Raise your hand if you’ve felt the following recently: bored, unfulfilled, stagnant, and overall just meh. It may sound like a list of symptoms from a depression medication commercial, but these factors could actually be indicators of something else: rust out.
We’re all familiar with burnout—that depleted state caused by too much work, too many responsibilities, and too many too many’s. But rust out is a related concept that has been sneaking its way into our culture—completely unnoticed yet terribly, annoyingly draining. And it can crop up in all areas of life, from work to relationships to that empty feeling of “What do I do with myself?” when faced with a planless day or evening.
It’s unclear where the term originated, but around 1770, the evangelist George Whitefield allegedly said of his desire to continue preaching through poor health, “I had rather wear out than rust out.” And legend has it that Theodore Roosevelt once uttered that when it comes to wearing out or rusting out, he’d much prefer the former.
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“It is a term that captures a sense of feeling disengaged, purposeless, apathetic, and alienated,” explains Teena Clouston, author of Challenging Stress, Burnout, and Rust-Out. “It is directly related to a lack of satisfaction or meaning in life.”
Clouston traces rust out to the era of a different president: Ronald Reagan, who led the country in the go-go 1980s, when society’s obsession with the 40-hour workweek hit an all-time high. The 1978 book Rusting Out, Burning Out, Bowing Out lobbed the term back into the modern vernacular (as did—in another way—the Neil Young song My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), which complicates TR’s phrase by saying, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”). Work became “the dominant life activity for all adults” in the ’80s. This side effect of capitalism caused “the boundaries between work and home to diminish and social well-being to break down.”
Yes, that sounds like cause for burnout. But rust out is subtler, if just as insidious. Work burnout is feeling like your plate is so overloaded that it’s going to crack in half. Rust out is feeling like your plate could use a few extra sides (or more of the main course), but you can’t quite figure out what you’re craving. “It’s psychological or emotional stagnation...when you are enveloped in the day-to-day minutia and find something lacking challenge or fulfillment,” explains licensed professional clinical counselor Wendy Boring-Bray, who clarifies that it’s not simply feeling bored but rather a “true sense of lack of purpose.”
Rust out can almost feel like FOMO. There’s this nagging sense that you should—and could—be experiencing life in a larger, better way. But instead, you’re stuck in a loop of monotonous work tasks, figuring out (again!) what to make for dinner, or going on less-than-average dating app dates.
“If you are suffering from burnout, you are like a used match—desiccated and crumbling,” Clouston says. “With rust out, you are slowly corroding and feel you cannot stop it.”
And if you feel like you’re sitting on the sidelines of your own life screaming, “Put me in, Coach!”—know that you’re not alone. “Well-being is declining in modern life, and rust out is proliferating,” Clouston says, but, even if it seems like the system is stacked against you, here are small ways to rediscover your shine.
Audit your values
Boring-Bray believes in starting with introspection. “Examine who you are and what is most important to you,” she says. “If something isn’t lining up with your beliefs and values, then it may be time to either change your beliefs or change the situation.” Maybe this means leaving a job that no longer serves your values, or taking on a hobby related to a cause you’d like to support. Clouston also suggests doing an audit of what matters to you. “Review what is meaningful to you, and make the time to do it,” she says. “If you feel unmotivated, stuck, stressed…you may have to change routines. Whatever is meaningful to you as an individual, start spending your time and energy wisely to engage with it.”
Figure out what fills your cup
That audit might help you realize new areas of interest and excitement. Add them to your plate. But if you’re paralyzed from rust out? Think about what filled your cup as a kid. “Most individuals have a compass that leads them in the direction of what they find fulfilling,” Boring-Bray adds. If you loved helping with dinner prep, sign up for a cooking class. If you were captain of your high school volleyball team, consider joining a community league or taking up coaching. If tutoring fellow students brought you joy, seek a volunteer teaching opportunity. Understand, too, that those things can come and go. You may rediscover a childhood love for painting, but you may also learn that the hobby or interest you’ve clung to since high school isn’t actually working for you anymore—you’ve just been telling yourself you love it.
Balance your cargo
Clouston recommends a visualization practice. “Think of yourself as a ship—I know, bear with me,” she says. “In your cargo hold are all the various activities you undertake in life—your work, family life, leisure activities, personal interests, and so on.” Then she asks a simple question: “What does the balance of your cargo look like?”
You might discover some areas that are too light or too heavy. If your relationship is on the light side, you might realize that you or your partner isn’t dedicating enough time or energy to it. “Talk to your partner and look at challenging the patterns and routines you have created,” Clouston says. Look, too, at what might be weighing down your cargo and not leaving enough space for other activities. Is your career too heavy and not allowing your relationship or hobbies to thrive? “Don’t be afraid to consider whether a change of scene, focus, and/or purpose might be what you need.”
Cassie Hurwitz (she/her) is an assistant editor at Oprah Daily, where she covers everything from culture to entertainment to lifestyle. She can typically be found in the middle of multiple books and TV shows all at once. Previously, Cassie worked at Parents, Rachael Ray In Season, and Reveal. Her love language is pizza (New York slices, Chicago deep dish, and otherwise).