Kicking the apathy habit

It is safe to say that during this pandemic, we have become slightly more accustomed to a lifestyle of complacency. Due to factors beyond our control, we have been locked in and diverted from our routines in such a substantial way that it has rocked the fundamental socio-political scale of the world.


There have been a lot of issues that have developed due to the pandemic, and one of them seems to be developing a more isolationist perspective. When we adopt such a persona, there are other aspects which can be adopted that are not necessarily in our best interests. For example, the adoption of apathy into our daily lives.

I remember once reading a quote about apathy: “Apathy is death”. This was evidently placed into a piece of writing to create a shock effect, but also to highlight a very important aspect of human nature, that if you do nothing, then you might as well be dead. 

Apathy can also be dangerous in other aspects of life, not only is it hindering our own progression, and what we wish to achieve, but it can also manifest in ways which are also hostile such as keeping us in dangerous situations. If you imagine an abusive relationship between two people, the apathy of one person to leave that relationship might jeopardise their wellbeing. 

To understand the fundamental principle of how apathy works from a psychological perspective you have to understand two functions of the brain. The first is the logical side of the brain, often referred to as the rational side of the brain, which is incredibly procedural. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the emotional brain, and this gives us all of our emotions, joy, fear, sadness, happiness, anger, and so on. A popular term that is often used in psychological fields is emotional intelligence. What is meant by emotional intelligence is an ability to have an effective balance between emotion and logic and to utilise them appropriately. 

Now a gentleman who was responsible for creating this particular field, and was a significant contributor to it, was Mr D Goleman. he wrote a book on the subject entitled: Emotional intelligence, and working emotional intelligence. In his book he divides emotional intelligence into five different characteristics:

1. Knowing your emotions –he argued in his books that as soon as you are able to identify a feeling as it occurs it can assist you in making personal decisions.

2. Managing emotions –being able to manage your emotions means you're incredibly self-aware and it will also give you a personal resilience, allowing you to bounce back from disappointments and setbacks.

3. Motivating yourself –these are the individuals who can channel their focus to achieve goals.

4. Recognising emotions in others – hurray, empathy made it into the top five! Goleman Argues that people who demonstrate empathy are more attuned to the people’s needs and wants.

5. Handling relationships – a key skill, not only being able to master yourself, and your emotions, but being able to handle other people’s emotions.

So we now have these aspects of emotional intelligence, and now what also has to factor into the equation is not only our ability to utilise emotional intelligence, but we also have to add our own individuality to this. Enter more practitioners, in the form of John Meyer and Alexander Stevens who suggest three areas in which people might deal with their emotions:

1. Being self-aware – these are individuals who are aware of their moods, and they have healthy boundaries and a good press positive outlook on life due to their ability not to ruminate and become engulfed in negative thinking.

2. Engulfed – These are individuals who become drowned in their own negative narrative, individuals who will be not aware of their free feelings, and therefore they will lose all perspective. They will have very little control over their emotions.

3. Accepting – is an individual who will experience different moods, however they will experience them safely, and not necessarily challenge them, whether that is a good or a bad mood.

Due to the amount of emotional conflict that you can experience within your own mind commerce, especially between logic and emotion, this can promote a psychological state which will be referred to as ambivalence in this article.

Ambivalence can be a major cause of apathy, because we are in conflict within our own mind, and we are in a state of psychological entanglement, which might be paralleled to cognitive dissonance. As such, when we can't necessarily resolve our emotions, we become engulfed by them, and either logic or emotion are in conflict. There also seems to be an implementation of the freeze response, sit by, do nothing, because that is the safest thing to do.

However, as aforementioned, if you are in a situation which is not necessarily safe, that could be the opposite. For example, if you're in an abusive relationship, instead of doing nothing as a way of protecting yourself you may be motivating your abuser to do more harm to you, as you are giving them a perverted permission which might be seen as permission to carry on their destructive action.

Tips to beat apathy and ambivalence

Approach your fear and anxiety with detachment. This means you look at the problem and you don't fear the problem. How to achieve this is to notice what you're afraid of, so for example if you are an individual who has a phobia of spiders, you are noticing your feelings relating to the spider, not anything to do with what the spider might do to you (e.g. the spider bites you etc).

When you're approaching your anxiety, ask yourself is it a big anxiety? Is it a small anxiety? Is this something that you will need to confront and challenge or is this something that you might be able to manoeuvre around? Strategising an appropriate way out of a tricky situation is a key element in breaking ambivalence and apathetic thinking.

You must accept the fundamental fact that ambivalence will be part of your everyday life, there will be situations where you will get stuck, there will be points in your life where you may think that you are unable to get out of this particular point. This is a good opportunity to seek help, look for additional assistance such as friends, parents, trusted people, counsellors, specialists in other fields, anyone that can offer your assistance in resolving that issue.

Ambivalence is a form of clarification, and as such it will be in everyday life. It is the process where you are seeking an understanding of the problem and what you're going to do about it. This means you don't fear it, you just think about it. You can ask yourself key questions at this point: do I want to carry on with this course of action? What do I need to do to make this thing better? What are the positive things that I can get out for myself and other people if I take action? What would happen if I did not act?

Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings, and monitor your moods. One of the greatest things that can help break an apathetic state is to note what you were thinking before, how you got into the state, and how you got out of feeling in such a way. The written word is quite a powerful teacher.

Connect with individuals who have very strong empathetic values. It is important to seek like minded people who will offer support, encouragement, and will also have your corner. That could mean these people could be in a position that is trusted, who will challenge you in a positive way in which to break the apathy.

Try to avoid other apathetic people, if possible. Misery loves company, and the same can be applied to apathy; if you attach to the wrong kind of individual at the wrong time, that can bring you both down and that should be avoided where possible.

There is an old saying: “You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.” This means to be an example to an individual. You can provide all the support  necessary but do not fall into the trap of being their carer, or something you don't want to be, as that is not your role. Don't wait for other individuals to see the world as you do, enjoy your world and either they will follow you in finding their own world which is happier, or they will not.

Practise some self-compassion, have some self-healing. If you start to have that love for yourself, that confidence, you can then pass that on to others by having understanding for their position and increasing your own emotional intelligence.

Lead by example, just as you may seek very strong empathetic people, people who are motivated, then if you provide that example other people might be inspired by you.

In summation:

1. We need ambivalence as a form of clarification within our lives, but we do not need to be stuck within it for an eternity.

2. We should seek to be an example to people to help them to see that they can break their own apathetic thinking, but not do it for them.

3. To seek help where it is needed (i.e. help of a trusted friend or professional), to assist us and maybe refer others to assist with the twin sisters of disaster; apathy, and ambivalence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB
Written by Brian Turner, BA (Hons.) MNCS Snr Accred / Supervisor. (Prof. Dip PsyC)
Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB

I am a psychotherapist that works with anxiety depression and suicidal issues. I use a diverse and wide spectrum of techniques to ensure that my clients feel empowered and confident, so they are able to achieve what they wish to achieve when presenting with a broad range of issues.

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