Being reduced to your utility is not good for self esteem. However, there’s a powerful flip-side to this as well – if you aren’t sure of what space there is for you, utility can be a good thing to hide behind. I’ve gone into many spaces offering my usefulness and willing to work simply so that I could be confident there was a space for me. I find it hard to ask for space if I’m not clear about what I’m offering. I feel more secure when I have a defined role.
Workishness can also be a good defence from having to look too closely at areas of insufficiency. I’ve done this, too. If you’re always busy, if there’s always a stack of jobs to do, you never have to pause and look at your life. Emotional insufficiencies can be blocked out by work. If you are busy, you never have to ask what you want or need – something else is always more important. If your situation isn’t that happy or rewarding but you want to stay in it, being busy can enable that, but it isn’t always the best choice.
Relentless working can become a part of your identity. The idea of ‘hard work’ as a virtue can mean that grinding yourself down every day seems like a noble or necessary activity. If you take up residence here, then the work, the doing, and being someone who works flat out all the time can become a major part of your sense of self. I’ve watched a few people go down this road and it isn’t pretty. Once you buy into working yourself into the ground as part of who you are, there’s a lot of motivation to hang on to it. Who would you be without the work?
Who am I? It is always a challenging question to ask. Who am I aside from this thing I have pegged my time, energy and identity to? And the more frightening question: Am I anything at all if I am not useful and working? It can prove far less frightening to keep slogging away so as not to have space to ask that question in the first place…
Relentless slogging leads to diminishing returns. Exhaustion, burnout, lack of ideas, lack of inspiration and input all take you in a downward spiral, locked into an embrace with the very thing that is taking you down. Breaking out of that is hard. If you’ve become utility-orientated, the best break out comes from seeing utility in different terms: If you want to be creative, inspired, able to do radical new things and make real change, you need to be well resourced. You need energy and inspiration and this means you need to take care of your own needs and wants at least some of the time. Resting improves efficiency.
The other question to ask, is what are you working for? What is this supposed to achieve? Because unless your vision is of a world where we all work ourselves to death as fast as possible, the odds are you aren’t moving towards your own vision here. I’ve seen this come up repeatedly for activists and creators alike. Living in a way that is at odds with the world you want to create isn’t a good idea and manifestly does not deliver your intentions.
It’s important to pause regularly and draw breath. Ask what you are doing, and why, and whether the means truly support the ends. If you are routinely hurting yourself, ask what you are protecting yourself from in doing this. Dare to ask what you really want, and what the best way to get there might be. Being busy isn’t always the most productive approach, sometimes it’s a way of avoiding the things you most need to do.