Let's Stop All This Never Enough
Productivity guilt is a common lament among the women in my life and practice. I don’t think it is a coincidence that after spending a lifetime working harder than their male peers for similar accolades and opportunities, women have a difficult time decreasing time spent on future-oriented projects, whether with their children, work, or relationships.
The pandemic allowed a particularly strong example of this. As women shifted to a virtual world while tracking the shifting and often confusing recommendations of governmental health agencies and local media, they added a significant amount to both their emotional and physical burdens. Support via childcare, friendly neighbors, and open schools faded away, and women bore a significant proportion of these tasks. In spite of this, however, they still experienced feelings of guilt for not doing more.
I spent many sessions helping women see all of the incredible adaptations they had to make during these months and, eventually, years. Somehow they found a way to set expectations so high, the guilt equation (guilt = expectations – reality) reached its understandable sum. In an era of social media, our access to the declared successes and ingenuity of our assumed peers is at an all-time high.
This is important: I say “assumed peers” because we often believe, usually in error, that our object of comparison has all of our strengths in addition to what they are highlighting on our tiny screens.
For example, viewing bikini photos of a mother with 3 young children, we project all kinds of positive choices onto her: clearly she exercises regularly, controls her eating, waxes weekly, probably even cooks amazing homemade food for her children, keeping them in top physical shape. And she’s probably great in bed.
What we don’t see in our briefest glimpse into her life is her insecurity about her height, her struggle to stop smoking because in the past this led to weight gain that garnered critical comments from her mother, and her disappointment that her career has stalled while her husband’s is flourishing.
This described woman represents not one particular individual, but examples of the challenges that every human may face, but certainly doesn’t advertise to the world. If we had the true story, and we were scientifically comparing our strengths and difficulties one by one, we could adjust our expectations.
We do this naturally in our interpersonal interactions, understanding the true context of our friend’s apparent natural ease. As we learn about each other, we see the cracks in the façade, and know the full person. We may still experience envy about aspects of their lives, but we no longer wipe away their full, complex experience to see them only in their idealized, social media form.
It takes work to modulate our immediate reaction to images of perfection and success, particularly when we are feeling down or self-conscious about our own choices. During the pandemic, the ratio of social contact via the internet versus in-person left each of us uniquely vulnerable to “compare and despair” cycles. We weren’t seeing the real people, but rather a carefully curated snippet of their lives. If you want a striking example of this faux perfection, just google “food dressers” and watch how they create the ideal image of that low-quality, fast-food hamburger. It takes a ton of work to appear effortless.
Expectations are certainly socially-constructed in part, as gender-norms shift with each generation. My great-grandmother lived with her 11 children in a small farm house, working the land and contributing fully to the survival of her large family. I smile to imagine her face considering the image of the ideal woman today on social media, proudly describing their tips for weight loss or keto-friendly recipes.
Through my extreme good fortune, I have her wedding ring, and I as I spin it around my finger, I try to connect with the strength of that frontier woman. I wonder if she felt guilt, and if so, about what? She raised all 11 of her children well enough for each and every one to graduate from college. Clearly she and my grandfather got something right.
Does guilt in women today reflect the internal conflict of so many choices? My great-grandmother didn’t have the opportunities I now have to travel, work virtually, or provide my children with not only life-saving vaccines and other medical care, but an incredibly broad view of our world, through movies, images, even personal exploration.
Are we now in a position that the majority of our decisions involve setting limits on uses of time in the face of unlimited possibilities? If so, perhaps the path to more joy and less guilt is learning to accept mistakes, live with our flaws, and separate productivity from self-worth.