Guilt and Pushing Against The Protestant Work Ethic

Found at the entrance of Auschwitz. "Work Will Set You Free" 

Found at the entrance of Auschwitz. "Work Will Set You Free" 

This morning, I've been struggling to write. It's making me anxious. And when I get anxious, I want to do something mindless like watch YouTube basketball highlights. I suspect I'm not in alone in wanting to avoid what is hard. 

I often think about where my anxiety comes from when it pops up, and I find that it is highly connected to guilt. I have a guilty conscience. There's definitely a gap between what I think I "should" be doing or "should" be acting and what I actually do or actually act. This dichotomy often leaves me feeling like I'm doing something wrong. It's not always a fun way to live. 

I talk about this not because I want to relive my adolescent, confessional Typepad blog days, but because I notice this similar guilt with a lot of people in sessions and with my friends and family. The reasons for this often vary. Maybe they had demanding parents. Or maybe they have a sensitive temperament.


But one consistent reason for my patients' guilt is a constant need to feel productive. And that constant need to feel productive is, I believe, is directly connected to one of the long-standing values of this country: The Protestant Work Ethic. 


What is the Protestant Work Ethic?

The Protestant Work Ethic wasn't really an idea until German Sociologist Max Weber wrote a book in 1905 called, "The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism." In it, he describes how the Protestant faith after the Reformation, and which eventually migrated to the United States with the Puritans, influenced the growth of capitalist economies. It did this because Protestant values, especially those of Calvinists, valued hard work, discipline, frugality as expressions of one's faith in God. The theory goes that this implicit value in American society helped propel it into the greatest economy the world has ever seen. 

A passage by Ben Franklin highlights the Protestant Work Ethic well,

"Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. [...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding feline taint, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds."

How The Protestant Work Ethic Affects Guilt

Essentially the Protestant Work Ethic psychologically turns us all into producers so we can consume more. (That's a gross oversimplification but I hope you'll allow it). And so I find that when people aren't being productive and working they often live with a sense of guilt. There is this gnawing sense that they should be doing more. That more is required of them. That being idle is not ok. So they seek mindless forms of consumption to run away from their anxieties. There's nothing like a few drinks or binge-watching a television show to run away from our worries.

And there is a very real sense I get from my patients,  family and friends that work is our salvation. But here's a little secret... it's not. Work will not save you. Money will not save you. Capitalism will not save you.   



How to Let Go

Well, how does one let go of the guilt and pressure put on us by our capitalist society? There's no easy answer. (I've previously written about my own struggles with letting go).

Meditation helps.  So does therapy.  But those methods are just reinforcing one idea over and over: You,  as you are, are enough just as you are. It's a corny thought, especially those of us with a shield of cynicism surrounding us, but it's true. You, as you are, are worthy of love and validation. And you don't have to constantly prove yourself to get that.

To remind ourselves of this is hard because self-compassion feels wrong. Surely we need to be hard on ourselves to get anything done. It's that tough love, tiger mom voice in my own head telling me I need to constantly prove myself. But I've found that's just not true. I've managed to be just as productive when I'm being nice to myself as when I'm not. But the anxiety just melts away. It's a much better way to live in the end.