I planned for today’s newsletter to be an essay, but a family emergency threw things off course. So I’m trying out a discussion thread instead.
Long story short, my mom fractured her foot on our first night of a weeklong vacation. While this experience is obviously much harder for her, witnessing the aftermath of the injury and the chaos surrounding it resurfaced some trauma for me. It also reminded me of how much I tend to retreat to work when things are uncomfortable. Why sit with pain when you can keep yourself busy with work?
And that’s what I’d like to explore with you all today: What’s your relationship with work like when life gets hard? Are you the type of person who keeps yourself busy with tasks or do you tend to shut down and not do anything “productive”?
If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear how you approach work during your harder seasons of life—after a loss, during a breakup, as you navigated illness or injury, or throughout another stressful time. In those difficult periods, what role did work play for you? And, has your relationship to work changed since then?
This is my first time experimenting with a discussion thread, and, whew, this is a weighty introductory topic to tackle! I know this is a big question, and there’s no pressure to respond if it’s too difficult or demanding to write about. But I am looking forward to reading (and replying to) your responses as they come in! This is a subject I’ve been thinking about lately; it’s one I’m hoping to explore more in future essays, and I’d love to highlight some of your thoughts.
Until then, I’ll be making the most of this remaining family vacation and taking care of my sweet, injured mom. Don’t work too hard, y’all!
I'm seeing a lot of responses to the effect of "my work is my identity." And, of course, no matter how life-stress impacts your relationship with work, it's never JUST about work when identity/self-worth/etc are so closely tied to it.
It makes me think of something I hear often about Americans. That if you go to a party and are making introductions, one of the first questions is, "What do you do for a living?" But that in other countries and cultures, that's rarely a go-to ice-breaker.
I have an incredibly complex relationship with work/productivity/success ... mostly the paradox it creates in my life based on my personal soul-enriching values and goals versus the deeply internalized, capitalist-driven ideas I was raised with that prioritize job status and work performance as the highest indicators of your life's worth and purpose.
I've never been able to keep a "career." Most of my adult life has been spent working part-time. As someone who was a former over-achiever in academia, I never made a smooth transition to the workforce. This is something that I'm ashamed of for a variety of reasons.
These observations and revelations aside, I am definitely #TeamShutDown when I get overwhelmed 🙃
Honestly, I wish I was able to use work to distract myself. If I have something personal going on or just higher anxiety than usual, my work concentration/motivation is the first thing to go out the window. This is particularly unhelpful, of course, when my anxiety is about work...
I am hoping that moving out of academia into a more structured job might help with this (clear external motivations rather than just "my" research and all the identity baggage that comes with that for me) but maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Interesting timing on this question…yesterday was the first day of the new school year, and for the first time in 12 years, I wasn’t there. I left teaching at the end of last year to prepare for a move to join my partner, and as I write this, I am officially unemployed.
Even though this is by choice, it has really made me question my relationship with work. Like you, I have used work as a coping mechanism and a distraction from the things in life that feel difficult. In the absence of the structure of a traditional job, I have had to reckon with my feelings much more directly simply because I have more time and space to do so.
I am working on untangling the threads between my employment status and my sense of purpose and worth. I’m curious about who I am outside of the job I do, and I’m grateful that I have the privilege to explore new facets of myself in this brief sabbatical.
Sending your mom lots of love! Hope her recovery is speedy.
Katie's sentence of "Why sit with pain when you can keep yourself busy with work?" hit me over the head with a strong dose of reality. I work to numb myself out and for years have been rewarded for that through rapid promotion and career "success." That said, I feel like I've missed learning how to take care of myself - how to process trauma and grief outside of the 60 minutes I allow myself each week in my therapist's office, how to handle disappointment, and like many others have already noted, how to untangle my sense of identity with that of my work. What is frustrating to me is that I recognize the problem at hand here - this fleeing to work when things get hard - but to-date, I've been fairly unwilling to change it. Unwilling to sit with the discomfort of trying something new - even if I know this is a "short term pain for long term gain" situation. Part of it is fear that I won't find fulfillment in things outside of my work environment, or if I find a hobby that I'd "fail" at it, but largely this fear is based in "what am I going to do if I no long automatically run to work for comfort and safety?"
Work isn't something I can focus on with trauma or stress or any other big hard feelings, but I can clean the absolute *hell* out of my house. It's that bubbly anxious feeling in my chest that will shut down emails and any work productivity that needs my brain, but mindless physical work like cleaning cabinets or vacuuming or pulling weeds? Oh yeah, that's the best kind of distraction.
I think this one has changed for me since the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic Sarah, from what I am willing to guess based on when my Yiayia died found solace in work, it was there, I was good at it and much of my identity (self-worth, really) was tied to what I did.
Now post-pandemic Sarah, the version I had to break down a lot to get to, gets so freaking upset about work when life stress happens. That it seems to disregard that I need a minute or a few days for something that is so very much more important. That it is not the end all be all anymore, because it is not. I am, my family is, the things that kept me afloat when I felt I was drowning in “the nothing” are.
It’s a boundary I am still working on setting with tact and less scared protection as I am very aware I could slip back into old Sarah and I don’t want to.
It is another aspect of my life I want to learn how to experience with grace while keeping my healthy firm boundaries of what is actually important in place.
I tend to go between the two extremes. Sometimes I need the distraction of work to keep me from focusing on "real life." That work could be anything from my actual job, to turning to organizing cabinets and closets and doing load after load of laundry.
Other times, I simply need to sit and shut down my brain. My front porch is usually the place I find myself during those times. Simply rocking, looking at the flowers I've tended all summer, and letting the silence surround me.
If that doesn't work, a good cuddle with the pups is never a bad thing.
I'm definitely team shut down when I get stressed or overwhelmed. I retreat into reading books, watching shows, basically anything but work! I know something's going on with me when my inbox starts overflowing and I don't tend to it. The trouble is that it's harder to check back in from feeling overwhelmed when my work inbox becomes a jungle.
I realized just yesterday that I was using the "busyness of work" as a significant crutch and that this was a sign that I needed to make a big, immediate change to this in favor of realigning my priorities. 8/22 was my due date and I was still working, despite having transitioned most things away already. I felt the need to "stay working" because it felt good to me; it was a place I decided I was needed and it was a welcome distraction to keep myself busy until the baby arrives. When I realized my blood pressure was also elevated yesterday, I called today as my last day. I'd rather feel "out of the loop" and less productive, but more relaxed as I go into labor and welcome my first child into the world.
Work is certainly a way to fill the void. Why would you feel deep feelings when you can sit at your computer and look at the very inconsequential emails. Speaking of Americans...I just moved to the Netherlands and went to the beach on the second day I was here. I was the only one who took out their phone. Seriously. Not making this up. I keep looking to see who else was "working" and there was no one. My Dutch colleagues never open an email on the weekend. I think my biggest fear is remembering what this feels like.
Work was certainly my identity and my escape. Yet it was also the cause of all my stress and the root of my desire to escape. The pandemic allowed everything to slow down and re-center. The break I needed but never would have taken. I left that job and took one that pays a lot less but compensates me with so much time for me, my family, real vacations, sleeping at night, not thinking about work when I'm not actively working. Priceless. BUT! I still think of myself as a work to escape feelings person - the doer, planner, act person when things are hard. My grandma received a relatively short terminal diagnosis recently and I cannot help but grieve through doing things related to her care and comfort. Same when my dad passed away in 2020. Stay busy and it won't hurt.
When I was going through a difficult break-up many years ago, work was my safe space. It was a place where I had no reminders of the person who had broken my heart (other than the photos on my desk which I quickly scuttled away) -- it was a place and community that was just mine. I think as a result I invested in my coworkers differently. I went to lunch with some of them, I organized 15-minute break activities on Friday afternoons where we could just be goofy, and looking back, I kind of miss that chapter in my work life. I never would have done that if I hadn't been so devastated and lonely. Now that I am married, and especially after the pandemic and working from home, that community has taken a big back seat and my work is less important to me than it once was. But there's still this deep sense of gratitude for the people who are still there who knew me during that time.
When my dad passed away, I was still at the university. A few days after the funeral, I came back to the city where I studied and had an exam, passed it. I didn't take any time off, just continued with my obligations.
We just remember that you can show all the loyalty in the world to your job or company but you simply will never get that in return.
I used to fully throw myself into work as a (terrible) coping mechanism. One particular time comes to mind because it mean I wasn’t able to be there for my partner going through the situation with me. It hasn’t been as bad other times, because it was me trying to deal with massive depressive episodes and throwing myself into something I knew I was good at kept me moving along.
Now, I’m going through another depression and I actually listened to my body which is more reliable than my mind. I asked for reduced hours at work and my workplace was completely understanding. It was exactly what I needed from a work perspective instead of just pushing through. I credit this ability and growth to consistently showing up to therapy the last two years.
I absolutely distract myself with work. As a writer, I can kind of lose myself in whatever I'm working on, enter a different world. That can be a really great gift when the real world feels like too much.
Nice post, bringing so many people together. 💕
It depends, If my distress has me anxious (which means I have energy that has to go somewhere) I will throw myself into work. If my distress is overwhelm or burnout, I muddle through work doing the bare minimum to get by, knowing that I will feel differently in a day or two and my intensity level will change.
I just started a new job that I've been working towards for 4 years. During the pandemic I was laid off, started a new job, and experienced significant trauma towards the end of that job. So instead of a neat and tidy start to this new job, I am having health problems and am scheduled for a colonoscopy next week. I've never had one done and have a scary health history in this area. So for me, my identity quickly switches between productive/work identity and scared/shut-down identity. It's been disheartening to start a new job and have my first impression be the person who's constantly out for doctor's appointments, as well as the anxiety that keeps filling my days.
But I also struggle not having an identity tied to work, so the thought of scaling back and either not working for a season, or working part time, is scary.
Dear Katie, my dad passed away last week due to a heart attack. He's been sick for some time. I don't know what's the proper way to deal with this so I'm just sharing. Thankfully, I work on my own as a delivery rider so I don't have to take leave or anything like that. I just didn't work for the whole week and instead made myself helpful by being there for my mum and sister. While it's true that I usually work to distract myself, I felt that working only hides rather than comfort whatever emotional baggage I felt. It's only left with me, my sister and mum. She lives alone now, while we children have our own place.
I feel the need to be there physically for my mum to confide in me and so do I need someone to confide in too. We are all dealing with it in our own ways. My mum is busy settling the accounts from banks and insurances, uncovering past bills that were tucked away somewhere and not managed. I'm cleaning up the house, clearing dad's clothes and stuffs while trying to make it more easygoing for mum.
Your question couldn't have come at a better time as I just finished writing a chapter about the relationship between work and my depression in my memoir (which I'm just beginning to work on and will of course become a bestseller one day—one can dream!)
To condense a chapter into a few paragraphs, when I fell depressed earlier in my life (think early 2010s), each time I felt valueless. I felt that I was not creating value for the world, and so my being in the world was pointless. I would spend my days going through the motions to stay alive. And during the worst months, I wouldn't be able to do even that (my friends and then boyfriend had to house me and make sure I was fed and washed).
Several factors were involved each time I rose out of my depression, but looking back the biggest contributor was definitely doing work and feeling valuable. I came out of my first depression after starting a summer internship at Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the second after a summer internship at a fertiliser company, the third after getting my first job out of university.
Each time I got to work, to create valuable output and be recognised for it, I began to feel that I, again, was valuable and that life was therefore not pointless.
Fast-forward to now, when I no longer struggle with depression, doing work and creating value is still integral to my being. Work—defined as creating value, and which goes beyond my full-time job—is part of my identity. It's not my whole identity, but it's an important part of it. And when my life is faltering in other ways, I would tend to find solace in work rather than disengage from it.
Unfortunately, I tend to over work no matter what. Work is not my identity. I would rather sit and watch the wind blow through the trees while pondering my existence. I do not enjoy work. They say that’s why it’s, “work.”
I would say in bad times I do tend to look forward to the work day, depending on what tasks lie ahead that day. Because, if I’m working I’m not thinking about other things. Hopefully.
Maybe it just boils down to thinking that without this job financially things would be rough. So I overwork to try and ensure my company keeps me around a long time. But, at the same time I know it’s not worth it. The stress. Overworking.
It’s funny how we do things knowing they aren’t good for us. 😅
I've been through some hard seasons with my wife's health. There have been times when work has been a place where I could exist for a time outside my role as a caregiver for my wife and provide a sort of respite. For those eight hours I was not at home and so there wasn't much that I could actually do. While I don't think I've ever had a strong "my work is my identity" mindset, having that separate space where could have more control over my day rather than be at the mercy of her health conditions.
This is what made the transition to working from home at the start of the pandemic such a difficult one for me. Everything was suddenly all mixed together and there weren't those clear breaks. My commute had always provided a signal to myself that I was shifting gears, from one role to another. Those cues were now gone and it was hard for a while. I ended up getting the hang of things and while I now really love being able to work from home, I find I have to be much more intentional (especially when things get stressful) to carve out time for myself. I've been on leave from work most of the summer, but it will be interesting to see how things feel when I have to start going back to the office a couple days a week.
I'd say I tend to stay busy - especially keep my mind busy with something it can do rather easily. Something that is just enough to stay busy but doesn't require actual creative thinking. In my paying job I sometimes have more mundane tasks and when I am really stressed I will grasp onto those - which doesn't necessarily mean I'm getting the highest priority things done. I can also grasp onto something like "Spelling Bee" or some other word game which again gives my mind a way to stay busy but keeps me from really being with my body, emotions, etc.
I've really noticed it this summer, in times when I really had lots of time to pay deep attention to my body or to meditate because I couldn't do anything else - and yet I would stay "busy".
Very appreciative of this discussion!
Before the pandemic, my relationship with work was completely unbounded—as in, I was once checking my work email on my phone when I got hit in the face by an elliptical handle (because I thought I could do both at the same time?). Then the pandemic happened, and because of the nature of my job, I was able to work from home; for many reasons, that helped me reset my boundaries with work, but the main reason was that the pain I'd previously had became increasingly debilitating.
I started researching my symptoms, and after many months of dragging my feet, got a consult with an OB-GYN and a surgery. (If you also have endometriosis, I'm sending all my sympathy—and a TON of painkillers.)
Long story short: Discovering that I have a chronic physical illness, with no known cure, completely shifted my main priority. I can't work if my health isn't stable, and I know that work stress exacerbates my symptoms—and while endometriosis isn't a degenerative disease, it can be a progressive one, and doctors don't know why it progresses or returns after surgery.
In hindsight, I have a lot of empathy for my pre-pandemic self; she was beginning to experience a chronic disease and had no idea, and she was also deeply unhappy. I only understood my meaning through my job, and how that in turn determined how I chose to spend my time: what I talked about, what I thought about, what I did or did not value.
Pre pandemic I was definitely the type to throw myself into work when life felt hard. I would distract myself with task after task and be incredibly productive to the point that if someone was the main cause of my trigger or stress they would sometimes feel like I was better off without them because 'look at all that you got done without me around.'
But this wasn't helping me get through the issue or alleviate the feeling associated with the issue. I would be working with the anxiety sitting on my chest regardless.
Post pandemic has been much more difficult to throw myself into work. I find now I choose resting more, gratitudes, journaling, prayer etc to help alleviate a negative feeling and only if a day passes and none of that has helped then by day 2 I get back on my productivity...
Hmmm, "work" in and of itself is tricky for me. I was doing stuff on a hobby basis for 3 years in podcasting before I started to work in the space. And I'm still doing paid and unpaid things because I love doing them. So, if work includes all of that, yes, I very much so lean into working more when things are stressful.
And its interesting that you posted this discussion this week. My anxiety level is higher than its been for months and spending times on my to do list (creative and work tasks) has calmed my monkey brain. I'm still exercising, meditating and all that but keeping my mind on complex tasks pulls me out of the grief and stress. For awhile anyway.
Being around people I like and music also do this but I'm in an odd situation where community is tricky. I do blast music and dance around to Elderbook ALOT. His music takes me out of the stress and touches my soul at the same time.
I definitely relate to throwing myself into work during hard time. I did not take any time off when my grandfather was dying. I left early the day he died and for his funeral but did not take any time since. Which is normal for some with grandparent deaths, however, mine raised me as my father, so it was like a dad dying. I just wanted to work and not think about what was happening. It was a great distraction. I still grieved but it gave me something to do other than cry. That being said, when I was struggling with a loved one's addiction, I found it incredibly difficult to focus and wished I took time—and knew I needed it.