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As a clinical psychologist specializing in both developmental and shock trauma and addiction, helping patients who struggle with toxic productivity is quite common for Dr. Joanne Barron. At Trauma and Beyond Psychological Center, the facility she co-founded with business partner Lynne Friedman-Gell in Sherman Oaks, California, their mission is to partner with clients working through addiction, depression, anxiety, attachment difficulties, trauma, and more to ensure they’re able to live their fullest lives.

Dr. Barron has made incredible waves in the world of mental health, such as providing psycho-education programs for the LAPD, the NBA, MusicCares, and a variety of schools throughout the Los Angeles area. This is why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to chat with her about what toxic productivity culture is, how it’s affecting our society, and the steps we can take to avoid it and embrace our lives.

Q: Before jumping in to talk about toxic productivity, I’d love to hear a little about who you are. Could you tell me about your background and how you first became interested in psychology?

J: So, I’ve always been interested in psychology and people. As far as my background goes, I got interested in psychology and problems in the family at a young age. My father was an alcoholic, so there was a lot of trauma in the family because of that, and when you grow up with trauma it sets up your brain and nervous system in a way where you will probably experience more trauma, which was the case in my life. So, I became really interested in the study of trauma, and that led me to psychology.

Q: So, because “toxic productivity culture” is still a relatively new term, I’d love to hear how you would define what it is.

J: It is a new term, but the concept has been talked about for a long time—especially in terms of American culture and how it doesn’t value the person. We value productivity, wealth, achievement, doing and being more, and looking good while doing it, which doesn’t make for healthy emotional and mental health.

It is so ingrained in our culture that oftentimes we as parents can unknowingly be guilty of teaching our children that they have to be the best. We all want our children to do well in life, but many kids today are so competitive. From the time they are old enough to know anything about college they’re taught they have to get into the best one so they meet the best people and can get the best grades to have the best career and make the most money. All of that directly relates to the toxic productivity of our culture.

Q: Why do you think this addiction to being productive has become so prominent? It was relevant before the pandemic, but I feel like we’re seeing it even more now.

J: I was reading somewhere that what Americans have done when we entered the pandemic is work. We work more, we’re on zoom all the time and now, because we’re not going home at the end of the day, we’re working from morning to night. When we’re not working, many people are feeling depressed. Their identity is so tied up with what they do, what they produce, and what they achieve, so when they’re unable to do that, they’re really having a crisis about identity.

I believe that people who are chronic do-ers, those who cannot just be and always have to do the next thing and prove themselves, feel this way because of a trauma reaction. Many of us have been raised in this culture and have learned that our self-worth is only based on what we do, not just our intrinsic value as humans.

Q: Do you think social media has played a part in promoting toxic productivity culture? If so, how?
Entrepreneur scrolling through social media on the phone

J: In many ways it has, I believe. In terms of all electronics, we’re so much busier than we ever have been. We communicate all of the time in so many ways and are always looking at social media, and what do we post on social media? We post an image of what we want people to see. We want them to see that we look good or we’re doing something great or that we’re having the best time with the best people and that’s not real life. We’re comparing ourselves to these images of people’s best moments, and many young people have a problem with that because they believe that others are having these wonderful lives and look amazing all of the time and they’re comparing themselves to that. 

Because we’re urged to show that we’re having a great life every moment; people learn that it is not okay to be sad. Nobody wants to be sad, but being sad at appropriate times is human and healthy and it’s not a bad thing. All of our emotions are given to us for a reason and they’re all messages we should pay attention to. I think a large part of toxic productivity on social media is that certain emotions are off-limits: don’t feel sad, don’t have a bad day, just be happy and wonderful all of the time and that’s not life, that’s a fantasy.

Q: This question is for someone who may be struggling with a toxic productivity mindset but isn’t aware of it—what are some signs that you’re a victim of toxic productivity culture?

J: You feel guilty when you are relaxing. Even on time off, you feel like you don’t want to waste time. You think, “I should be doing this. I could catch up on that.” You don’t plan your recreation time or family time because it takes a backseat to work. Work is at the top of the list and relationships, family, and self-care can be at the bottom. 

Q: Are there different ways people can struggle with toxic productivity, even if it’s not with their work? (For example, a mom feeling like she always has to be doing something for her kids, or things along those lines?)

J: Absolutely, it’s so hard. Though, as parents, one of the most important things we can do for ourselves is to take care of ourselves because we’re modeling for our children that we’re important. We’re modeling that there’s quality of life and that health and relaxation are important. The more filled up, grounded, and present we are, the better we’re going to be in relationship with our kids. 

There’s this wonderful book called Being There that talks about the importance of the mother, and how much the well-being and the way a mother interacts with her infant and young child influences their brain and nervous system development, not just emotionally, but in the actual structure. Connections in the brain are actually developed through early interactions with the primary caretaker so being open and present as a parent is so important.

Q: I’d also love to hear your opinion on how toxic productivity has impacted our society’s definition of what “self-care” is. If you’re not doing something productive to take care of yourself, it’s almost like society tells you you’re doing something wrong. Can this mindset be harmful?

J: Definitely. When you’re taking care of yourself you can be doing nothing! It’s doing what makes you feel good or allows you to relax without guilt or beating yourself up because you should be doing something else. Sometimes self-care is talking with a friend and being present with nothing on your mind, sometimes it’s sitting on the couch and eating ice cream. Other times it is doing something like taking a class or getting your nails done, but sometimes it’s just cuddling with your dog. It depends. 

What’s so important is asking yourself the questions of what fills you up? What activities allow you to feel rested and joyful? Many people can’t even answer that and that’s where you should start when thinking about self-care.

Q: Do you have tips for those who are having trouble relaxing or practicing self-care because they can’t find a work-home balance while working at home during the pandemic?

J: You should schedule when work ends and when time to do an activity you enjoy begins. Whatever activities bring you joy, you should actually schedule them just like you schedule every other moment of your day. We schedule appointments and meetings, but we need to fit in me-time in our schedules as well. My business partner and I actually just wrote a book called Intergenerational Trauma Workbook and we write about finding and scheduling me-time because it’s so important and if we don’t schedule it, it won’t happen.

We’re programmed to get as much done as we possibly can in a day, but if you look at South American culture or some European countries, they are much nicer to the people living there. They have much longer leaves for pregnancy, for both the mother and father, they have more vacation time, and I know some countries still have businesses closed on Sundays, or have long periods where shops are closed because people go home to have lunch with their families. People work so they live, but they don’t live to work. Their focus is not on work because it’s on family, relationships, and being there as a community, and it seems that there’s a lot less anxiety and depression and things like that in those societies.

Q: How can being a victim of toxic productivity culture ultimately affect your physical and mental health?

J: Well, for one thing, stress. When we’re always under stress our body isn’t relaxing. After a while, we can actually wear out the part of our nervous system that helps us relax. When this happens, that part of our system starts working incorrectly and we have a much harder time relaxing as a result. We also know all kinds of diseases are related to stress: gastrointestinal problems, problems with hypertension, heart problems, obesity, depression. Life expectancy can be shortened if we’re constantly in a state of stress. 

Substance abuse is also something that can result from people unhealthily trying to manage stress. During the pandemic, we are seeing rising problems with alcohol and drug abuse. An article came out recently in The Los Angeles Times talking about how UCLA and other emergency rooms are seeing so much more liver disease due to the amount of drinking. The number of drug overdoses has gone up so much during the pandemic as well as an increase in suicide rates. Compulsive behaviors such as drinking, drug use, overeating, overshopping, even sexual compulsive behaviors are all potentially dangerous ways people deal with stress when they haven’t developed healthy ways to cope.

Q: So this is my last question, and probably my most important one, what steps can someone take to rework their mind and get rid of these aggressive or persistent thoughts that tell them they’re worthless if they’re not constantly productive?

J: So, for some people, it can be as easy as reading a book and following a few steps like scheduling me-time and taking time out of your day to do pleasurable things. For other people, it’s become so ingrained in them that it’s almost procedural, and changing that is going to be really hard because it can be so coupled with their identity. 

I think talking to friends can help, or some may need to see a therapist because this kind of toxic productivity can be a trauma response. When people have early childhood trauma, one of the things that gets affected is their sense of self. They don’t feel enough and try to make up for that by proving that they’re worthwhile by doing more, being more, and looking better. So if toxic productivity is coupled with how you feel about yourself and your identity, you might need to add some psychotherapy to help you uncouple that.

Do you have any further tips for dealing with toxic productivity culture? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.