Breaking Free From the Cage of Productivity

Author: D.O Vo


During my time in university, having to combat the suffocating experience of bipolar depression truly felt like I was drowning. I was trapped in this never-ending cycle of being unable to complete my school work because I struggled with motivating myself while also carrying severe guilt that I couldn’t find the fortitude to excel in my courses. I was disgustingly frustrated that I could not keep pace with the busyness that my academic peers seemed to manage just fine. 

I was supposed to be an exemplary student who could handle a demanding curriculum while also being able to juggle extracurriculars and a social life. Even if I found the energy to drag my body to the classroom and submit shambled assignments, my grades just reflected how I was feeling: inadequate, unacceptable, and incomplete. My growing self-loathing mindset slowly progressed to self-sabotaging behavior which eventually led to no longer having the will to get out of bed.

I was imprisoned by the idea that I needed to be busy and be producing something in order for me to have value as a person. This kind of reasoning may have started in childhood, but much of modern society has been conditioned that subscribing to “hustle culture” was the standard measure of success. Working yourself as much as humanly possible seemed to be the norm and severely glorified. Whether or not you felt overwhelmed, fatigued, or overextended, none of that mattered as long as you had the ambition to commit yourself to your professional goals. 

My worth, especially when I felt depressed, was evaluated unconsciously by comparing my productivity to others thinking that I needed to be busy and working all the time. Social media didn’t really provide much escape either, as it only amplified my self-pity and sense of shame. The internet seemed to glamorize the fact that my peers could successfully achieve their goals while I could barely find the perseverance to wear clean clothes or even brush my teeth.

If I realized sooner, however, that this cage of productivity shouldn’t be the only way to quantify success, I might have saved myself from some undeserved antipathy. For some reason, we are accustomed to the view that sleeping in or indulging in our “guilty pleasures” is a sign of laziness and lack of discipline. This constant focus on being busy caused me and many others to forget that self-care and rest are just as extremely important. Doing what I need to do to maintain my own wellness should be nothing I should be ashamed of. Prioritizing my health can also be a measure of success and should not be seen as wrongfully self-serving. What’s the point of pushing ourselves to burn out by chasing an arbitrary ideal of productivity, and why can’t taking care of ourselves be a part of that chase? 

Shifting my perspective took time, as I started to redefine achievement to encompass more than just how much I can output in a day. Having other markers such as tending to my hygiene, remembering to eat, and even making time for de-stressing are all commendable practices that maintain wellness and promote recovery. Self-care and healing looks different for everyone, and realizing the importance of prioritizing our well-being is essential to managing symptoms and preventing future episodes. This in turn allows us to be better equipped to face whatever life may bring. Making time to watch your comfort television series, fitting in restful nap times, and even spending time socializing can all be markers of success. 

No one should make you feel that you are not enough or shame you for doing the things that make living with bipolar disorder a little bit more tolerable. No one else knows what navigating your life entails, so creating your own foundation for wellness should also be celebrated just as much as external productivity. I have my own unique challenges that I do my very best to endure, but allowing my conscience to normalize self-care can and will lead me towards a path of healing. Working to preserve emotional and mental sustainability is how I now choose to distinguish my view of success. Everyone has the power to determine what success means to them and how they wish to celebrate their productive freedom.   

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