mentally languishing why you feel empty inside

Languishing May Be Why You Feel Empty Inside Sometimes

Many of us find ourselves on autopilot, going through the motions of our daily lives without much thought or intention. We check the boxes on our to-do lists and fulfil our responsibilities for work, school, family, and (of course) our social media accounts.


But we do it automatically, moving through life in a sort of default state that makes the days blur together. We often don’t notice the blah or stagnant feelings infecting our world view and hopes for the future until we’re deep into emotional distress.


Feeling empty inside and unfulfilled in this way is known as languishing, a term coined by sociologist Corey Keyes to describe the absence of mental health. It is more common than we think; researchers say that 80% of all people, everywhere, are moving through life in this autopilot state at any given point of time


But languishing isn’t limbo; no one is trapped there forever. Certain techniques and actions can help us move ourselves toward flourishing, that is, the state of mental and emotional wellness.


What is languishing?


Let’s start with what languishing is not.

Languishing isn’t a mental illness. It’s not about experiencing intense sadness, nervousness, or any other emotion. But it’s also not a state of mental or emotional well-being.


Now for what languishing is: Languishing is the absence of feeling. When we languish, we feel blank in our minds; we feel emotionless; and we feel stuck – in our heads as well as in life. When languishing, we might find it difficult to understand the purpose of life; at the same time, we are still living, functioning, and engaging in daily activities as we typically would.  


When we are languishing, we feel stuck. Life does not seem to progress at the pace we want it to – though we may not know what pace we do want. Goals, relationships, and personal growth may lose their significance for us, but we can still maintain control over our daily lives, meet deadlines, stay physically active, and maintain a healthy sleep cycle.


Yet, our daily competence often feels less like a choice and more like the result of the law of inertia – an object in motion stays in motion, at the same speed and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an outside force.


What causes languishing


Many factors contribute to a languishing state. Emotional overload, confusing life events, academic or workplace burnout, uncertainty in friendships and romantic relationships, poor physical health, and more can all play into the unwell state of languishing. 

One clear cause of widespread languishing was the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The isolation and seismic shifts in routine left many people feeling pessimistic, exhausted, and emotionally drained; goals and aspirations lost their meaning as motivation dropped and a sense of stagnation set in. We didn’t know when the pandemic would end, leaving us with the inability to derive purpose and joy out of our lives; for many of us, languishing eventually creeped into our life plans and sense of self.


How to tell if you’re languishing



You may be languishing if you cannot recall the last time you felt a strong emotion, despite the severity of the situation. You may find yourself engaging in activities merely for the sake of having a routine,  in order to maintain some level of structure to life, but without being able to define the reason to keep such a structure going. You might also sometimes think in a nihilistic or hopeless manner.

People who are mentally languishing tend to describe it as feeling blah, feeling empty, feeling blank inside their head, feeling emotionless, feeling stuck in life, or simply feeling emotionally and mentally unwell.

Additionally, when we languish, our social behaviour, motivation, emotions, ability to focus, and more undergo changes that make life a bit more challenging.

Here are a few feelings and experiences that can speak to languishing:

  • Describing your mood as blank, empty, blah, or nothing 
  • Being unable to remember the last time you felt a strong emotion 
  • Feeling less motivation to finish work tasks and paying less attention during work meetings 
  • Being unable to articulate why you’re working, studying, or doing a particular social activity
  • Declining invitations to see friends, and/or feeling disconnected from them
  • Feeling more apathetic towards life than usual
  • Feeling fatigue or burnout 
  • Caring less about your hobbies, interests and passions
  • Feeling like your life does not have clear meaning or purpose (However, languishing is not the same as having an existential crisis, which involves stronger emotions of unexplained fear, skepticism, anxiety, and poor self-esteem.)

While the above experiences are common to people who are languishing, such feelings do not happen at the same intensity for everyone. 

Likewise, recovery from languishing looks different for everyone, too. Some people may be able to stop languishing after a brief period of lowness, while others tend to feel blank or stuck for longer periods of time. Some people are able to find their way to a flourishing state themselves, while others may need the help of therapy. 


What to do if you’re feeling stuck


Recovery from languishing means moving toward flourishing — a state where we feel more full of life and purpose. While making changes may seem effortful and pointless while we are languishing, a gradual approach of small steps, along with a healthy dose of self-compassion, can set us off in the direction of flourishing.


To feel more mentally well, try:

  • Naming your emotion: You’re languishing. You feel stuck. You feel blank. When you name the emotion, you know what is affecting you. This helps add some purpose and direction to the process of healing. Try writing down how you feel or speaking it aloud.


  • Free-flow journaling: Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that ‘flow’ or the feeling of being utterly absorbed in a challenge can curb feelings of emptiness.  Free-flow journaling is the process of writing anything in your mind, allowing your thoughts to flow without judgement. Start with a 10-15 minute timer and gradually increase the duration.


  • Logging your moods: When you feel blah, empty, emotionless, or stuck, make a habit of recording this mood in a dedicated location (note in your phone, journal, etc). The more specific you are able to be, the better (see the first point above). Mood logging helps develop the skill of emotional self-awareness, which can lead us to change our immediate environment, explore new sources of motivation, or seek external support.


  • Seeking support from friends and family: When we’re languishing, speaking with friends and family may feel alienating and weird, due to feelings of disconnect or apathy on our side. But having deeper conversations with loved ones can help break this disconnect. Share your true feelings and struggles, ask about their sources of motivation, and allow them to help you in finding joy and meaning again.


  • Trying therapy: If you still feel lost while trying to tackle feelings of emptiness or being stuck, or if you lack the support systems to help you through the blah period, try therapy, either digital self-therapy or conventional one-on-one talk therapy. Therapy can help you understand your feelings of languishing and build the necessary techniques and skill sets you personally need to overcome these feelings. 

Languishing is a state of mental unwellness, but it can also be an opportunity. We may realise we need to make changes in our life in order to thrive, and we still have the physical and mental energy to do so.


In fact, some consider languishing the perfect time to seek therapy, because our energy and attention isn’t yet consumed by just surviving each day. Whatever our individual paths are to recover from languishing, know that it is possible to flourish again.

Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil., CRR No. A80195) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 5+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.

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