Capitalism is one of the founding principles of the United States (the other being racism). This framework emphasizes maximizing productivity and profits by any means necessary. While the vast majority of us do not get to share in these profits, we do experience the effects of living in a culture that worships capitalism, often by taking on this “productivity at all costs” mentality and adopting it as our own. One way of describing this is “internalized capitalism.”
While working hard, being goal-oriented, or dreaming big are not inherently bad qualities, when they come at the expense of your health and relationships, it might be time to evaluate the role they play in your life. Questioning self-worth, difficulty resting, anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms can all be signs capitalism and your relationship to work is taking a toll.
Figuring out what to do in this scenario can feel daunting. Taking time off or challenging the status quo may feel strange, unsafe, or scary. You are far from alone, though!
If you’re feeling run down, let’s explore if internalized capitalism may be to blame, and what you can do about it.
What Is Internalized Capitalism?
Internalized capitalism is the adoption of the messages of capitalism as your own values or guiding principles, typically to your own detriment. A common way this plays out is hustle or grind culture – the idea that you need to always be working as hard as possible, “maximizing your time,” making moves, and advancing toward your dream job or a higher income. In a work-obsessed city like New York, this often translates to multiple jobs, long hours, and the judgment of those who are perceived to be less “productive.”
The issues created by capitalism are as old as capitalism itself, however they are being felt increasingly intensely and are more commonly discussed than before (particularly since the beginning of the pandemic). Whether you’re an artist or entrepreneur, if you’re questioning your worth due to concerns about productivity, not resting, or anxiety and depression have become your norm, it may be worthwhile to continue reading and learn more.
While working hard, being goal-oriented, or dreaming big are not inherently bad qualities, when they come at the expense of your health and relationships, it might be time to evaluate the role they play in your life.
What does it feel like to internalize the ideas of capitalism?
Most of the ways the internalization of capitalism affects us are normalized in the US, despite being highly unnatural. As such, it can be easy to ignore, downplay, or miss what is going on. Experiences like those below may mean you’re committed to the grind in ways you weren’t quite expecting, and with unintended consequences:
The sleepless night of dread before Monday morning is a sure sign work is taking up too much space in your life. For some, this may just be a sign of an unfulfilling job, but more often than not it points to experiencing the exploitation of workers so common in the US.
“Do I Have Value As a Person?”
Tying your value or worth as a person to your job, productivity, accomplishments, or possessions is a slippery slope. It demands you keep going faster and doing more to continue feeling good about yourself. When you fall ill, become disabled, experience unemployment, or are otherwise unable to produce in the same way, it can feel like an existential crisis.
Inability to Rest
Feeling under the weather or in need of a personal day, but go to work anyway? Difficulty actually resting and taking care of yourself on days off? Capitalism (and by extension, many employers) exploits and manipulates workers into feeling guilty for taking the time they need to rest and take care of themselves. This may come in the form of “not being a team player” or feeling anxious about “not doing anything.” Capitalism lies to us by saying that rest is for the weak and should be put off as long as possible.
Anxiety and Depression
Near constant worry about paying bills, holding onto one’s job, and the pressure to do more inevitably takes a toll on your mental health. This stress and feeling like it is inescapable may lead to feelings of anxiety or depression.
What to Do?
Unlearning is a difficult process. It takes time and energy, but can be beneficial if we truly want change in the long-term.
Learn More about Interrelated Systems of Oppression
As a white person writing this article, it’s important to acknowledge that the majority of my learning about capitalism has been from people of the global majority, and in particular Black women.
Black thinkers have long talked about and shared their wisdom on this subject. Scholars Tricia Hersey (founder of the Nap Ministry) or Joshua Briond (host of the Millenials are Killing Capitalism podcast) have spoken extensively about how capitalism reinforces, and is intertwined with, other forms of oppression, such as racism and white supremacy, ableism, fatphobia, and more.
Tying your value or worth as a person to your job, productivity, accomplishments, or possessions is a slippery slope.
In a therapeutic setting, talking about these things and learning to recognize how they are connected has value. Co-founder of Melanated Social Work Marvin Toliver has pointed out that tying internalized feelings of capitalism back to racism and white supremacy has been helpful for his clients.
Name the Thing
Having big, ambiguous feelings that we don’t know what to call can often make us feel even worse. In this instance, recognizing the feeling and identifying where it comes from can be useful. Being more specific in this way can always help us know where to start in trying to create change.
On a purely individual level, having stronger, better defined boundaries with work can help you reclaim some of the time, energy, and space that work has taken from you.
Finally, the solution to these problems will be collective – not individual. Talk to friends and coworkers about your experience or get involved with organizations in your community addressing workers rights. If you are in a unionized workplace, learn more about your union! If your workplace is not unionized, learn more about potential options for unionizing.
Capitalism and exploitation of workers thrives on individuals having little recourse against such an overwhelming system. When we internalize these values, we end up perpetuating that feeling of powerlessness. By learning more, being specific about our experiences, and connecting with others, there is far more recourse to create change.
Stronger, better defined boundaries with work can help you reclaim some of the time, energy, and space that work has taken from you.
Capitalism and Your Mental Health
Unlearning internalized capitalism is possible.
I see capitalism as one of the foremost challenges to our mental health today. None of us are given the option to opt in or out of this system, so we can easily internalize or take in these messages without realizing it. Movies, television, and prominent personalities (think: Joe Biden working while having COVID) have long reinforced that productivity is essential and encouraged us to work past our breaking point, lest we be called lazy and be discarded.
The internalization of capitalism goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, depression, exhaustion, uncertain self-worth, and more. If you feel this way, I’m ready to discuss it with you. I’m Daniel Rich, a licensed psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy NYC eager to discuss capitalism and other mental health concerns tied to it.
Your worth doesn’t depend on your productivity. You’re just as valuable (arguably more valuable) relaxing on the couch as you are working at your job. If job stress, pressure from others, and other values of capitalism are weighing you down, I’d like to find a time to connect with you. Feel free to book a complimentary consultation with me today.
Your Turn: Do you recognize examples of internalized captialism in your life, habits, or belief systems? How does this affect you, your relationships, and emotional wellbeing? Share in the comments below.