work “On the Psychology of Boredom” (1934)[6]. According to this, boredom is characterized by “feelings of listlessness”, which develop from the “conflict between the need for activity and the lack of stimulation to do so, or the inability to be stimulated” (p.270). This state of passivity is unwanted and the result of unconscious defensive processes; the desire and goal of the drive are lost. Many people associate boredom with activities they had to do as children, but did not want to do at all, such as going for a walk on Sundays. Here, boredom is the result of a coercive action coming from outside. But what causes the inner, unconscious coercive measure, which results in the loss of drive?

The one who is bored, “looks for an object, not in order to activate his drive impulses on it, but in order to gain a missing drive target with its help. The drive tension is there, the drive target is missing” (p.271). According to the Freudian model, this “drive tension without a drive target” is very strange, because it does not automatically lead to impulse actions by the bored person, but the latter remains in a state of impulselessness, which he or she does not experience as full of relish, but as reluctant and full of tension (Beusch, 1999, p.143).[7]

According to Fenichel, the unconscious desire of a bored person is to achieve a drive relaxation without active drive action. Fenichel vividly describes this process by letting a bored person speak:

“I am aroused. If I allow the arousal to continue, I become afraid. Therefore I say to myself: I am not aroused at all, I do not want to do anything” (p.275). Up to this point his description of boredom reads like a repression. But the repression is not enough, because the tension becomes too great. Fenichel continues: “I feel that I still want to do something; but since I have forgotten my original goal, I do not know what. The outside world must do something that frees me from my tension and yet does not frighten me (…) It must disperse me so that what I do is far enough away from my original goal. It must make the impossible possible: provide me with relaxation without instinctive action” (Fenichel, 1934).

Boredom as “drive tension without a drive target”

Boredom is thus placed in the service of the super-ego, it is a camouflage behind which unauthorized drive desires are concealed – a guardian of the drives. The drive tension is still present and even partially visible, one can think of the fidgeting of children or the rhythmic tapping with the fingers of adults, as well as the rocking with the foot. Children sometimes start to cry out of boredom because they can’t stand the tension any longer. The stimuli of the outside world are experienced as monotonous in the state of boredom and strengthen the inner drive tension.

In this view, boredom is the result of libido stasis and defence, a process in which two central processes mutually reinforce each other: 1). The inner drive tension with an unconscious drive target and object is so strong that repression is not sufficient as a defence. 2) The search for external world stimuli begins. The outside world, experienced as monotonous, intensifies the drive tension even further.

Does this mean that boredom is always characterized by listlessness, or could the stimulus tension also contain a certain desire, perhaps a “pre-desire”? Freud already dealt with the contradiction that every listlessness coincides with an increase, every pleasure with a reduction of the stimulus tension present in the soul. The state of sexual arousal is already the “most intrusive example of such an increase of lust” (Freud 1924, p. 27). Freud suspected qualitative indicators, but these are still unexplored: “We would be much further in psychology if we knew what this qualitative character was. Perhaps it is a rhythm, the temporal sequence of changes, increases and decreases in the quantity of stimuli; we do not know (Freud 1924, p. 27).[8]

Even boredom can take on very different qualities for us. It can be a transitional state, with unclear goals and thus contain pleasant, curious and pleasurable qualities. At the same time, however, it is always characterized by “undesirable relaxation”, because it is an unintentional and thus listless state of inactivity. Whether it can also take on pleasurable qualities depends primarily on the ego-organisation of the bored person, mainly on his tolerance for restlessness, tension and empty states.

The connection between boredom, hunger and emptiness

Eating, smoking, drinking coffee or alcohol out of boredom, if we are honest with ourselves, we have done at least one of these things out of boredom before. In his work “On boredom” (1953), Greenson (1953)[9] psychoanalytically investigated the connection between boredom and orality. Greenson agrees with Fenichel in his assessment that boredom is by no means a lack of tension, but on the contrary a state of full tension. However, the focus here is on a special kind of tension, the tension of emptiness. According to Greenson the bored person is “full of emptiness” (p.17). The emptiness is a psychological representation of the absent, maternal breast. Boredom means: “No mother, no breast, mother will not come” (1953, p. 17). The bored person denies the introjection of the failing maternal sub-object and instead places it outside of himself or herself, thus getting rid of the object. He or she says: “It is not true that my mother is inside of me. I am just a little baby, hungry for some satisfaction (Greenson, 1953). Thus, for Greenson, similar to Fenichel, boredom is an important defensive process, but with a clearer view of (unconscious) anger and feelings of hatred for the failing object or hostility directed against the self.

A central thesis of his work is: “The denial of introjection (of the failing maternal sub-object) seems to be the decisive defence mechanism that enables the patient to develop boredom and at the same time ward off a severe depressive reaction” (Greenson 1953, p. 17). The chronic, character-pathological boredom as a symptom in Greenson can be seen as the equivalent of depression and is at the same time the defence against severe, malignant depression.

Concluding remarks

The creative power of boredom seems to go beyond the mere defensive function of boredom. It includes the ability to create boredom as an aimless, undirected transitional state from which new emotional processes can unfold. An important prerequisite seems to be the tolerance of the ego for empty and tense states, which can bring along unpleasant feelings, such as feelings of emptiness and senselessness. Tolerance for such emotional states characterised by fear and disorganisation depends crucially on the inner object world, i.e. how we experienced the relationship with our early attachment figures and how this relationship became inscribed in our psychic inner world. If the inner object world is characterized by predominantly hostile object representations, boredom takes on a tormenting character, accompanied by destructiveness, from which nothing new can emerge; it serves exclusively to ward off threatening feelings and depressions that could threaten the integrity of the ego. However, if the inner object world is sufficiently alive and protective, boredom can be a regulatory factor in our culture of constantly perceived lack of time, over-structuring of our everyday life and fetishisation of activity (Kreuzer-Haustein, 2001). In the state of boredom we let time pass, we “stare at the wall” and give room to lack of plan and aim. Such a “healthy boredom” resists the social pressure of time regulation and temporarily also the grip of our rational ego: one does not know what one wants to do, thus the ego is restricted and disempowered in its usual activity: to plan and act purposefully. Boredom is, however, something different than leisure, which – also a child of the Enlightenment – is purposeful: “Leisure is not doing nothing, it is a mental act” (Mattenklott 1986, p. 44).[10]  It is a time of reflection, before or after an activity. Boredom, on the other hand, is undirected, one cannot decide to be bored, but boredom arises like a mood, a suddenly occurring mental state, and can, if it is tolerated, be creative and regenerative inactivity.

Sophie Grußendorf, psychologist and coach at dynaMind


[1] See “Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache” (1807-11), published by J.H. Kampe, Vol. 3, p. 31; this information is contained in Hofstaetter (1991) pp. 27f.
[2] See Kreuzer-Haustein U (2001) On the psychodynamics of boredom. Forum of Psychoanalysis. 17:99-117
[3]   See Zwiebel R (1992) The sleep of the analyst. The fatigue reaction in countertransference. Publisher Internationale Psychoanalyse, Stuttgart Munich.
[4]  See Philip A (1993) On kissing, tickling and being bored: psychoanalytic essays on the unexamined life. Faber and Faber, London
[5]   See Masud Khan RK (1986) The fallow. In: Intermediate Steps. Contributions to a Morphological Psychology. Volume 5, 2nd issue, Cologne, p 31-36
[6]   See Fenichel O (1934) On the psychology of boredom. Imago 20:270-281
[7]   See Bensch R (1999) On the psychoanalysis of boredom. Jb Psychoanal 41:135-163
[8] See Freud S (1924) The Economic Problem of Masochism. GW Volume 13
[9] Greenson R (1953) On boredom. J Am Psychoanal Assoc I:7-21
[10] Cf. Mattenklott G (1986) Laziness. In: ders. Blindgänger. Physiognomische Essais. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt aM, p 43-71