Societal structures have shaped the thoughts we tell ourselves about productivity, rest, enjoyment, relationships, and growth.
Do you ever lay down thinking you didn’t achieve enough?
If you worry about being worthless, it’s likely because you’ve adopted a toxic thought pattern — often without realizing it. As Dr. Emilia Roig writes:
“Capitalism is to us like water is to fish. We do not notice that it surrounds us.”
If you’ve internalized capitalism, you‘ll never come to a point where you feel like you’re good enough. Your hard work won’t lead to happiness.
The following list will help you know if you’ve internalized capitalism — and what you can do about it if you want to change.
1) Your self-worth is tied to your productivity.
When was the last time you watched Netflix without feeling guilty?
Society values busyness and productivity. It’s easier to measure your worth by what you do instead of who you are. Your self-worth depends on your performance.
Psychologist Nikita Banks writes: “It is this idea that to be unproductive is sin, and as such, this idea that you must always be producing is in direct relation to your worthiness.”
With the internet full of productivity porn, it’s hard not to judge yourself for being unproductive. But when you equate your self-worth with productivity, you will never experience inner peace.
“The glorification of hustle culture reinforces the belief that being busy and productive is the key to happiness.”
2) You feel guilty when you do something enjoyable.
Do you do things purely for fun? I feel guilty whenever I do something without any productivity goal. I have the inherent fear that pleasure will wreck me.
When you’ve internalized capitalism, you always put aside pleasure and focus on making the most out of your time. Daydreaming is for losers. You’re on the eternal quest for the next achievement.
But being busy is not better. With productivity as a default, more productivity isn’t the right way to go. When work is all you do, it ultimately becomes meaningless — overwork for too long, and you’ll ultimately burn out.
Many workaholics I know have eating disorders or addiction issues. They seek energy from external resources like food or drugs to keep running. But short-time highs only throw them further out of balance, and they crave for the next high.
I’m not against hard work. Yet, too much of it comes at a high cost. A balanced life is a happy life. And to live in balance, we need enjoyable tasks as much as we do need work.
“Hard work is important. So are play and non-productivity. My worth is not tied to my productivity but to my existence.”
3) You prioritize work over health.
Have you pushed yourself to work when your body was recovering from an illness? A capitalist society holds people responsible for their well-being. If you can’t work, it’s your fault.
You feel unproductive when you go to the doctor. You’re mad at fluctuating energy levels and work out to be more productive. You expect to work like a robot. There’s no room for ups and downs.
Only prioritizing health when it prevents you from working is a clear signal for internalized capitalism. You only take care of your health to avoid not being able to function.
I’m unlearning that doing more, faster, and better makes you happier. I try to stop sacrificing my health and striving for ‘high-performance’. But despite I know faster-better-more isn’t the key to a fulfilled life, my inner voice still asks, is it?
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
― Howard Thurman
4) You equate rest with laziness.
I grew up in a hard-working German middle-class family and internalized sentences like:
- Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
(Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen.)
- Work hard, play hard.
(Wer abends lange feiern kann, kann morgens auch schaffen.)
- “You can’t make something out of nothing.”
(Von nichts kommt nichts.)
Many people normalized and remember these thoughts as if they were our natural behavior. We even stopped questioning them.
You force yourself to keep productive while your inner world tells your body sends the signals it’s enough. You only deserve a break when you’ve worked so hard that you now deserve it.
You have to earn your downtime. You judge everybody who doesn’t work hard enough. You think it’s your own mistake if you struggle to achieve your tasks.
5) Activities exist in hierarchies.
Reading a historical fiction book vs. taking an online course — which one do you find more valuable?
Capitalism offers opportunities to individuals — but only to those who work hard enough. Dr. Emilia Roig compares capitalism with a race where people compete against each other under the same conditions.
The race is unfair. There are people who, no matter how hard they work, can’t reach the finishing line. “Everyone can do it” is an easy excuse to make by people who had privileged starting conditions.
Internalized capitalism downgrades all activities that don’t make you win the race. What doesn’t contribute to making money or improving yourself is a waste of your time.
You’re trapped in a logic of material productivity and competition. Things and actions that value love, enjoyment, empathy, mindfulness, understanding, and care have less value.
6) You prioritize work over relationships.
Individualistic orientation is at the heart of advanced capitalism. You are responsible for yourself. With an entire society valuing self-sufficiency, most people don’t allow themselves to need people or ask for help.
Researchers confirm what we instinctively feel. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and former professor at Harvard Medical School, shared in a TED Talk how relationships are essential for a healthy, happy life.
Yet, many people don’t put their relationships first. They work long hours instead of caring for their friends. Forgetting a text message once or skipping a friend meet-up twice doesn’t matter.
But if you always put work first, it’ll pile up. You’ll lose friends one after another. Working instead of fostering friendship decreases wellbeing.
It’s human connection that adds meaning to our lives, not accomplishments.
“Many relationships and moments of inner peace were sacrificed on the altar of achievement.”
— Ryan Holiday
7) You optimize for personal and monetary growth.
Almost everything we see in life should be optimized. A look on the scales is a hint for working on your weight. The look in the mirror a reminder to improve your skin. The number of daily steps a hint to walk more.
Whatever we see is an invitation to optimize.
As Hartmut Rosa writes, “Mountains are to be climbed, exams to be passed, career steps to be taken, lovers to conquer, places to visit, and taking photos (‘you have to see it’).”
In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes suggested people stop striving for more as soon as their needs are met. Once they reach this point, they prefer to live the good life.
But his theory was wrong. Even though economies reached all-time highs, people don’t work less. In ‘How much is enough?’, Edward and Robert Skidelsky describe how the rich world has so much less leisure than Keynes suggested.
Why? Material desires are limitless. Accumulating capital and optimizing our well-being is a cornerstone of capitalism. You see your growth trajectory, and you want more.
Societal structures have shaped the thoughts we tell ourselves about productivity, rest, enjoyment, relationships, and growth. This article is not about anti-capitalism or praising any other economic system. Instead, it’s an invitation to question the status quo.
I won’t lie — it’s difficult to unlearn internalized capitalism. Even when you’ve accepted productivity, money, and achievement won’t make you happy, changing your thoughts and behavior is tough. Yet knowing these signals will raise your awareness.
Whenever you spot internalized capitalism, remember that you’re enough — no matter what you do or don’t do. You’ll find yourself living a happier, healthier, and freer life.