7 Methods for Recovering From Internalized Capitalism

Black man rests by his window while looking at his phone.
Black man rests by his window while looking at his phone.
Photo: Webfluential/Getty Images

If you’re taking a break from working right now, how are you feeling?

Do you feel vaguely unproductive? A little guilty for resting? Is your brain saying: If you get back to work and produce you’ll feel fulfilled?

That’s internalized capitalism for you. Capitalism is a centuries-old system, but considering how the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the economy and many people’s employment situations, it’s not surprising if you find yourself feeling this sting acutely.

“Internalized capitalism is a revision of the protestant work ethic,” explains Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Nikita Banks, author of Finding Happy. “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.” We’ve all internalized capitalism to a certain degree. Yet, how does one recover from such a state, and is recovery even possible? Here are some ways to try:

Recognize the roots of internalized capitalism

“Internalized capitalism is rooted in white supremacy,” says Marvin Toliver — a therapist at The Radical Therapy Center and co-founder of Melanated Social Work. “The fact that we, individually, have such a connection to our work, how much we can produce, and how much money we can make is extremely problematic. Tying it back to white supremacy, to capitalism, and to race and racism is really helpful for my clients.” He encourages patients to make themselves a priority over their work, meaning that they should take time off and take breaks throughout the day. This applies even if they are working from home.

“A lot of these jobs, if they decide to either fire you or if you quit, they will replace you in a heartbeat,” emphasizes Toliver. “So why are we putting so much importance on jobs that usually don’t put that much importance on us? I think it’s about taking back that power.” Framed this way, making space for yourself in your work life feels like the opposite of self-indulgent. It feels both freeing and revolutionary.

Foster awareness in your everyday life

When it comes to internalized capitalism awareness, licensed master social worker Emily Weinrebe believes that awareness is the path forward for individuals. “I think [recovery from internalized capitalism] is an impossible goal, unless there is an anti-capitalist revolution that takes capitalism down,” she says. “I don’t think that recovering from internalized capitalism within capitalism is possible, but I do think that bringing awareness to the systems that impact us and being a community where we’re organizing around these issues or talking about these issues is therapeutic.”

Raising consciousness around internalized capitalism, according to Weinrebe, can result from discussions about how capitalism impacts our bodies, brains, and relationships. Further education can also help. Weinrebe specifically recommends reading the work of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and political philosopher who studied internalized oppression, and Brazilian popular education theorist Paulo Freire, who believed in the idea of praxis: a mix of reflection and action directed at structures one wants to transform.

Weinrebe also offers a practical tip for each of us to incorporate into our daily lives: “If you have a thought or a feeling that feels really bad, train yourself to think, ‘Is this something capitalism taught me?’”

Create boundaries around acts of self-care

For people who have been able to work from home during the pandemic, Banks suggests hard stop times that create boundaries between work and self-care.

When devising specific healing techniques, however, Banks always considers that her clients are across the economic spectrum. “For my clients who are essential workers during the pandemic, it would be disingenuous of me to push them to create boundaries in a bad economy that might impact their ability to work,” she explains. “But what we did do was to start to have a discussion about investments they can make to practice small but radical acts of self-care, as well as start to plant seeds for [a] future… where they can live a life with more autonomy.”

Even if you can’t take mental health days off work, or block off an hour in your day for a Zoom with a therapist, you can practice “small but radical acts of self-care” — even just a few minutes to walk, read a poem, meditate, or pray can make a big difference.

Speak your expectations out loud

Ellen Gibert, a self-care coach and founder of Luminous Leanings, works with the ego and inner critic as driving forces behind internalized capitalism. “We beat ourselves up for all the ways that we are human — so at the end of the day, [this would be] all the things you didn’t get done,” she says.

“What I see time and time again is that when a client gets to speak their expectations out loud to another human being who’s holding compassionate, loving space for them, they can see that it’s a lot… You have to laugh at the silliness of what you’re believing because you’re basically believing that you can accomplish all of this in one day.”

Call or text a friend — chances are, they’re having that same “I’m failing at everything” feeling, and can commiserate about how impossible your expectations of yourselves are.

Remember your mantra

As techniques for awareness and coping, Gilbert recommends mantras and rituals that allow you to transition out of productivity spirals. “Sometimes, I have a little ceremony and I actually grieve the things that didn’t get done,” she says. “Sometimes I do a ritual at the end of the day where I put my computer to sleep, and I might say to myself, ‘I am transitioning out of work mode and into my restful evening. My intention for the rest of the day is XYZ.’”

Additional mantras Gilbert recommends include:

  • “I have everything I need.”
  • “I’m a human being, not a human doing.”
  • “I’m not a robot,” or, “I’m not a machine.”

Remember that it’s normal for your energy to fluctuate

Instead of getting down on yourself about not being able to crush it all day every day, remember that energy ebbs and flows. “For people who have a menstrual cycle [especially], they have a cyclical nature to their energy,” Gilbert explains. If one is aware of what their body is going through, energy-wise, and they create their to-do list with this in mind, Gilbert believes that their work will have a more natural, realistic flow to it.

Accept that waking up to internalized capitalism is a life-long process

Learning to cope with internalized capitalism doesn’t mean that you need to see your job as inherently bad. Instead, consider how you relate to your job. This might be a moment to take a look at your career and how it’s suiting — or not suiting — your life and needs. And it’s definitely a moment to remind yourself that you can work well, and do a good job, without sacrificing yourself.

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