Have you caught yourself thinking “I don’t care” or “I just don’t care” lately? More than a few times this past month? If so, it can be important to notice and acknowledge this. While “I don’t care” may feel true in the moment, it also is likely to be a signal that something is not right. It may be calling your attention to what needs adjusting or changing in your life.
The phrase “I don’t care” when thought or said at home or at work (or both) is a clue that something is out of balance or not working for you. It’s usually about a relationship, situation or context in which you normally do, or maybe “should”, actually care. But you may be too stressed, overwhelmed, or even burned out, to feel like you care in that moment.
When “I don’t care” shows up frequently in your thoughts or in you speech, it can be a strong signal of overwhelm, exasperation, depression, or even burnout. Listening to yourself to know what’s behind it can help you get clearer, and also get more choice and control over feeling better.
How do you tell the difference? Here are a few things to notice that can help:
1) Begin by checking on the emotional energy behind “I don’t care” when you think or say it to yourself or others. “I don’t care” almost always has more information to it than just those words at face value. Noticing what else is there in your body and feelings can give you more information. Our sensations and emotions are there to give us more information about what’s going on for us, about what we want and need. They can point to next steps for more balance, control, and happiness, when we listen to ourselves in more attentive or skillful ways.
For example, if “I don’t care” comes up for you when demands are being put on you AGAIN, this could reflect overwhelm or stress, or both. You may notice more exasperated, frustrated or angry energy underneath “I don’t care.” That’s information. When we are pulled on to do too many tasks, especially for others, whether at work or in our personal lives, over time this can lead to the self-protective distancing of “I just don’t care.” It can be a signal that it’s time to speak up, to set some new boundaries, to choose yourself more often – or all of the above.
In that case, “I don’t care” is more a sign of too much negative stress. If the situation has been going on over a longer time, burnout can creep in as well.
2) On the other hand, if you check on what else is within “I don’t care” and you find more of a hopeless, discouraged energy to it, that’s a different emotional end of the spectrum. In that case, the information your emotions are giving you may be more about your experiencing depletion, discouragement, or burnout. For many people, “I don’t care” then translates into “I just can’t do it anymore,” or “I can’t keep trying here any more,” or “I can’t keep this up.”
This pattern is different than the more temporary overwhelm of too much stress. Burnout can be a state of feeling too depleted to do anything about it — or for some people, even being able to imagine doing anything about it. By that point the burnout may be more serious, and it would be important to pay attention and possibly seek out professional support or help.
It’s important to know and remember that there are always options internally even with challenging outer circumstances. And with burnout, paying attention to the internal options first can help give you the energy and clarity to make decisions about the external situation.
When burnout is an issue, it can help to pay additional attention to the emotional information that may be hidden in the “I don’t care:”
- If you check inward and notice discouragement in your occasional thought or statement of “I don’t care,” stick with it a little further to identify what’s bothering you about the situation or the person more specifically. Where do you have power, choice or control in the situation, even if initially it feels like you don’t? What would need to change in the situation for you to feel your control and capacity again? These questions can give you a place to start to generate options and know your own truth more clearly.
- “I don’t care” can also have irritability to it, or sarcasm, or more direct underlying anger. This can be present in high stress situations that have gotten more chronic, and also when that longer-term stress is developing into burnout.
- If you notice “I don’t care” is in your thoughts and speech many times a day along with a depleted, hopeless energy, or with an irritability or angry feel to it, that may indicate depression, burnout, or some of both.
Clinical depression as an actual diagnosis is different than the common use these days of “I’m depressed.” Diagnosable clinical depression can include having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning for days or weeks at a time, or actually not getting out of bed some days when there are things to do and responsibilities waiting. Clinical depression can include changes in weight or appetite, or both. It can include changes in mood over a period of two weeks or more. If any of these are happening for you, it could be important to check with a licensed psychologist or other licensed mental health provider, and/or your physician, to get a plan for feeling better again.
3) “I don’t care” can also reflect burnout. Burnout can be different from clinical depression, as the feelings and mood can be discouraged or “down” during burnout, or irritable and angrier than usual, without meeting the criteria for a clinical diagnosis for depression.
But feeling discouraged, down, or more negative, irritable and tired than usual does not have to fit the criteria for clinical depression to be serious. Burnout itself can be serious.
By definition, burnout includes physical exhaustion as well as mental and emotional exhaustion. “I don’t care” in this case can be more of an indication of depletion, of needing rest and renewal on more than just the physical levels. It can be a signal of feeling so spent that I’m disconnecting. I’m saying “I don’t’ care” to not feel even more demands on me to keep doing more and giving more, when I feel like I have nothing more to give. I may be distancing myself with irritability because I’m just spent and frustrated.
When you check in with yourself to see what kind of energy underlies the “I don’t care” that you catch yourself thinking or saying out loud, you get more information about your experience. Knowing whether you’re “stressed out” or heading more toward “burned out” can help you understand your specific experience better. It can help you listen inward more skillfully, and then be able take the most appropriate steps to get back on track and recovered physically, mentally, and emotionally.