The #OCDame: Productivity Anxiety Is Pretty Much The Worst

What do you like to do when you can’t sleep?

I like to work.

“Like” is probably the wrong word. I do not enjoy staring emptily at a screen at 1 AM, searching for comma splices until I can hear myself blink. Yet there I am, at least a couple nights a week. It’s a knee-jerk stress response — a compulsion, if you will.

I have a lot of anxiety about not doing enough. Not doing enough at work, at school, around the house, to help save the world from the creeping tendrils of authoritarian nationalism… the list goes on.  

I know that I am a hard worker. I know this because people tell me all the time. And still, I struggle to believe them. I struggle with the worry that deep down, I am actually a lazy slacker doing “just enough” to pass off as hardworking. No matter how hard I work at it (sorry — I had to), I just can’t see the productive person everyone else does. And I try to fix that by working even harder.

This is not a healthy way to be a person, but it is also the only type of person I know how to be.

For most of high school, I was comfortably perched at the top of my class. I always did the reading, always knew the answer, and never let myself off the hook for any homework assignment, no matter how small. I wanted to get into a good college because that was what good people did, before they went on to graduate school and translated the next Beowulf for their PhD. I graduated with a 4.05 GPA, and do you know what I thought to myself as I walked the line? If only you hadn’t gotten all those Bs your first half of high school. Then you would actually deserve this. Then you wouldn’t have just barely managed an A+ average.

I could have tried harder — no, I should have tried harder. I had failed by being only .05 points above perfect.

This is not a healthy way to be a person, but it is also the only type of person I know how to be. It is also a person that people really, really like. People like that I can juggle so many things, that they can count on me to get things done. “I don’t know how you do it,” they say. “You’re so young and look at what you’re already capable of getting done!”

Here is how I do it: I tell myself that if I don’t, I am a horrible, awful human being. I moralize every decision I make, from when I wake up to the moment I finally manage to fall asleep, often guilting myself for the nap I took out of necessity in between.

I want to be the person who people can depend on. I want to be a productive member of society, despite the gross class politics tied up into that statement. But I don’t know how to do that without torturing myself in the process.

I don’t have an answer; I just have an OCD (and OCPD, because go big or go home, amiright?) diagnosis. I know that part of this is how I’m wired and that part of how I’m wired is disordered, but I don’t doubt that the ultra capitalist culture I was raised in didn’t do me any favors, either. I’m also fairly certain that I am not the only one who struggles with productivity anxiety, even if my particular brand of it is more extreme than most.

I wish I had advice, but I’m still looking for some of my own. What I can offer is commiseration. This sucks. It is, as my editor told me when I asked her if this piece was too bleak, “a bit of a bummer. But sometimes life is a bummer.” (There was actually another word in there. It starts with F and was very much warranted, but it also makes my grandma sad. So we're gonna just leave it out this time.)

Tying your self-worth to your productivity is a bummer. I wish I could fix it right exactly now, but the most I can manage is acknowledging it. And I think that maybe this time, I’ll allow myself to do just that much for right now. It’s enough. And “enough” is its own sort of perfection — even I can see that from time to time. Enough means you’re still here. And that means a hell of a lot more to me than productivity ever will.

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