Boredom: why it’s not as simple as Brené Brown says

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Brené Brown wrote in her recent book about how boredom can be good for us. She says she lets her kids experience doing nothing because it allows their imagination room to grow.

While that may be true for kids with healthy parents, boredom may have a different effect on individuals who grew up in chaotic households.

For those who grew up in healthy households, boredom provides a neutral or mildly uncomfortable experience. But for those from dysfunctional families, it can feel downright scary.

The traumatized brain is hypervigilant to threats, so it’s hard to see how boredom would lead to creative expression in these cases. It sounds like more of a precursor to dread and anxiety.

The traumatized brain is not open to exploration and wonder. It is imprisoned by black and white thinking, the need for certainty, and a desire to get things over with.

The traumatized brain is not open to exploration and wonder. It is imprisoned by black and white thinking, the need for certainty, and a desire to get things over with. Click To Tweet

Boredom paves the path to imagination only when you’ve been encouraged to explore your interests. When your needs and wants have gone unnoticed or been suppressed, however, tedium will not lead to self-discovery.

When boredom feels scary

For many of us, feeling bored doesn’t lead to the eventual engagement that Brown describes. Instead it causes anxiety, frustration, and an inability to engage due to brain fog.

Dr. John Eastwood of the Boredom Lab says the feeling made his patients fear depression. It led to depressive rumination and negative self-focus.

People who have experienced a traumatic event, he adds, may be more likely to feel bored. The emotional numbing required to stay safe in these cases leads to such malaise.

There’s evidence boredom may also serve as a defense mechanism. At least if you’re bored, you’re not enduring the flood of negative emotions that accompanies abuse and neglect.

The child’s need to protect herself from overwhelming emotions creates boredom as a haven. So, it’s less about having nothing to do and more about keeping oneself alive by feeling less.


For the traumatized individual, boredom can feel more than a little uncomfortable. It can fill you with dread feelings that you need to escape. This leads to the toxic busyness and inability to sit still that you may relate to.

For the traumatized individual, boredom can feel more than a little uncomfortable. It can fill you with dread feelings that you need to escape. Click To Tweet

In addition, boredom with its relationship to difficulty engaging and poor focus, may be more common among those who suffer with ADHD.

An invitation to self-connect

Eastwood also says that boredom, like all emotions, carries a message for us. It tells us we’re lacking agency and not engaging with the world in a self-directed way.

Since survivors of dysfunctional families have been trained to abandon themselves, boredom may not be so easy to resolve. The first step is to connect with yourself in a way you were never allowed to as a child.

You may experience the temptation to alleviate boredom with action. To simply do something, anything, to escape the feeling.

You may experience the temptation to alleviate boredom with action. To simply do something, anything, to escape the feeling. Click To Tweet

I invite you to let your action-taking include a move toward yourself. To check in with what your body needs right now and give yourself the compassion you never received as a child.

Before we can engage with the world in a meaningful way, we must connect with ourselves. This includes sitting with difficult emotions and understanding our wants and needs.

Until we do that, boredom will never be the gateway to imagination that Brown writes about. However, we can accept the invitation to go within and one day make it so.

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  1. Kristy

    I really love this as I relate to your points wholeheartedly!! Thank you for this! I will share with others who could not understand my thoughts on boredom and how it affects me deeply.

    • You’re welcome! And thanks for sharing with others who need to know.

    • Marina

      💚 that resonates very well with me

  2. Ealasaid

    I appreciate your insights and it really got me thinking. I think you are pointing out a very critical difference here. Brown’s work is certainly insightful about a healthy-ish family and a reasonable environment to explore; however, abused and neglected kids are in survival mode, often don’t have the right kind of attention from those around them, and rightly view their environment as hostile. It often isn’t ‘safe’ to be creative, nor do many of them have the internal tools to do so. You were spot on to pick up on it.

  3. Christi Martzall

    I connect with everything word. Brene Brown is over-rated. Was a “fan” for a NY minute, no longer.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    • I’m not her biggest fan, either. I think she serves a more mainstream, less trauma-informed, demographic.

  4. Hollie

    I have not read Brené Brown’s most recent book so I can only go by what’s here in the article, but I do agree with what you’re saying.
    Additionally as a child I was never allowed to say I was “bored” (that was a big no-no) or that I “didn’t have anything to do”
    Toxic busyness was promoted, pushed, encouraged.

    As an adult there are many layers I’m learning to uncover in regards to rest, stillness, boredom…

    Boredom itself IS a scary thing for me, even now as an adult.
    I get nervous and anxious when I feel bored, and hurry to find something to occupy myself with. This can be very difficult in general, but if I’m also in a depressive episode and ennui is present at the same time it’s a nightmare.

    Boredom does not lead to imagination or creativity for me, as fear and vigilance tend to be more present in those moments.
    I am healing, and I have learned to be more comfortable with stillness, or rest. But as of yet, boredom is wayyyyy outside my comfort zone and still terrifies me.

    • I hear you. This is definitely something I still struggle with as well. Rather than prompt me to action, boredom tends to make me even more passive. I’m working on not judging myself for it.

  5. Jane

    I greatly appreciate your wise sharing! I am an elder (age 75) who is finally learning the value of leaning towards myself. I’ve experienced many traumas, and I”m grateful to now be able to hold boundaries and begin to share my lived experiences with the hope of assisting other people, especially women, to value themselves and not fear their curiosity. Blessings!

    • Such a fine example of why our later years can be our best ones.

  6. Lizette Lobpries

    Very interesting and enlightening, from someone trying to understand people that are not like me. Thank you for your insight!

  7. Marc

    I agree, and I’ve never thought of the dark side of boredom for some children. I have 3 kids, and I’ve always sort of gone along with the “boredom is an opportunity to get creative” philosophy. As it happens, my kids are plenty busy, so they are more likely to complain to just chill and relax than time than boredom. But as a child, racking up my Adverse Childhood Events points, I remember boredom as nightmarish. After my parents got divorced when I was 10, I remember entire summers with absolutely nothing to do. At 11 my best friend and I convinced our parents (mine were divorced) to send us overseas for 6 weeks to visit his grandfather’s farm. I’ll always remember the feeling of suffocating boredom when the fantasy of an adventure far away turned into the reality of us being abandoned on a farm in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do and no efforts from his unfriendly, cold grandparents to help us find something to do. (We ended up both being sexually abused by a man who had come to empty the septic tank.) In some ways I credit the long hours, days, months and years of being left alone as the loam out of which my creativity grew. But you’re right, boredom isn’t only a goad to doing and trying new things; it can be sign of abandonment by the adults around the child.

    • This is a great point and really highlights how boredom can come from abandonment of caregivers and have terrible consequences.

  8. Anna

    This is soo true! I have always asked myself why it is so unconfortable for me to sit in silent meditation always resulting in extreme anxiety whereas I love to engage in guided meditations. I have also wondered why I cannot let go of being so busy to the point of burn-out while there is no actual survival need for me at stake. Now I know why: I save myself from boredom which feels so threatening to my traumatized brain. It all makes sense now. Thank you, Laura, for bringing more clarity to my life!

    • Grateful to hear you got that insight! Not many people realize that meditation can be agitating to some of us.

  9. Anne Bedard

    Spot on

  10. Jennifer Ottaway

    Boredom in my case growing up in a dysfunctional family is something that rarely happened as you are constantly looking for ways to escape the situation that you’re in whether it be through visiting friends, being out playing, going to the beach which we often did on our own, media, anything to distance yourself from the inevitable physical or emotional violence that would arise. Everyday is a battle of avoiding the feelings of lack of love and normalcy within your family and striving to be better within yourself to try to achieve those feelings with other people.
    Only if you can’t escape your situation would boredom be present and if there is a sense of peace within the house so you are not in a state of anxiety trying to escape it. Boredom was in itself a sense of peace depending upon how long it would be.
    I think it depends on the individual and the ability to cope within a dysfunctional family. Mostly if things are bad you are in a fight or flight mode and children from dysfunctional families can read a situation quickly and try and avoid it. Being busy is a way of not confronting those feelings.

    • Yes, growing up in dysfunction forces you to be hyper alert and on guard – no time to relax.

  11. Julie

    I totally agree. My personal experience with boredom left my nervous system more activated. The feeling of ” I need to be doing something” has been brought to awareness recently and something I have felt all my life or at least for most of it. Unable to settle ment I’d go from one project to another regardless of the physical pain I was in. I’m now learning to settle and accept that I can switch off. Especially in the evening when my chores have been done, and or when I need to rest. It’s a slow process but I’m getting there

    • It’s interesting how boredom can activate the nervous system. So glad to hear you’re able to switch off now. I understand how difficult that can be.

  12. Brenda

    I agree with your article. The traumatized brain comes up with a whole array of scenarios that aren’t pretty.
    I do think that you underestimate Brene’s knowledge of trauma though. Perhaps she may agree with your article as well. I do think you and Brene could have a really good conversation about it.

    • Thanks for your input. I do hope I’ve been respectful in my approach. I would love the opportunity to chat with Brown about this topic.

  13. N.drishti

    i agree with this from my young it was made sure i was occupied with some work even though few times they let go . But after a few years they made sure that i do some or the other work i rarely remember times they left to do on my own accord. Even if it happened for few times you will have great impact because of that .
    Today i understand that by your lines. even after coming a long way still i remember those things when they are around me . its a kinda upsetting sometimes but after getting used to that your brain tends to do that action when the environment is back to same . these lines helped me a little.

    • I’m glad to hear the article helped you a little. Thanks for sharing your experience with this.