Ever asked yourself the question, “Am I being productive enough?” or “Is this activity even benefiting my career?” If so, I have some startling news, my friend. You may be struggling with the ever-present phenomenon: Internalized Capitalism.
Internalized capitalism is the belief that unless you’re working yourself into the ground, you’re failing at life. It’s when we determine our self-worth and meaning solely from our productivity. Sound familiar?
For context, capitalism is an economic system where private institutions control the means to generate profit. Because of this, it’s hard to dismiss how this system has rooted itself in our daily lives. We are expected to dedicate our time and effort to the success of a company or organization. Our connection to work, the amount we produce, and how much money we make impacts how we spend our time, often leading us to ignore our mental health in favor of a mindset where we believe that only “hard work” can bring happiness.
Just the other day, I listened to a webinar hosted by the Portland Book Festival, where a question regarding internalized capitalism came up.
The panel of distinguished authors from the field of Black Female Literature, including Danielle Evans, Bethany C. Morrow, and Khadijah Queen, were asked how they balance the time between honing their craft and writing for personal enjoyment versus meeting the obligations set by publishers.
Danielle Evans’s response especially resonated with me. She addressed an overwhelming fear about whether she could call herself a writer if she decided to break from the writing industry and devote her time to other activities.
I left the panel reflecting upon my own experiences with internalized capitalism. I thought of all the times I chose to focus on my education and career goals instead of my personal needs. It scared me how so much of my identity revolved around how I viewed my productivity and dedication to school and work.
In high school, I’d pride myself on my grades and time spent studying, but in response, I was missing out on opportunities that would have bolstered my social interaction skills. Only choosing to invest my time towards an “A” meant having a small friend group and a lack of extracurricular activities.
A similar pattern followed me to college. My choice to take an overwhelming amount of courses totaling 18 credits instead of the recommended 15 for a freshman led to little time spent making friends. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but cringe at the amount of time I’d spend in my dorm or the library, annotating notes, making flashcards, and highlighting countless texts.
But this is all for my future. This hard work will pay off in no time! I’d tell myself. Little did I know that this mantra only bolstered my declining mental health. My priorities were locked in a mindset where productivity overshadowed personal enjoyment. This led to increased burnout, feelings of imposter syndrome, and unhealthy perfectionism. While school and work were important aspects of my life, they shouldn’t encompass all of it.
When I caved and spoke to a therapist about all these conflicting issues, she cocked her head to the side and gave me that same look you give a sad puppy. When she asked me what I did outside of school and work, I was dumbfounded. In that plush leather chair, I cupped my hands over my face in distress--I was so miserable. Self-care and self-love needed to take precedence over my life. At that moment, I realized that I needed to find ways to strike a balance in choices that fed my personal and professional needs.
Ways to Let Go of Internalized Capitalism
While letting go of internalized capitalism and the emotional baggage that came with associating self-worth with productivity was difficult, here are some practices I put in place to recover from this mindset:
1. Set Boundaries and Practice Self-Care
I needed to dedicate time to myself doing the things I loved. This meant setting at least 30 minutes to 1 hour of my day, either exercising, reading, playing video games, or just scrolling through social media and binging on Netflix. At first, this was hard. Because I’ve been conditioned to dedicate most of my time towards “productive” activities, I felt guilty for this newly established freedom. But once I jumped back into study-mode or work, I found myself energized and eager to finish these tasks because I took the time to prioritize my personal enjoyment.
2. Establish Your Mantra
Remember that mantra I kept telling myself? But this is all for my future. This hard work will pay off in no time! I switched it out for Work hard, play hard. I was already putting effort into studies and work, so why not reward myself with spending an equal amount of time investing in my personal health? I also often tell myself, I’m human, not a machine or It’s okay to focus on myself.
Establishing a mantra provides positive reinforcement and breaks the debilitating cycle brought upon by internalized capitalism; it’s a sure-fire way to get you on track to making decisions that prioritize you.
3. It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Separating yourself from internalized capitalism will take time. Because we live in a capitalistic society, it’s normal to feel guilty for devoting time to yourself. Putting those feelings aside and acknowledging fluctuations in your devotion to your work will lead to conscious decisions that allow for a more positive lifestyle.
Moving Forward & Choosing Yourself
Realizing that you may be suffering from internalized capitalism does not necessarily mean you should come to hate your work or limit your efforts for the sake of personal freedom. I think what was pushing me towards an over-productive mindset were my ambitions. The only way I saw success was through work, but focusing on this one aspect of my life led to more negatives than positives. I still struggle with striking a balance in choices that feed my ambition to succeed while still finding the time for personal enjoyment, but I’m happy to know I’m moving in a direction that prioritizes me.
About the Author:
Aaron Talledo is currently pursuing his BA in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He finds inspiration from literature, music, and film and expresses creativity through writing. In his free time, Aaron enjoys fitness, meditation, and video games.