I Had No Idea I Suffered From Internalized Capitalism


Scary Mommy and Sellwell/Getty

“When is the last time you did something for fun?” My husband asked me this the other night, and I honestly had to think hard before answering. It had been that long.

For years, I’ve known that I have trouble sitting still, that I find projects and things to fret over. I need to literally schedule time to binge watch tv, and I multitask like a freaking boss. What I don’t know is how to let my mind and body rest.

I’ve always thought that this is just how I’m wired (and maybe it is), but there’s something else at play too — internalized capitalism.

There’s a lot of talk these days about socialism (or democratic socialism) and capitalism. So much so that these words gets tossed around, and ideas get attached to them, without many of us really stopping to think about what they mean and how they impact our life. How these things have shaped the thoughts we tell ourselves about things like hard work and happiness and rest.

In the U.S., capitalism is considered to be as American as apple pie. Or is it?

I used to think so — back when I was younger, a little more self-absorbed, and a lot less aware of the realities of these concepts. All I knew was that “success” meant climbing the ladder – more money, a better job, more stuff. Right? Wrong. In my early 20s, I started to call bullshit on this upward trajectory that we are fed from all corners of our lives since the moment we are born. I left a well-paid job as an attorney in BigLaw for a job that paid literally half what I was making. Over the next 10+ years, my career has taken many dips and turns, and side routes, and I’ve been good with that. For the most part.

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But even though I know in my heart that bigger-better-more isn’t the key to happiness, something in my body and my inner psyche sometimes asks, is it? Even know, as I write this, it’s 9:30 at night and I’m exhausted. I have been awake since 6 a.m. and go-go-go’ing the entire time, from my day job to volunteer meetings to dinner clean-up and back to work again. I have too much on my plate right now, but honestly, part of me kind of likes it that way. I thrive on busyness and measures of productivity.

Let me be very clear: I intentionally shun the “capitalist” lifestyle. My husband and I choose to spend our money traveling and donating to causes we believe in rather than “stuff.” We live in a small house in desperate need of updates, and share one car between the two of us. I feel comfortable with the choices we’re making and the life we’re living.

But still, sometimes I find myself feeling a little… I don’t know, off. I wonder what might have been if I had continued with the trajectory of professional success we’re told to want, instead of jumping off that train for a career that made me happier. I wonder if I should just work harder or be more ambitious. I find it hard to sit still, and when I do something enjoyable – with no other “productive” purpose – I feel guilty. I often feel like haven’t achieved enough or like I should be doing more, even when it comes to altruistic things like donations and volunteering.

Where does this come from?

Until now, I wasn’t so sure. I figured it was just your run-of-the-mill envy, combined with helping of imposter syndrome and a side of anxiety-induced self-criticism.

But a meme created by psychotherapist Lee McKay Doe, MBACP has been making rounds and is shedding some light on what these feelings might really be – internalized capitalism.

Without debating the merits of capitalism or socialism (FWIW, I’m on the democratic socialist end of the spectrum), let me just say that I don’t think capitalism itself is inherently evil; unchecked capitalism is. And when capitalist ideals have dug their greedy paws into your inner psyche, I’d say that qualifies as unchecked.

As Doe writes in another graphic on early- and late-stage capitalism, “It’s not about being anti-capitalism, or pro any other ideology. It’s about recognising that any ideology, when it gets to an advanced stage and is swallowed whole – has an impact on humans.”

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This post isn’t about admonishing hard work. It’s about how our productivity impacts our sense of self-worth. I didn’t actually realise that productivity was baked into my worth as a human. It’s so prevalent in our society that we don’t recognise the standards we hold ourselves too. We can be exhausted or ashamed but there’s no inbetween. A condition of worth is when our sense of self-worth is based upon being or doing something that our family or society has taught us. It’s an external value, rather than coming from our internal compass. The sneaky thing about conditions of worth is that they’re often about the things that we are praised for; achieving at school, or working to the point of exhaustion. We do the things that our parents will be proud of and that society will admire. The glorification of hustle culture reinforces the belief that being busy and productive is the key to happiness. But the problem with tying productivity to self-worth is that we rob ourselves of internal peace. Our worth is intrinsic. It’s like the roots of a tree, it exists whether the leaves are there or not. Work and effort helps us with our self-esteem, it can help us to achieve our dreams and meet our creative needs. It creates the leaves. We want to feel like we’re contributing and that we’re seen, these are basic needs too. But when they are built on a foundation of shaky self-worth, or the roots of a tree that don’t go deep enough, it rarely hits the spot. If we’re working hard to feel worthy, then we may find ourselves in a never-ending cycle to chase that feeling. Since I stopped tying my productivity to my self-worth. (Okay, tried to stop – it’s tough to unravel years of conditioning) I’ve noticed that the critical voice is there a little less. Ironically, when we’re not wrangling with our inner critic we give ourselves the space to find flow. To do the work that feels good. To increase our self-esteem. Like a tree, I’ve found that my productivity is cyclical. I’m getting to know my seasons and accepting them for what they are. Rest, without guilt, is the key. 💗 Happy Sunday peeps. 🌟 ANNOUNCEMENT🌟 My membership community launches soon – more info to come.

A post shared by Lee McKay Doe, MBACP (@therapywithlee) on

So how do you know if you suffer from internalized capitalism? Doe says the following might be characteristics:

– Feeling guilty for resting.

– Placing productivity before health.

– Feeling lazy, even when you’re experiencing pain, trauma or adversity.

Sound familiar? Have you felt guilty for lounging about on a rainy Saturday afternoon? Have you pushed through work when your body is recovering from illness? Have you told herself that you’re lazy for not picking up some new hobby or tackling a new project during the pandemic quarantine?

Vicki Davis, MPA wrote on Medium about the exacerbation of internalized capitalism during the pandemic. “We are bad at working AND self-care because we have been conditioned to equate our value as human beings by how much we produce. We have stopped working for the most part and our consumption/service-based economy has stopped as well. We don’t know how to stop. We don’t know how to rest. As a reminder, our value as humans is far greater than what we produce.”

All of this stems from the internalization of capitalism, Davis writes. “We feel guilty when we rest. We feel guilty when we stop. We feel guilty that we are not producing enough. We feel guilty that we are not producing fast enough.”

I don’t know about you, but this is cutting a little too close to home. If this sounds familiar to you too, there are ways for us to break free from the clutches of internalized capitalism.

First, experts recommend becoming aware of internalized capitalism and its impact on your life.

“Billionaires have convinced workers to look down on people who are not productive because then the people at the top make less money,” Davis writes. “The working class is conditioned to consider anyone who is not constantly producing something as lazy and moochers who are coasting through life; their laziness strains the systems and makes it harder for the working class to become billionaires.”

There are also roots in white supremacy. “The fact that we, individually, have such a connection to our work, how much we can produce, and how much money we can make is extremely problematic,” Marvin Tilver, a therapist at The Radical Therapy Center and co-founder of Melanated Social Work, said. “Tying it back to white supremacy, to capitalism, and to race and racism is really helpful for my clients.”

Once you’re aware of the insidious ways capitalism – along with systems that promote racism – you can do things to stop it in its tracks. Boundaries are super important, and some recommend “small but radical acts of self-care.”

Look, folks, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard or that productivity is the enemy. Not at all. What it does mean is that we need to be very clear with ourselves about why we’re spending our time and energy on the things we are, and take care not to conflate hard work and productivity with our self-worth.

“The glorification of hustle culture reinforces the belief that being busy and productive is the key to happiness,” Doe wrote on Instagram. “But the problem with tying productivity to self-worth is that we rob ourselves of internal peace…Ironically, when we’re not wrangling with our inner critic we give ourselves the space to find flow. To do the work that feels good. To increase our self-esteem.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my self-worth to be attached to productivity anymore. I want to be able to rest, and to have fun. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sign off, close my computer, and watch a few reruns of The Office.

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