September 5, 2018

Why Do We Work So Hard?


Happy Belated Labor Day! 

But in all seriousness, today has me pondering. I read online that Labor Day was created to pay a yearly tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. Sounds nice and light… a reason to celebrate; however, I am challenging us to take a look at just how hard we are working and just how much it is strengthening our “well-being.” And what we can actually do to strengthen our well-being!!!

I have looked through multiple studies, and have found that Americans work more hours than any industrialized nation in the world, and more than the majority of countries in the world. We live in a culture that, in general, values and rewards working hard, and undervalues play, rest, and quality time. Other influences are the kind of line of work one does, what the culture of the company is, and how well people can set their own boundaries with their own health and well being for picking up extra hours, etc. However, throughout my personal learning and healing I have learned a lot, and I would like to share some of this with you. 

 I am not here to talk about Bureau of Labor statistics or trends. I am here to talk philosophically about the reason WHY I see Americans are working so damn hard. 

I want to start out by saying that I am not presenting a “good versus bad” argument, but rather a, “serving us versus not serving us” conversation. My practice is about mindfulness and guiding us as a whole to a higher level of consciousness. Conscious awareness is where healing can really begin. 

Now, what’s so bad about working hard? Here’s the thing… I value doing your best. I value putting conscious effort and care into things. I truly believe that working hard and doing quality work are not always the same thing… and many times are not. Yes you can do quality work and work long and hard at it, but you do not necessarily need to work long and hard to produce quality work. So if working harder does not necessarily mean producing higher quality product, then why are we working so so hard? Why are we so tired? Why are we trying to do 20 million things and then at the end of the day feel like we have nothing left to give at times? 

I see that at the root, it is mainly shame. 

In many of my writings, you are going to see me cite Brene Brown. If you don’t know who Brene Brown is, google her. Read her books. Do all the things Brene Brown. She is a shame and vulnerability researcher out of Texas that has done some killer work studying the topic and how it affects human behavior. Her work has provided some of the most eye opening insights in my own healing and growth. 

Watch her world famous TedTalk about shame here:

Brene defines shame as, “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” 


I want you to stop and think for a second, how much energy, time, and thought you put into a day chasing your worth and avoiding rejection? How much energy expenditure we put into doing things so we feel like “enough.” No, seriously, think about it. How much of your day are you putting into chasing worthiness and being enough? Avoiding rejection so you can feel like you belong? 

I know for myself, it used to be that the majority of my day was spent on this, especially when I was a kid. I grew up in a small town where sports were EVERYTHING. Abercrombie and Fitch was “it.” And kids who made the honor roll and academic honors were held on a pedestal. I remember the kids that embodied none of these… and I remember in my hometown, they were invisible. They were outcasts. They did not, “belong.” 

I remember I hated elementary school. I dreaded going to school everyday. I felt so out of place. And I felt the intense pressure to do well. I was a straight A student. But I was quiet, awkward, did not know how to express myself in an environment that truly did not make the safe space for girls like me to express themselves in (NOTE: I do not think any of these people were being malicious and were doing the best they could with what they knew). I felt invisible, like no one really knew me. However, I did get shining gold stars for being a badass student. Straight A’s all around. I remember being in 3rd grade and winning the math competition and having a private pizza with my teacher and my mom. I learned that, “If I get the highest grades, I will get the nurturance and attention I need.” So I did that. I worked for hours on my homework. I was meticulous. And then around 3rd grade I discovered basketball. And I was GOOD. 

All of the sudden I was someone. I could shoot hoops. Adults talked to me, kids talked to me. Erika was a rockstar basketball playa. I was taller than everyone. I could make the shots. All of the sudden, I felt like I mattered. I spent a lot of time playing sports, especially basketball. It was fun for me, a game.

Being “good” at school and sports is what had me belong in my small town… NOT simply because I was me. 

However, when I went into high school, something shifted. The perfectionism and performance shame started spiraling out of control. The better I did at things, the worse it became. I started experiencing a tremendous amount of anxiety around mid sophomore year. I had no idea what was going on. So many of my friends in school were working just as hard as I was to be a straight A student and top sports player, so I saw it as normal. NORMAL DOES NOT MEAN HEALTHY. This was the culture I was part of.

I remember one of my best friends and I got an 89% in our English class. We were both sobbing hysterically. No, really, we were. Can anyone else relate to this nonsense? I can tell you exactly why we were in hysterics… because we had tied up our worth in how we performed. That we were less worthy cause our grade was not an “A.” Forget about the quality of the class, the value of what we were learning, or how much we even ENJOYED what we were learning (and we were not btw because we were drowning in homework and performance related tasks on a daily basis). Senior year I took six AP classes, five of which I did not particularly enjoy. But I was praised for it. Why? BECAUSE YOU MATTER IN KIRTLAND BECAUSE YOU PERFORM WELL. Hear you me, Kirtland, OH is not alone in this. Shame… it is an epidemic everywhere. And we need to talk about it. 

One of the most painful experiences from high school was my junior and senior year of basketball. We only have 20/20 vision in hindsight, and it is only now I can see what was really going on. I started not playing well out of nowhere. I kept missing shots. I couldn’t handle the basketball like I did. I had no idea it was anxiety and that I was starting to have an emotional breakdown. However, what people saw, in particular my coach at the time was ERIKA IS NOT PERFORMING WELL. And for that, it wasn’t a heart to heart exploration, it was punishment. I started getting benched. I became bitter and resentful. I started to feel really down on myself. I felt suffocated, and I just kept dreaming about the day I would leave my hometown (I did end up going to college 2,500 miles away from home). I quit senior year, but at the begging of my friends, I came back; however, in retrospect, I did it out of obligation and did not have the tools to own my “no” yet. My coach became very cold and distant from me, when I used to be his best buddy (that is, when I performed well). I felt abandoned, like the only reason I mattered was because I used to be able to put a leather ball and sink it down a net and win games for people. I had completely lost my heart and the spirit of play in the game. It had all become about working, winning, and trying to earn my keep. My spirit couldn’t take it anymore, and I see that is why I had developed severe performance anxiety. It happened during tests, it happened during games. My hands would shake before tests. They did before games. It was because I felt if I didn’t do it right, I wasn’t good enough to belong or matter. 

I remember our last basketball game in the state playoffs. We lost. Almost everyone was crying, but I wasn’t. I was so relieved. I felt free. Don’t get me wrong… there was a part of me that longed to feel that way. I wanted so badly to want connect to that, but I was completely disconnected. Everything in my life right then was about chasing my worth, and I was over it. However, I did not know this at the time, I just knew things were not right and I needed to find a way to change things. 

The road to recovery.

Moving away gave me some breathing room. I started to see that my patterns were so unhealthy and ultra perfectionistic. So, I decided to start setting the bar and expectations lower for myself. I said I wanted to get a 3.7 GPA, not 4.0. I started taking classes I actually enjoyed (like human sexuality!) instead of ones I felt I “should” be taking because I am a smart girl. 

I started chipping away at this over the years, and really turned a corner around 28. Brene Brown states perfectionism is born out of shame. I had spent my whole life feeling like I was unworthy unless I did things a certain way. I want us to know that this is a lie. It is all bullshit and a lie that we tell ourselves. 

In her work, Brene also found the three things that grow shame, and the one thing that kills it. If you put shame into a petrie dish and want it to grow into an infectious heap, feed it secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you want to kill it off, feed it empathy and call it out by name. 

I want to kill shame.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I look back at my 16,17, and 18 year old self and feel empathy for her. She was doing the best with what she knew at the time. She just so badly wanted to belong and matter, and thought that was what she needed to do. I have empathy for my coach, my family, and others from my hometown. They have their own shame and were doing what they thought they needed to do to matter and be enough too. They did not know how to deal, cope, or nurture with what I needed and did so (or not) in the only way they knew how. I call out my shame of not being enough and not mattering and call it out as bullshit, because I am always enough and always matter. And in this, I heal. 

What we can do to help ourselves and our kids. 

The way to healing this is finding our way back to true connection and belonging. 

Y’all, we have got to wake up. Again, I value as much as anyone putting in your best effort. However, we are drowning in shame and prioritizing grades, performance, paychecks, material items, and hours worked over play, true enjoyment, and true connection. 

I encourage you start asking your kids what they enjoy learning and what makes them spark. That is you connecting to them, and providing an avenue for them to learn to connect to themselves. If they love science, find ways to have them revel in that. If they love art and creativity, provide outlets to have them revel and growth in that. Honor their heart, not their report card. Yes, education is important! However, if we can shift from heart centered learning instead of performance centered learning, how powerful would that be? Look, Einstein was a flunk out. But he went toward what had him thrive. He turned out alright as did his laws. He was actually very heart centered in his pursuit of this. Trust your heart. Trust your child’s heart. 

I encourage us to get curious with ourselves and our kids. CONNECT. What are you liking or not liking about your job or a certain activity you are part of? What would you enjoy doing? What do they like about playing a certain sport or game? Why AREN’T they doing well or liking something? These conversations are vital and invaluable. Is shame driving it? Do you feel like you are doing it so you feel like you’re worthy, enough, and matter? 

There is hope and things are changing. You are not alone. And I will end with one more Brene Brown quote: 

“We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. Any answer to the question “How did we get here?” is certain to be complex. But If I had to identify one core variable that magnifies our compulsion to sort ourselves into factions while at the same time cutting ourselves off from real connection with other people, my answer would be fear. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of the pain of disconnection. Fear of criticism and failure. Fear of conflict. Fear of not measuring up. When we ignore fear and deny vulnerability, fear grows and metastasizes. We move away from a belief in common humanity and unifying change and move into blame and shame. We will do anything that gives us a sense of more certainty and we will give our power to anyone who can promise easy answers and give us an enemy to blame.”

Let us take a breath and stop working so hard…For you already are everything you’re trying to work for. You just have to find your access to it. 

Shine on. 










  1. Erika Shepard says:

    Thank you Mary!

  2. Mary says:

    Insightful article! Thanks!

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