Ten months ago, the entire world was overcome by a reality that had been suppressed for quite a long time. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us were lucky enough to work from home. Many were excited because they viewed it as an extended spring break, while for others, it was seen as a mental health break that had been long overdue - after all, this would all be over in two weeks, and we would all be able to resume "normalcy," right? Not entirely, as the next thing we knew, we were stuck in our homes for months on end.
During this time, many of us were forced into the never-ending abyss of our minds. Being an over thinker by nature, I began to sink deeper into my head, getting lost in thoughts like, "What IS my purpose here? Am I good enough? Am I happy? Have I truly LIVED enough up to this point? Am I nurturing my soul?" Simultaneously, I remember seeing a flood of social media posts disclosing that this "extra time" we "gained" should be utilized to work on ourselves and achieve our goals. That this was a time to develop ourselves and that if we didn't come out of 2020 having accomplished anything with all of this "time" we now had, we were, essentially, unproductive. It's safe to say that, as thousands of others could probably relate, these posts repeatedly made me feel defeated and brought on thoughts that I wasn't good enough.
Here were all of these people using a global pandemic to their advantage for growth; meanwhile, all I could think of was how I wasn't "as productive as I needed to be." How every task, small or big, was beginning to feel incredibly taxing; all of my energy was depleting, and I couldn't bring myself to focus on anything for the life of me. Although I had been working and pursuing a master's degree, both full-time, I refused to grant myself any form of grace, and the feeling of guilt never left me at the end of every day. I continued to question my inability to be as productive as I had expected myself to be. After all, I was lucky enough to be working from home... shouldn't my burdens have become easier?
Six weeks into this unprecedented pandemic and my mental health was rapidly declining. I felt unworthy of everything, my ability to focus on work and school was continuously diminishing, my sleep cycle was unhealthy and inconsistent - everything was going down the drain. As a Palestinian-Muslim woman living and cultivating a life in the West, I had always found myself running through what has felt like an unescapable cycle of imposter syndrome. Initially, I considered it the source of my struggles because I was becoming more enveloped in my professional career, a career in the social justice and political arena, which by default would lead any minority to experience some form of imposter syndrome. I had been so blinded that I didn't think of going beyond the idea that there may be something more profound to what I was dealing with, and more importantly, that I wasn't alone.
As I was compelled to delve deeper into myself and my thoughts, I began to discover that what I had been dealing with was extreme burn out and that this feeling was not exclusive to myself. In fact, thousands of people felt the same way, while it may be on different levels. I began to reflect on my purpose and relationship within my workspace, beyond the western lens of solely what I had to offer, but also how it could nurture me in return. It didn't hit me that I had been basing my worth off of the contemporary standards of Western productivity, as many of us do, until I realized just how badly I needed to take a break for the sake of my mental health. Yet, I refused to make an attempt because I found myself believing that working from home was enough of a privilege and that I somehow didn't deserve any time off.
After all of this reflection, I came to the conclusion that our mental health is naturally inclined to be impacted, in a negative sense, through aspects of robotic work tendencies and capitalism derived from the Western standards of productivity and success. From a young age, primarily in Western society, you are taught to be grateful for any and every opportunity that may come your way, even if it takes a toll on your mental health. Even if it doesn't pay well/at all. And even if you are not valued and not respected within the given workspace. You are taught not to take such opportunities for granted because they may get you somewhere great one day, as if you owe those who have granted you a given opportunity something more than you're being offered. You are encouraged to aim towards jobs that pay more, even if the work isn't something you are passionate about. Worst of all, you are taught to base your worth on how productive you are in the workspace to the point where working over 40 hours a week with no time off and, in many cases, with no proper compensation or benefits, has become romanticized.
So, where does this issue stem from? Why have we come to a point where we base our self-worth on productivity? For the West, the answer is simple; capitalism. The issue is deeply rooted in the cultural value of money over everything else. We love money, and we always feel the need to have and make more of it to the point where corporations, and the like, value the labor and outcomes provided over the human beings who are doing the work. This has pushed us to subconsciously believe that we frequently have to be working to be good enough and bring in enough income to live up to what's expected of us from the systems we live in. It has convinced us that taking time off for ourselves or leaving environments that no longer serve us is "shameful" and unloyal of us, even if our well-being is harmed.
There is nothing wrong with working tirelessly if you genuinely love what you do. If you are consistently stimulated and challenged by it. If you are appropriately compensated for it. If the environment you are in values you beyond the labor you provide and views you as more than a tool utilized for a means to an end. Most importantly, if you are given the space and opportunity to invest in and tend to your soul as much as you invest in your role within the workspace. If you are reminded to care for your mental health and that the labor you provide is not more essential than your right to a HEALTHY work-life balance. However, the fact remains that most of us have yet to see a change in working conditions that address our mental health and well-being and environments that value our presence beyond what we bring to the table to aid their success. We cannot cultivate a good quality of life for ourselves because we are stuck in a never-ending cycle of work, work, work.
While these issues are deeply ingrained within our systems, we can no longer settle for jobs that don't consider mental health, wellness, and security. We are not commodities that can be bought and sold for major corporations and government structures' successes. We are not robots. We are human beings who deserve to live and experience life beyond the robotic routines we have somehow adapted to. We cannot continue making the mistake of sacrificing our fulfillment and sticking to roles for the sake of security and stability.
“When you ignore your true self and you value your imagined approval from other people over who you truly are or the way you might truly want to live if you got underneath that desire to be “normal” you will always feel incredibly unstable.”
- Unfuck Your Brain
Now that we know where the perpetual feeling of hanging on by a thread stems from, what actions do we take? The first step is acknowledging the fact that your self-worth is, in fact, NOT defined by how productive you are. That you deserve to find joy within your work as opposed to having your energy sucked and your soul unfulfilled.
1. Consider implementing a mental shift when you begin to feel guilty or behind: “I’m not behind or unproductive, I’m doing as much as my mind and body are allowing me to do under perpetual stress and fatigue.”
2. Remind yourself of the fact that:
- it’s okay to ask for fewer hours at work. The work will always be there, it’s never supposed to feel like a race.
- it’s okay to use your vacation ours and/or simply take time off
- it’s okay to take unpaid leave. Whether it’s for raising a child, focusing on your mental health, or any other reason that’s important to YOU and your well-being
- it’s okay to set boundaries with your employers without feeling guilty about it
- it’s okay to leave a role that no longer serves and fulfills you in order to work towards what you’re passionate about.
3. Change starts from within, whether it be micro or macro. If you hold the emotional space to take on such a task, think of what actions you may be able to take within your workspace in order to create a shift in this toxic work culture and advocate for more humane work expectations.
4. Don’t compare yourself to others when you’ve begun to focus on the goals YOU want to achieve in and out of the workspace. Especially when it feels like you’re not receiving an immediate return on the energy you’re investing, it might feel like you’re not doing enough, but be cautious of utilizing that as an excuse to push yourself to an extreme, causing yourself to burn out. Keep yourself aligned with your focus of flow and grant yourself some grace; it’s not a competition.
However, for these mental shifts to be stable, we must redefine what success means; success isn’t just about how many hours you can work and how far you can push yourself. And it certainly isn’t defined by reaching burn out and being able to say, “I’m always working, I don’t have time for anything else.” Success is also about taking care of ourselves. About fulfilling our souls. About staying grounded in our beliefs and investing in our faith. About being able to find joy in our day to days without feeling perpetually exhausted and unfulfilled.
Keep in mind that relief isn’t found in reaching where we think we need to be, as accolades in a capitalistic driven society will only ever bring temporary satisfaction until the next thing comes along - it’s a never-ending cycle. Relief resides in the now and in actively nurturing ourselves and our souls. It is found in creating our own standards of productivity and chasing our own dreams instead of conforming to normalcy and to what has long been expected of us within these spaces.
This article was originally published by Muse Avenue.