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Toxic Productivity: Grappling with "Enough"

Recently I found myself feeling tired after a day that wasn't particularly busy. The shame sequence of my American, productivity-geared mind immediately kicked in, reminding me in no uncertain terms I had not accomplished enough to feel tired that day, so I better stop feeling tired right now!

When I share experiences like these with my peers, they resonate in a way that tells me I'm not the only one going through this. Indeed, many clients also come to me with the feeling that they can't live up to their own expectations. This way of thinking has several negative impacts on us.

  1. "Enough" is a moving target. When I work with clients who struggle with this mindset, they're often unable to identify the amount of work that would satisfy them. For instance, a client may be upset with themselves for not accomplishing everything on their to-do list one day. When I ask if they would feel entitled to feeling tired at the end of the day if they did in fact check all the items on their list, they say something like, "Probably not... I really don't do that much, and I didn't even add all the things I need to do to the list in the first place." This phenomenon is also explored in this radio piece on productivity. Even clients who recognize that they've accomplished a lot - for instance, more than their boss expected - still struggle to validate their fatigue at the end of the day. The first step to untangling this mindset is to recognize that there is actually no such thing as "enough."

  2. When we invalidate our feelings, they tend to intensify. In the opening of this post, I gave an example of invalidation: telling myself my feelings of fatigue were incorrect or not real because I hadn't worked "hard enough" to justify them. In her book The Dance of Anger, Dr. Harriet Lerner lightheartedly points out how denying our feelings is a bit ridiculous: "To ask, "Is my (feeling) legitimate?" is similar to asking, "Do I have a right to be thirsty? After all, I just had a glass of water 15 minutes ago. Surely my thirst is not legitimate. And besides, what's the point of getting thirsty when I can't get anything to drink now, anyway?" As Dr. Lerner highlights, we are all going to experience human sensations and emotions, and it is not helpful to tell ourselves that what we're feeling is illegitimate. In addition, when we tell ourselves we shouldn't feel a certain way, such as angry or tired, it typically intensifies that emotion and then adds on feelings of guilt and shame that we're doing something wrong. All of this combines to make us feel worse than if we had simply acknowledged the fact that, yes, we do feel tired, regardless of whether we think that feeling is justified. This process of tacking on more painful emotions is described as the "second arrow" in Buddhism. A final note on validation: we are still in a pandemic and are feeling so many emotions for so many reasons right now. While I hope this post is relevant at any time, it is especially important to allow ourselves to experience our emotions without harsh judgment when the world is in such a confusing state.

  3. This cycle actually lowers motivation. Sometimes clients are quick to state that if they're never satisfied with their output, it motivates them to keep working. That may be true when this mindset is used appropriately or from time to time. However, when we chronically think about our work as "not enough," that rubs off on our self-concept. (I'm plugging this radio piece again because it addresses how work and worth go hand in hand in the U.S.). What begins as a desire to do our best morphs over time into the belief that nothing we do is ever enough. Over time, our efforts feel futile. Who wants to tackle a long to-do list when nothing we do is good enough anyway? Even if we think what we're accomplishing day-to-day isn't much, we will be many times more motivated to get anything done if we give ourselves credit.

When we get stuck in the cycle of thinking we have to reach certain levels of productivity in order to be justified in feeling tired, then we struggle to meet our goals, intensify negative feelings about ourselves, and lose motivation. By recognizing we're living in this cycle, we can identify that "enough" is a myth, validate our feelings as legitimate, and give ourselves credit for all that we do accomplish.

If you're seeking a therapist to work on struggles such as perfectionism or feeling like what you do is never enough, we are currently meeting with new clients via video and phone here at Houston Therapy. Call to connect with one of our clinicians, or set up your free initial consultation online to get started.

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