Putting work before health and happiness? You could be suffering from internalized capitalism
That’s ‘this idea that our self-worth is directly linked to our productivity,’ says one college educator.
There’s a term on social media more and more young people are using to explain the feeling that, no matter what they do, it’s never enough: internalized capitalism.
“Internalized capitalism is this idea that our self-worth is directly linked to our productivity,” said Anders Hayden, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who’s researching the political and policy impacts of alternative measures of wellbeing and prosperity.
“You can’t feel value in yourself just for being alive — just for being a human being,” Hayden said. “You have to be a ‘human doing’ to have any value.”
Internalized capitalism generally refers to people who feel guilty when they rest, undervalue their achievements and prioritize work over well-being. It can be saying things like “I should be doing more” or “I should be farther along.”
The term joins a host of other phrases used to describe harmful attitudes directed toward ourselves, including internalized sexism, internalized racism and internalized homophobia.
Women who internalize sexism undervalue their talents, undermine other women and unwittingly bolster a boys’ club. A person of color who has internalized racism might believe Black people are more violent than white people. People with internalized homophobia might reject their sexual orientation.
Nikita Banks, a licensed clinical social worker who says she sees clients who struggle with the feeling that they are only contributing to society if they are producing, said internalized capitalism can show itself in the form of burnout, depression and overall dissatisfaction.
“There’s never just a time where you’re able to sit back and smell the roses or even give yourself grace for the accomplishments,” Banks said. “The things that you achieved are not enough. I don’t think that as an American you can escape it.”
Hayden said that, though the term might be new to some, the concept isn’t, that it seems to be a more novel way of describing the Calvinist work ethic, which equates hard work and success with salvation.
“The Calvinists ... had this incredible doubt of whether they were worthy,” he said. “To prove that they were worthy, they had to be able to show that they could be continually industrious and continually producing and frugal as well.”
Hayden said the term appears to be especially popular among young people, which he finds unsurprising given the pressures younger workers face to make something of themselves while navigating the crush of student debt and the high cost of housing.
“Apart from everything related to COVID, there’s just a lot of pressure and a lot of economic insecurity,” he said.
Hayden said he’s inclined to think everyone in a capitalistic society is vulnerable to internalizing ideas that connect our value to what we do rather than who we are, though it can play out differently depending on social position.
Someone from a privileged background might face intense pressure to achieve to live up to family expectations. Others from less privileged backgrounds might be driven by economic pressures.
Some scholars argue that capitalism and white supremacy are inherently linked since the system permits and encourages exploitation of marginalized groups, especially people of color.
“There’s this narrative that Black people are lazy ... because it’s a way to get us to work in a way that devalues ourselves,” Banks said. “Black people built this entire country for free, and at the core root of white supremacy is getting free labor.”
TIPS ON RESISTING INTERNALIZED CAPITALISM
Banks said people need to celebrate their accomplishments.
“Be kind to yourself, and give yourself grace to understand that where you are in your life right now is maybe not where you end up,” she said. “It’s OK to keep pushing, but self-care is important. Watch your internal narratives around what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve achieved and where you want to be.”
Hayden said the chief goal of any society should be wellbeing, not productivity.
“There’s a lot of times when we say yes to these things and push ourselves, thinking we’ve got to, there’s always more to be done,” he said. “And sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and really question whether it’s worth doing all these things.
“People, depending on their social position, are going to have different degrees of power over how much they can say no to. But, to the extent that we have those options, I think it’s good to ask, ‘is it worth it?’ ”