Inertia: Psychological Sloth and Restlessness

I can’t tell you how many times people tell me, “I’m lazy;” and I never agree with them. Not because the evidence shows the contrary, but because I know there is a deeper reason for their inaction. There is wisdom in inertia. The question is – why has this individual’s psychic energy gone underground, why has it sunk into the unconscious? I don’t believe it is a choice to be active or not, one needs inner motivation to truly act. The question is – why has this individual’s light of awareness gone out leaving them victimized by their own unconscious impulses? It’s like they are half awake and half asleep simultaneously unable to partake in life.

Happy Sloth
Happy Sloth
Inertia has a biological purpose for all animals: to replenish one’s power. All warm-blooded animals require large amounts of sleep to replenish. In some animals, inertia is a self-protective move, i.e. like rabbits freezing and playing dead in the presence of a predator. But for humanity quiescence is not an appropriate response to life, nor is it an appropriate defense mechanism. The question is – what is it defending against?

In Christian theology sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. This moral judgment often causes more damage than we recognize to the poor soul sunk in inertia, for nothing saps one’s energy than the unfocused feeling of guilt. On the other hand, one could revolt against this moral judgment condoning his laziness as natural and harmless, believing he can rise from it when the time comes. However, that time often passes him by without stirring his soul to action.

Psychologically, sloth represents a loss of psychic energy, of libido. Many times we find some poor soul pulling himself up by the bootstraps moving into some compulsive and useless activity to oppose his slothfulness, unfortunately this move does nothing to free him from his unconscious boundedness. “The inertia cannot be overcome simply by action, slot and restless activity are a pair of opposites that frequently alternate, without producing any improvement in the underlying situation” (Harding, 1947/1963, p. 45). After the individual has exhausted his little won psychic energy he falls back into slothfulness, losing self-esteem each time he swings from sloth to restlessness and back.

There are legitimate reasons for the withdrawal of psychic energy: emotional loss, physical illness, stress and anxiety, and psychological transformation. It is critical to recognize the deeper reason for inertia. For whatever reason when psychic energy is zapped it is not available for consciousness and the person has regressed to a lower level of functioning. When an individual loses a loved one, the loss dims one’s consciousness and they often become depressed. This is a legitimate reaction to loss. When an individual’s body becomes ill, all the energy in their system is needed for recovery which also depletes psychic energy. Stress and anxiety is most known for lowering one’s level of consciousness causing one to act out in very primitive and unconscious ways. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for the stress and anxiety, but most often there is not. Finally, when a new level of consciousness is on the horizon psyche requires a time of rest allowing it to garner the necessary energy to transcend the present level of ego conscious into a new level of consciousness.

The question remains – what is the meaning of one’s laziness? Is she on the sea-saw of rest and restlessness never moving the ball forward? Is she suffering from an unresolved physical illness or emotional loss? Is her psyche preparing for a new birth? Or is she suffering from pathological inertia where no quantum of stimuli will unrest her soul into movement? In the latter case, the person has fallen into the dark mood of depression from which only the most drastic experience can rouse him. Perhaps even the desire for food has disappeared which is nature’s sharpest urge to overcome inertia. Or perhaps this individual has been disappointed in love, then nature’s second urge, sex, to overcome inertia has failed to do its job. Lastly, perhaps this individual is suffering from existential “emptiness.” Either way these people cannot take any adequate part in life.

That psychic energy is not within the privy of consciousness does not mean that it ceases to be; it still exists. A deficiency in psychic energy can mean: 1) it has fallen back into the unconscious; 2) or it never was available to ego consciousness, clinging to the depths of the unconscious. “One of the most important contributions that modern depth psychology has made towards the understanding of life is this principle of equivalence, which postulates that when energy disappears from one psychological manifestation it will reappear in another of equivalent value” (Harding, 1947/1963, p. 52). Psychic energy swimming, as it does, in the sea of unconsciousness often comes back in the form of new symptoms, peculiar dreams, or strange, fleeting fragments of fantasy. These manifestations often “form themselves into a symbolic image that contains the energy lost from consciousness, together with an additional amount of energy whose attracting power was responsible for the original loss” (p. 53). This symbols holds the clue to overcoming the impasse that has formed between consciousness and the unconscious. It only comes when the mind has exhausted its efforts to understanding the impasse.

When life presents us with a new problem, a new chapter of experience for which the old adaptation is inadequate, it is usual to experience a withdrawal of the libido. For one phase of life has come to an end, and that which is needed for the new is not immediately at hand. This withdrawal will be experienced in consciousness as a feeling of emptiness, often of depression, and certainly of inertia, with an overtone of self-rebuke because of what seems like laziness or sloth. (Harding, 1947/1963, p. 57)

This is what psychologists call regression in service of transcendence. Psychic energy sinks into the unconscious conjuring a symbol of transformation for consciousness to unravel.

Under these circumstances it is obviously necessary to accept without self-reproach the withdrawal of the libido from consciousness, and to concentrate one’s attention on the inner scene. This is the only way in which the lost energy can eventually be restored, and in which the capacity to take up the creative task of living can be renewed. (p. 58)

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Inspired by Esther Harding’s book Psychic Energy: Its source and its transformation