When work is the answer to everything
On productivity, self-worth, and internalized capitalism.
I’m pretty sure it’s an unspoken rule of the internet that when two or more people send you the same meme, you have been Officially Seen. At least, that was the case for me.
“Hey lady! I saw this image and it made me think of you and your writing,” my friend Sarah messaged me last Tuesday. Just hours before, my partner Billy texted me the same post, with no comment.
The image was one of those self-care-focused, text-laden squares that—at least in my Instagram world—get shared all the time. This one was created by Psychotherapist Lee McKay Doe, aka @thrivewithlee.
Here’s what the post said:
INTERNALIZED CAPITALISM LOOKS LIKE
Feeling guilty for resting.
Your self-worth is largely based on doing well in your career.
Placing productivity before health.
Believing that hard work = happiness.
Feeling lazy, even when you’re experiencing pain, trauma, or adversity.
Using busyness as a way to avoid your needs.
For better or worse, Billy and Sarah saw me in Doe’s words.
I saw myself, too. I’d never heard the phrase “internalized capitalism” before, but it immediately resonated. I’ve written previously about being addicted to work and struggling with relaxing—it’s something I’ve dealt with for years and years, and haven’t yet figured out how to shake.
Work is my answer for most everything. Feeling anxious? I distract myself with work. If I’m happy? It’s a good time to work! Sad? I clearly haven’t gotten enough work done.
Every minute is an opportunity to answer another email, submit another invoice, write another paragraph, schedule another meeting, cross another item off the never-ending to-do list.
And if I’m not doing the type of work that requires me to sit at my desk, I fill my time with other things that wind up feeling ... a lot like work. I unpack another box, clean another dish, add another item to the grocery list, text another friend back, fold another pile of clothes. When I do finally relax, it’s hard to quiet my mind. I’m often thinking about newsletter ideas, tasks I forgot to do earlier in the day, or a myriad of other things that prevent me from actually resting.
Certainly, there are a few semi-noble rewards for all this work—to be fulfilled, to help others, to challenge myself—but it is also, of course, simply a means to earn money. Like the good capitalist I am, I either spend that money (lately, on furniture and other things for our new home) or save it (in hopes of making bigger purchases in the future).
Capitalism keeps me working, because I’m always needing and wanting something else. What’s more, I have internalized a capitalist mindset, telling myself that if I’m not working, then I’m not valuable.
We live in a capitalist society, a country whose unofficial motto is “time is money.” And while I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of capitalism versus other economic systems, I can easily see the damage it’s wrought—on my psyche, and on the growing number of Americans who are struggling financially.
Like Doe wrote in another post, “It’s not about being anti-capitalism, or pro any other ideology. It’s about recognizing that any ideology, when it gets to an advanced stage and is swallowed whole—has an impact on humans.”
According to Doe’s definition, I hit all of the hallmarks of internalized capitalism. If I rest for too long, I feel guilty or lazy. I constantly seek job approval as a sign that I’m worthy. I prioritize getting things done over taking care of myself. And I regularly convince myself that working harder will solve whatever problem I’m facing.
I’d like to say that I’ve made some progress in combating the need for constant productivity. I quit working at places that demanded endless hours; I take periodic breaks from social media; I read books like How to Do Nothing, Can’t Even, and How to Not Always Be Working; I circle this topic in my writing again and again.
Most recently, I stopped wearing my FitBit. After obsessively making sure I walked 10,000 steps a day, I decided to stop tracking my exercise after realizing that walking, one of the few activities that I enjoy and find relaxing, had become yet another task to complete. So I ditched the tracker. Now, a walk is just a walk. This might seem small to you, but it’s a big change for me.
Still, the need to work and be productive all the time is a hard habit to break. If I go too long without accomplishing tasks, I feel restless, lazy, and unmoored. I rarely enjoy the present moment; instead, I’m constantly jumping to the next thing. We have lived in our house for only 17 days, and I already have a running list of home-improvement projects to complete. I am always, always working. Whenever I look around, it seems everyone else is constantly working, too.
I’m hardly the only person to write or think about this issue. Newsletter writers like Haley Nahman, Nisha Chittal, and Anne Helen Petersen have all recently tackled this subject. Doe’s Internalized Capitalism image has been spread far and wide across the internet. And membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has exploded in recent years. It feels like we’re all collectively waking up to the idea that there are better models out there.
Lately, I’ve realized that my workaholic tendencies are creeping into my parenting style. I read articles on infant development like it’s my job. I make sure we’re doing the recommended amounts of tummy time, reading aloud, and independent play. Just the other day, I had to stop myself from creating a spreadsheet to track my daughter’s first foods.
Parenting is described as a full-time job, so it makes sense that it would feel like work. But I don’t want it to feel that way. I want time with my daughter to be a respite from work. I want to enjoy her ebullient spirit and learn from her rhythms, instead of following a rigid schedule. I want to cuddle her when she’s sleepy, play with her when she’s active, and cheer her on when she’s mastering new skills.
Maybe most of all, I want to model healthy behaviors for her. I do want my daughter to see me as a working woman. I also want her to see me as someone who values rest and play, compassion and connection.
Overcoming my deep sense of internalized capitalism isn’t something I can fix overnight. But like with so many other things, my amazing little girl has the potential to teach me, finally, how to change my ways. The answer isn’t to stop working; it’s to stop believing that work determines my worth.
Work is work—it’s necessary at times, but not all the time. Work can and should be balanced with other good things in life: Play, relaxation, compassion, and connection.
After all, life is too short to waste it working.
💖 Sharing is caring
Christine is the kind of reader every writer hopes for. She takes time to think and respond to so many My Sweet Dumb Brain essays, and she’s generous with her compliments. I’m very grateful!
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who actually just started wearing her FitBit again as motivation to move more—but she promises to take a break if it becomes too much like a job! Photos by Colin Watts on Unsplash.
This newsletter contains Bookshop.org affiliate links.