It’s actually the biggest trap, being a lowkey (or highkey, who’s to say) workaholic. I know it’s bad and unhealthy and blah blah blah, but I kind of love it. It’s totally toxic, but I’m also not mad at my success—so much so that I sometimes forget my personal life is in pain. Then I remember that it’s a mess, and then I work more to forget about it.
I’m channeling Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating. If you think about it, they both share two crucial qualities: 1. They’re arguably the best at what they do and 2. Their personal lives are total messes. But they’re bosses and social servants who work around the clock. They help other people, and if it costs them a little pain, then so be it.
I can have a conversation with myself and tell myself, “Hey—this is a price I’m willing to pay, and I’m okay if my life isn’t perfect as long as my work is.” Honestly, I would say it’s the easier and more rewarding option. It’s mathematical, the way I choose to spend my time—and it’s fine. I’m fine. And my work? It’s incredible.
I love my work. It’s my happy place: where I can do what I want, make mistakes and correct them, create a masterpiece and share it, work hard and be rewarded, fall back and learn more. Best of all, it’s what I’m best at. And that’s addictive, the feeling of being my best.
But here’s my confession: it wasn’t until quarantine that I realized I don’t feel like myself when I’m sitting still. I feel awkward and weird and invaluable.
I wasn’t working as hard, not in the same invigorating way as before. It wasn’t an off day or week of not feeling my best, either—it was months of me not being my best. Because I’m my best while working. And when I’m not working, what am I even good for?
I wished for the normalcy of rushing around during the day and staying up all night to work some more. I wanted this to come back, as if it could somehow deliver me from my misery and stop that voice in my head from saying “what are you doing with my life?”.
Recognizing that took a second.
The problem is this: when you put your worth into your work, it’s a Band-Aid for the bigger issue: neglecting to know your intrinsic value.
There’s a huge, complex relationship between my work and me, which I’m still getting to know. But I will say that through the past few months I’ve learned a couple of things when it comes to the danger, immense pleasure, and undeniable pain of putting my worth into my work.
It’s not an issue of whether you have worth, for starters; even through the compromises and bad decisions, our worth is always there. But for some, like myself, seeing and recognizing our worth doesn’t come easy. Whether that’s due to your upbringing, a traumatic experience, or just good ol’ life—somewhere along the way you stopped knowing your worth, so you chose something else to determine it. Whether that be your work, money, appearance, relationships, intelligence, grades, or athletic ability, it’s still a temporary fix.
Putting my worth into my work made me extremely hard on myself and even the people around me. If my work wasn’t perfect, I felt inferior; if I messed up, I was unable to forgive myself. A B on a test would translate to me being unworthy of love. Mistakes weren’t an option for me anymore, and so I had to keep running this race with myself. It wasn’t even my choice anymore—it was like life support. In all seriousness, seeing other people not working hard made me anxious.
This all could have been avoided if I just gave myself the time to recognize one thing: me being me, without doing so much as lifting a finger, is enough. Our value isn’t tied to some sliding scale of successes or failures. It’s not based on how much we’re doing; it’s just about allowing ourselves to take up space. If we do find ourselves putting our worth elsewhere, there’s no need to get frustrated or distressed. It’s going to be okay. Take it from me, a recovering worth-displacer.
Instead, the first thing you have to do is forgive yourself. Everything you need for this life is already inside of you, so there’s no need to search elsewhere. You came into this world deserving and worthy. Not because your work is incredible or because you unwaveringly strive for success—although those things are applaudable—but just because you are you.
By Anna M Erickson
Illustration by Hannah Kang