5 signs your productivity is motivated by shame 

midnight oil

This is day 2 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “When do you hustle for worthiness?” More info here.

All midnight work marathons aren’t created equal.

According to researcher Brené Brown, there’s a big difference between pulling an all-nighter because you’re bursting with ideas that simply must come to life, and pulling an all-nighter because you’re anxious to prove to your boss that you’re a good employee. 

They may look the same on the outside, but they’re very different on the inside. One is motivated by fear or shame; in Brown’s words, we’re “hustling for worthiness,” trying to perform, perfect, please, and prove. Our self-worth is on the line: if we don’t finish this project, and finish it well, we’re not hard-working or smart enough. The other one, presumably, is motivated by some form of love – the desire to create, express, explore. 

How can you tell if shame is driving you? For me, shame-driven productivity happens when I’ve set some arbitrary goal for myself, like working 10 hours or writing 15 articles. If I don’t meet that goal, I know I’ll feel like I’ve failed, like I’m lazy, like I’m not doing enough – even if everyone else seems to think otherwise. 

Does that sound familiar? Here are a few signs you might be motivated by shame: 

  • No one is forcing you to be so productive. You’re meeting your goals at work, but somehow that’s not enough. Some taunting inner voice is pushing you forward.  
  • You’re trying to gain someone’s approval. On the other hand, you may be worried about someone’s harsh judgment. If you do a good job, maybe you can finally get their respect. 
  • You feel terrible if you don’t meet arbitrary goals. Even if you’re ill or legitimately distracted, you have to perform. Time is slipping away. 
  • You think breaks are for wimps. Why waste your time? There are things to be done. 
  • You don’t want to be working. If your motivation isn’t to do good work – or some related goal, like moving your career in the right direction or helping a friend – you may just be doing it to bolster your self-worth. 

One night, after a week out of the office with a broken arm, I felt like working. It was Sunday, so there was no pressure to be on call and no hours to bank. I just wanted to get a headstart to the week and I finally had enough energy to sit at my computer. So I worked, churning out two articles. It was light and pressure-free; I put no arbitrary restrictions on what I had to accomplish. And it was a mini-revelation for me: all that self-imposed pressure may be motivating, but it’s not the only motivator out there. You can find your healthy motivation and desire; you just have to give it a little space. 

Cropped photo by Flickr user Fossil Watchman

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