the fear of not working
Six years ago, around this time, I fractured my knee. I spent the night in the hospital, and bleary-eyed signed the consent form for reconstructive knee surgery. I lay awake, in pain, dreading 6:00 am.
My surgery was scheduled for the afternoon.
6:00 am was the phone call with my employer. As soon as I received the x-ray results, my first thought was, “I’m not going to be able to go to work tomorrow”. I repeated this sentence over and over again:
I'm not going to be able to go to work tomorrow. I'm going to lose my job. I'm going to disappoint everyone.
I was working as a nanny for a family with an 11-month old baby. It was going to be my gap year job in-between undergrad and grad school. I started work each day at 7:00 am. I knew that the day of my surgery I was going to be leaving the family in a lurch. I let them down. I wouldn’t be able to go back to work until I could walk again. 10 weeks.
I was more worried about losing my job than the possibility that I could literally die on the operating table or the possibility that I would never walk again.
But 6 years ago, my biggest focus was work. I couldn’t imagine what 10 weeks would look like without working. It felt like my whole life was falling apart.
I should mention now that I had moved back home with my family during this time. I was fully supported and I thankfully didn’t need to worry about the loss of income. It was more of a loss of identity for me.
I have always been a high achiever. In school I studied hard, volunteered and made time for clubs and hobbies. In the summers, I worked at non-profits or went to summer school. This was the first time in 8 years that I wouldn’t be actively in school, working or expanding my skills in some way.
My dad started working at home so he could be there to help me if I needed it. And in the early days after the surgery, I needed a lot of help. Going from the competent, high-achieving, independent experience I had in university to laying immobile on my parents' couch was such a role reversal. I felt really trapped in my body and my pain. I grieved the loss of my independence and my job, crying when I told them that they would need to find someone to replace me.
Looking back at this time now, I know that I had a deep-seated fear of not working. I tied so much of my identity up with my accomplishments and productivity and caring for others that I didn’t know how to be the one being cared for. I didn’t know how to simply lay down and rest.
So I didn’t. I got super into crafting and started an Etsy shop. I saw a truly debilitating injury as an “opportunity” to earn a side income. The capitalist views of working and hustling were so entrenched that I felt that I must be doing something productive during my recovery period. It was truly so hard to rest. I started embroidery and print-making. I learned how to make intricate paper flowers.
Having a purpose did help me from sinking into hopelessness. I really appreciated those 10 weeks focused on art-making amidst endless doctor’s visits. I loved making art for myself and others. I probably didn’t need to monetize everything, and work literal 12 hour days on various art projects. But working hard within a capitalist system was all I knew how to do.
What I reflect on now is: when we are faced with the fear of not working, we cannot just simply start to rest. Especially when there is no framework for rest. In focusing my work on burnout and chronic stress, I have spent years untangling the mindsets and values that come along with living in a capitalist and ableist society. It is scary to rest or play or make art when we are told that our value is solely determined by our productivity and contribution.
Working with clients on burnout recovery, the first step is always to notice these mindsets and how they show up in our lives. Why do we fear not working? Why is work so tied up in identity? Where can we offer ourselves space for rest and play? How do we step away from these mindsets and cultivate self-compassion?
These are all questions that we explored in our recent workshop Work Sucks: Resisting Capitalism by Engaging the Inner Child. We also explored our internal values. These are the guiding principles that help us to experience eudaimonic well-being - the feeling that our lives are meaningful and imbued with purpose.
I think the reason that creating art was so fulfilling for me during my recovery was that it aligned with my core values: learning, beauty and creativity. I felt like a kid again, curiosity guiding my adventures with thread and paint and paper and felt. I learned that when I am in emotional pain, I can turn towards art and play for healing.
I’ll leave you with what I have learned in these past 6 years:
Your productivity does not determine your worth.
You are deserving of love and care and fun and play even when you aren’t working.
You do not need to earn your rest.
Your values will steer you in the right direction; capitalism will steer you towards systemic burnout.
If you want to explore more of these concepts with me, send me an email to be notified of the next workshop! I am currently accepting new clients for individual therapeutic work as well.