How do we take on toxic systems operating inside our own heads?
Ever run into a new concept that resonated so deeply, that for days or weeks you saw it popping up everywhere? One of my themes of quasi-obsessive rumination last fall was internalized capitalism, the ways we conflate our self-worth with societal standards of productivity and achievement. Once my eyes opened to it, I saw it everywhere.
For me, internalized capitalism is particularly insidious when it comes to the hours I work—I tend to see anything less than 8 as a reflection of my lack of moral character. But it shows up in other ways, too: I’ll ignore my body's call for some healthy movement—a little yoga or a quick walk in the neighborhood—and instead spend an hour looking at emails I have no energy to reply to. I’ll buy books I can’t wait to curl up with and read, then refuse to give myself permission to sink into the learning that's so good for me, because it won't "produce" anything I can point to at the end of the day.
I started referring to the part of me so driven by internalized capitalism as my inner “bad boss.” She's basically a personalized version of Miranda Priestly playing on loop inside my head. You know that voice, right? The one that looks at first drafts and calls them shit before you’ve had a chance to iron out the ideas; that compares you to others as a way of "motivating" you forward; that forces you to put in an extra hour when you're exhausted just to hit some imaginary quota that differentiates a good person from someone who's lazy and worthless.
“There was something tremendously saddening about the idea that I outwardly opposed so much of what unfettered capitalism stands for, but inwardly imposed the worst of its values on myself.”
The more I got to know this "bad boss," the more appalled I became. There was something tremendously saddening about the idea that I outwardly oppose so much of what unfettered capitalism stands for, but inwardly imposed its values on myself. I’m appalled at the suggestion that the value of a human life is its ability to be productive... and yet, I had to recognize it was this same standard I applied internally to my work and choices most days.
Hello, Good Boss!
Once I realized how much influence this bad boss had over my days, I decided I needed to create its nemesis! I committed to intentionally start cultivating a new persona in my mind: my inner "good boss."
Rather than being driven by the capitalistic values of society at large, my inner good boss is someone who puts the wellbeing of myself and others first. Sometimes that translates to fewer hours at my desk, but more often her advice impacts the more qualitative aspects of my day:
My inner good boss takes the long view and values my personal sustainability and impact over the span of years and decades, not hours and days. She’s also convinced of my innate intelligence, creativity, and capacity, so she gives me space to try things out and get things wrong. And, she speaks up when I sell myself short, think I'm too busy to consider others' needs, or ignore unpleasant but important tasks. My good boss is the wise part of me that knows when I'm at my best, my impact on the world will be its most magical.
“My good boss is the wise part of me that knows when I'm at my best, my impact on the world will be its most magical.”
Her impact wasn't just about self-care, though. The more I listened to my good boss, I noticed myself prioritizing tasks aligned with my core values of community and authentic expression, and interacting with others in ways that felt more natural and warm.
At first, I reminded myself to listen to this good boss through the simplest of methods: a post-it reminder on the window of my kitchen "office," a bit of journaling, and the like. But in January, I took it a step further and designed a 2-week "detox diet" to further distance myself from my bad boss and its patterns of internalized capitalism. (Much more on this in this post.) Saying “no” to my bad boss's demands for productivity hour after hour for two weeks straight was really hard, but ultimately left me feeling… free. Lighter. Inspired. And eager to dive in.
Now, into the month of February, I’ve made a few major changes to the way I approach work and personal tasks that have truly transformed my days. [Check out the post Coming up for Air on my blog if you're curious!) But most importantly, I’m reconnecting with the “why” behind the work I do and the choices I make about how to spend my time. I’m saying yes to the things that nourish, give me energy, and truly matter. With my good boss in charge, I have structure and energy… without the guilt and stress.
I guess you could say, I finally fired that bad boss.
✨ Get Inspired ✨
Want to experiment with rewiring your own internalized capitalism and listening to your good boss instead? Here are a few ideas:
1. Get to know your inner Good Boss
Imagine a wise figure who wants the best for your whole being: not only your fulfillment as an individual, but also the impact you create in the context of your community, environment, and world. What are her characteristics? How does he motivate and inspire you? What values do they know are most important to honor in your day-to-day?
Even if your real-life boss doesn’t quite live up to these standards, let your inner boss treat you with respect and wisdom, and see what new energy slips into your days!
> For a little more fun with this, check out my free worksheet, Getting to Know Your Inner Good Boss.
2. Redefine “productive”
Nope, I didn’t look it up, but I’m willing to bet that some root of this word is “to produce.” Take a step back and consider, what do you really want to produce through your work and life? Is it stronger relationships between families or communities? A more sustainable world? A more secure living for you or your family? While there’s often a correlation between the number of hours you invest and the outcome of your efforts, try to measure your success each day by how closely you aligned your efforts with your bigger vision, rather than the raw number of hours you put in.
Or, consider ditching the term "productive" altogether. A term I’m experimenting with using instead of productive is generative. Generative reminds me that, through my work and life energy, I’m wanting to create something of value for the world, something that reflects my intentions and desires. Held up to that standard, many tasks and projects I used to think were important for a "good" person/colleague/daughter/partner to prioritize, I suddenly realized didn't matter, or could be completed in a quarter the time.
Likewise, generative reminds me that no living being is constantly in output mode. We all operate in cycles of outward energy, creativity and connection balanced with inward focus and rejuvenation. Rather than being a machine with no limits—as productive implies—generative reminds me to be real with where in that balance I need to be.
> What is it you feel called to create through your work and life? What do you think would happen if you put that first?
3. Look deep and be grateful
We inherit mindsets like internalized capitalism not only from society but directly from our families and personal experiences. As with many families with matriarchs and patriarchs who grew up during the Great Depression or otherwise experienced poverty, "being productive" (even in my hobbies and downtime activities) was held as a near-sacred value in my family. For some of my clients, intense productivity, comparison to others, or quest for wealth have been powerful motivators to help them reach a place where they can feel safe, secure, or healed. And for way too many of us, long hours of exhausting work are directly tied to our ability to survive and thrive.
So it's a beautiful thing to honor the ways valuing productivity has served us, and continues to serve us, along our path. And. We need to recognize when it crosses the line from being a tool in service of our best selves, and instead becomes a yoke that limits our best selves from blossoming forth.
“We need to recognize when valuing productivity crosses the line from being a tool in service of our best selves, and instead becomes a yoke that limits our best selves from blossoming forth.”
For my part, I've learned I can honor the way my grandparents passed on a legacy of diligent, hard work, and also acknowledge that the world we want to build is not one dependent on ever-increasing extraction and production.
When the admonition "you're being lazy!" pops into my head, I remind myself that in passing down to me their values of productivity, my grandparents' greatest wish was not that I would live a society where we all have the privilege of working grueling 14-hour workdays for life, but that we would all have the opportunity to live a life of abundance and possibilities.
“When the admonition "you're being lazy!" pops into my head, I remind myself that in passing down to me their values of productivity, my grandparents' greatest wish was not that I would live a society where we all had the privilege of working grueling 14-hour workdays for life, but that we would all have the opportunity to live a life of abundance and possibilities. ”
> Put some time into exploring where your perspectives on work and productivity came from. Is it possible to honor the parts that brought you here, while celebrating your opportunity to choose something different for tomorrow that will serve you and your community better?
P.S. I want to acknowledge there are so many more layers to this conversation, particularly around the ways white supremacy and patriarchy are interwoven with capitalism. It’s something I’m personally grappling with, and I don’t yet know if or in what form I’ll share my thoughts on this in this blog. Here are just a few thought-provoking writings and resources from others I invite you to consider:
This blog on habits of white supremacy in the remote workplace (including nonprofits!) during Covid
This fascinating Code Switch article on the term "hustle" and it history, usage and connotations
This op-ed on the unnamed privilege lurking behind so much productivity advice
This article on "feminism and the cult of the grind"
This interview with adrienne maree brown on her book Pleasure Activism and the lies capitalism feeds us about scarcity.
Tema Okun’s list of characteristics of white supremacy culture
OurVoices Podcast: Is capitalism racist?