This is a case-story from The Mind Room. These stories are not representative of any one person – they bring to life concepts and experiences that we have seen as psychologists and as humans in society.
Andy is a 39 year old senior executive working in the health industry. He is a single dad to a 12 year old daughter, has a supportive social and family network, gets to the gym most mornings and loves his collection of ‘90s vinyl records. For the last month he has struggled to get going in the mornings and to switch off at nights. He has been feeling irritable at work and at home and nothing in his life feels particularly satisfying. He has an out-of-the-blue, heated discussion with his daughter over the clothes she has chosen for a party that day, that ends in her yelling “I hate you”, tears and a slammed bedroom door. Andy wishes he could run away.
A consult with his doctor clears him of any obvious physical illness but he takes a few days off work to see if he can reboot and find his mojo again. This strategy works initially but he finds himself back in the same place after a week or two. This time he notices feeling overwhelmed and a series of questions on repeat – what’s happening to me? This isn’t like me? Am I sick? Is this long covid? What if I can’t get back on top of this? He goes back to the GP and gets given a referral to a psychologist.
After listening to Andy’s story and doing some mental health assessments the psychologist tells him what they think is happening. There are some elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression but not enough to warrant a diagnosis of either, so no mental illness. He does have indicators of low wellbeing or languishing, meaning he currently feels bad and is functioning sub-optimally, which all places him at greater future risk of illness.
Andy’s basic needs have been slowly eroded – not enough sleep, too much takeaway food and a lack of certainty or safety in his work role. Things at work are not terrible, but changes are being made and he is aware that he may not fit the company’s new direction. This shift in work has eroded his sense of autonomy and brought to light an irritating awareness that he has perhaps overstayed his time in this particular job.
For a while now Andy has stopped feeling engaged or challenged by his current job role. He also has a deeply ingrained story around his responsibility as the family ‘breadwinner’ and a fear of failing his daughter. All this leads to him saying nothing, maintaining the status quo and at the same time experiencing a gradual decline in his sense of workplace mastery as well as growing feelings of inadequacy. Slowly the ratio of pleasant to unpleasant emotions has tipped the wrong way, and it has become harder for Andy to think clearly and make good decisions. This spills over to the small interactions at home and social life, leaving everyone feeling a little less – less heard, less valued and less loved. Including Andy.
This is something Andy’s psychologist has observed before in other clients – the languishing tumble-weed can start off as something small but if left unchecked, it gathers speed, size and significance.
The journey back from languishing to flourishing starts with building Andy’s mental fitness. Mental fitness has three key parts – clarity, strength and flexibility. Part one, clarity, means Andy noticing his internal experience and connecting this to his external world and what he most values in life. He needs to learn to listen to and manage his thoughts, emotions and behaviours – distinguishing those that are helpful from those that are distracting or unhelpful.
In terms of mental strength – Andy’s goal is to build his reserves through better sleep, healthy eating and more playful moments – playing records, Sunday walks and brunch with his daughter and her cousins. While at the same time, minimising the energy-draining experiences – overwork, pointless conflict and late night screen time. This will help Andy to focus on what matters most and prioritise his time, energy and attention.
The final focus for Andy is mental flexibility – the capacity to make good choices and take wise action. That may look like taking stock of his career aspirations to understand the best next move for him. He may want to assess his financial security and work out what he really needs to live up to the ‘breadwinner’ story. It may turn out that what Andy needs more than money is time. Time to slow his life down and go at a more sustainable pace, prioritising his important life goals.
By working on his mental fitness Andy can get back to a flourishing life with a clear sense of meaning and connection to the people, places and activities that matter most.