Last week I took my very first Mental Health Day in my entire life—a fact that surprises me when I actually think about it. Between Ontario entering its 20958320985th lockdown, feeling exhausted from continually trying to adapt to this strange world, and becoming bored with my usual coping strategies, I was, quite simply, feeling like crap.
Taking a mental health day can be a difficult task and logistical nightmare in many professions, including my own. It's especially tough when you feel like people rely on your support. I hummed and hawed about taking a day off for hours before deciding to bite the bullet. Thoughts like "Is this selfish?" "Is this really necessary?" and "Maybe I'm just being a bit dramatic" were repeat offenders that day (which then triggered feelings of guilt since I'm a therapist, after all, and should "know better" than to be so hard on myself). But alas, I courageously contacted all of my patients and went to bed excited for tomorrow's day of "me time."
And then the next day came, bringing no feeling of relief or excitement whatsoever. Instead, an intense and unexpected feeling of guilt showed up in its place.
What was I thinking? I have to go to work. How dare I not go to work today? I'm fine, I'm fine. Maybe I can still go in.
There I was using my highly anticipated day off thinking about if I should just suck it up and go to work. I traded time that could have been spent reading a good book, having a hot bath, or working out debating if I had made the right decision.
And yet, I've learned that this guilt is an incredibly common feeling. Indeed, countless people with whom I work have told me that they are bombarded with thoughts about whether or not they're being "productive enough" every day or telling me that they feel disproportionately guilty when they take any time to relax.
Research backs this up, too: a recent survey of 2,000 American workers showed that 6 in 10 people feel guilty for taking any kind of break during work hours in the pandemic. Three in 10 added that they don't take a lunch break as a result.
The whole thing got me thinking: what is going on here? And what can we do to help ourselves out?
First Thing's First: Why Do We All Feel So Damn Guilty?
I was trained to look at people through a systemic lens—that is, to ask myself how their social location affects their experience. Essentially, thinking systemically is about remembering that none of us grew up in a vacuum; rather, we were influenced by our parents, our generation, the society around us, our religion, and more.
You don't have to be a psychotherapist to be cognizant of the ways that Western society promotes productivity, efficiency, and paid labour; back when we used to go to parties (remember those?), the first question people asked was, "What do you do for a living?"
Think about all of the apps, books, and seminars that exist about enhancing productivity too, as if it's the ultimate key to human success and happiness. As The Flutey Feminist writes in one of her blogs, "Our society operates on the belief that to be a valued member of society, you must be productive. You should not rely on any help unless necessary, and even then, you're considered somewhat of a failure."
To make matters worse, smartphones have made it all too easy for people to reach us 24/7. Instant messenger apps in workplaces, texting, emailing, and calling provide us with the means to reach someone whenever we please, no matter what the hour. The feeling that anyone can contact us at any moment, including our bosses, makes it hard to ever get a break. Couple this with the fact that so many of us are now working from home and it's basically impossible to not feel as though there's any degree of separation between work and home.
In other words, I think we live in a context that programs us to feel guilty about not working. And when our bosses and every other co-worker live by the same unwritten rule of "work your hardest 24/7," it's hard to know what living within anything other than this belief system even looks like!
The fact that so many of us feel guilty about not working or being productive says more about the context in which we're living than our personality traits, I'd say.
So, What Do We Do About It?
Name it to tame it.
Author and psychologist Peter Levine came up with this saying, which explains how accurately naming your emotional experience can help "turn on" the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that is able to think more logically—and "turn down" the volume of the amygdala, which is like the brain's "panic button."
Here are some accurate names for what you're experiencing:
• Time anxiety: there are three different types of time anxiety. First, we have existential time anxiety, which is the feeling that you only have a limited amount of time to live your life. You can also have future time anxiety, which is when you fixate on how your present-day actions affect your future. Or you can experience daily time anxiety, where you feel like there simply aren't enough hours in a day to get things done. Like any other type of anxiety, time anxiety is the result of your body's fight or flight system faultily being activated even though you are not actually in danger. Simply taking a moment to label this feeling as anxiety—nothing more or less—can be enough to stop you from going down a self-awareness rabbit hole of questions like, "But what does it say about me that I'm getting anxious?!"
• Emotional reasoning: this is a cognitive distortion that described situations where we see our emotions as "proof" that something exists in reality. Said differently, emotional reasoning involves saying, "The guilt I'm experiencing must be a sign that there's something to feel guilty about." From there, your brain will think of all of the reasons of why this feeling is "legitimate." You can see why this would be problematic. After all, our feelings are fleeting, not permanent. They're also finicky. How many times have you felt a certain way, only to have a snack and realize that you were just super hangry? Our emotional state can be affected by how much sleep we get, our diet, our exercise levels, the weather, and so much more. In other words, they aren't the most reliable narrators sometimes.
• Disproportionate guilt: just reminding yourself that what you're feeling is a disproportionate amount of guilt that makes sense based on the many societal messages you've heard can help normalize your feelings rather than reading into them too much or following their lead.
Validating and naming our feelings also helps us externalize them, meaning that we're able to look at them from a distance and with a more analytical stance rather than being completely taken over by them.
2. Identify and visualize your valued direction.
To get somewhere, you have to know where you're going. I know that sounds simple and silly, but it's true. If you want to stop being someone who is guided be a need to be productive, you have to know what the other path looks like. How would you rather you act on your days off? What would you rather be driven by, if not productivity? Take a moment to truly reflect on this.
Then, identify how you're able to honour this valued direction behaviourally. If you're saying that you'd rather be someone who leads a more balanced life, how would your behaviours have to change? What would you have to do differently in a day, specifically? This might involve not checking your emails on the weekends or regularly clocking out at 5pm.
3. Reframe the situation.
When I took my Mental Health Day recently, I kept on thinking I was being selfish. People need you, Kristina, my brain kept telling me. I worked through this situation by giving myself a number of important reminders, including:
• I am not God. People will survive, and assuming that they "need me" undermines and insults their own resilience.
• It is impossible to show up for others when you consistently do not show up for yourself. One day off is worth it if it means being able to be more present in other areas of your life—a small price to pay, if you will.
4. Look deeper.
This question has yielded extremely interesting answers when I ask it to my patients: "If you weren't feeling guilt in that moment, what do other emotion might show up?" Or, "If we go beneath that first layer of guilt, are there any other emotions hanging out beneath the surface?"
As I did this exercise with myself last week, I realized that the underlying emotion I was experiencing was shame. I had moments of feeling like having to take a day off was a sign that I just "couldn't cut it" as a therapist. It allowed me to reflect on how much my work achievements inform my identity and what needs to be explored further through personal reflection or with a therapist. In the world of Radically Open Behavioural Therapy, this is called self-enquiry, which involves temporarily turning towards discomfort and asking what we might need to learn rather than automatically regulating, distracting, explaining, reappraising, or accepting.
5. Nurture your inner Bob Marley.
My sister once told me about a speech that she heard when she was in medical school where the speaker said something to the effect of, "If you're ever stressed, listen to some Bob Marley. It's impossible to be stressed when you're listening to Bob Marley." I have never forgotten this because I think it's extremely true.
In moments where the Productivity Police is screaming at me, I ask myself what a more compassionate version of myself would say. As an alternative, you might ask what one of your most chill, Type B friends would tell you in that situation or even what Bob Marley himself would say. (I'm pretty sure he'd tell you, "Don't worry about a thing [because] every little thing's gonna be alright.")
I also remind myself to zoom out and look at the big picture: at the end of the day, will one measly day off really make a difference? No. No it will not.
6. Take a 'both/and' approach.
There's a level of radical acceptance here, which is about genuinely accepting your feelings. This is about telling yourself something along the lines of, "My God, I feel so guilty today and this is really hard." Taking a both/and approach takes this one step further and involves reminding yourself that you're allowed to feel two emotions at the same time, even if they seem contradictory. So, you'd end the previous sentence with, "I feel so guilty today and I know that this day off is needed."
7. Identify the purpose and meaning behind your actions for the day.
The Productivity Police will likely be quite annoying throughout your day. (It's had a lot of practice doing its job, after all.) So, talk back to it by connecting with the deeper meaning and purpose of what you're doing. This helps binge-watching Temptation Island go from a "lazy thing you're doing" to a form of self-care that helps you relax your mind so you can think more clearly tomorrow. Playing four hours of Tetris on your old Gameboy Colour (no, just me?) goes from being a "waste of time" to a way of reconnecting with your playful, child-like side in a way that brings you joy—and connecting with joy is never a waste of time.
The Bottom Line
I want you to know that if you're someone who struggles with needing to be productive all the time, you are not alone. The fact that so many of us feel this way says something about our context rather than something about how we're "failing" as human beings. There's a lot of unlearning that will go into changing this behaviour, I think, which will take time, intention, and practice, practice, practice.
Now that you've realized that you're someone who, like me, struggles with a need to be productive all the time, identify the type of value you'd rather be driven by and write down some practical ways that you will honour this, behaviourally-speaking. So many of us think that we have to feel a certain way to change a behaviour, but it often goes the opposite: oftentimes, our feelings change after we start changing our behaviours.
Next, journal about if there's anything that's existing beneath the guilt. You might be surprised at what you find (and this is where working with a therapist can be invaluable).
Finally, when emotions of guilt show up when you aren't being productive, label that experience as a form of time anxiety, emotional reasoning, and/or disproportionate guilt (whatever resonate). Then, make a committed action in the moment to self-soothe, whether that's through zooming out and looking at the picture, connecting with the purpose or meaning behind what you're doing in the moment, or nurturing your inner Bob Marley.
With that, I'll leave you with a quote from the iconic Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
How have you been maintaining some balance between work and home during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments below!
If you or someone you know is struggling right now, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about psychotherapy or nutritional counselling in Markham, Vaughan, or virtually.