Letting Go of Toxic Productivity
By Eric Dorsa
When I began to address my depression and PTSD, I initially felt like I had to constantly work on “getting better.” Much like another process addiction – workaholism – I felt I needed to constantly address my symptoms and make marked, visible progress, or my mental health would slip. I was eager to find some sense of normalcy and return to my life, relationships, and commitments. I soon felt exhausted and quickly found myself mired in resentment and burnout. Since then, my therapist has reminded me that something is perceived as toxic when it begins to affect social needs of connection, play, work, and sleep. What I didn’t understand at the time was that rest and play, and therefore letting go of perfectionism, were critical elements of my own recovery and mental wellness.
Rest Is Productive
A primary side effect of feeling that I should constantly be productive and proactive in my healing journey was the thought process that rest was actually unproductive. This led to overexertion; I did not allow my body to fully process emotions. Ironically, ‘overdoing it’ caused me to feel numb and overwhelmed. At one point I was in IOP, working, and in school, with little to no time to feel, process, or heal. I had become so overcommitted that I had no genuine space to identify what was underneath my symptoms. Rather than speeding into an unmanageable routine, I needed to slow down. Rest was critical in allowing my mind and body to process emotions: many of which I had avoided for years. Emotions are essentially energy in motion, and I needed to replenish that energy. I soon learned that mental health is about balance, as much as it is about doing the hard work to get well. I do not need to feel guilty for needing to take a break, walk away when overwhelmed, or listen to my body when it needs a nap.
Challenge My Beliefs
One silver lining from my fling with toxic productivity is that it challenged me to look at my beliefs. I quickly realized that underneath my efforts was the thought that I had to constantly be doing in order to feel worthy. It was uncomfortable to be still, to sit in my feelings, to trust the tools: to believe in the process of letting myself heal by facing my traumas. My need to constantly work on myself was rooted in perfectionism, and negatively impacted my mental health. My therapist has told me, “You are a human being – not a human doing.” A critical turning point occurred when I internalized that it is okay to just be, and to find acceptance in myself as enough. In order to make authentic and lasting change, I first had to accept where I was in my healing process.
Playing Is Productive
I recently listened to an interview in which a neuroscientist said that we are actually hardwired to play and connect. When we do this, we create healthy self-esteem and improve overall brain chemistry. In the throes of my depression, I lost sight of myself and what brought me joy, and my relationships were devoid of connection. Depression has a way of making you believe that not only have you always felt this way, but also that you will always feel this way. While I felt defeated in my depression, part of my healing involved ‘allowing’ myself to do things: just for fun. While the hard work to get well was critical, it was just as important to start living again. This actually took practice; play became a part of rest and relaxation. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean going out and playing volleyball, or physically exerting myself, it can be as simple as a coffee date with friends, going to the movies, or even cooking a meal.
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