The first hints I got that there might be a relationship between productivity and shame came when I was reading Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In describing her studies of shame and vulnerability, she writes: “As I started analyzing the stories and looking into re-occurring themes, I realized that the patterns generally fell into one of two columns; for simplicity’s sake, I first labeled these as Do and Don’t. … The Don’t column was dripping with words like perfection, …, certainty, exhaustion, self sufficiency, … and scarcity.” Oh crap, I thought, this sounds a lot like the words people use to talk about productivity.
It got worse. In the chapter on cultivating a resilient spirit and letting go of numbing, she points out that we “numb and take the edge off” by staying busy, pursuing constant change, obsessively planning, and working all the time. Sound familiar?
But here’s where she really got me: perfectionism. Perfectionism, writes Brené, isn’t about doing your best or trying to improve. “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” We adopt a belief system that says, “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” Let me be the first to mention: calling myself The Productivity Maven might be an indication that I derive some of my self worth from my productivity. OK, maybe a lot of my self worth. I admit it: I’m an achievement junkie.
Perfectionism, Brené explains, is one big fat shame avoidance strategy. The idea is that if you can do, act, or look perfect, you can avoid the pain of experiencing shame, blame, or judgement. Intellectually, I know that perfection is unattainable, but how often does that truth stop me from trying? And when I fall short of perfection (which is every freaking time), shame is right there to berate me with the idea that if I’d tried harder, I could have avoided the whole nasty shame-filled experience. Not only that, but perfectionism is an ideal procrastination tool: if you never produce, you never have to experience failure or shame but if I’m not productive, I feel–groan–ashamed. Ack! Is there no escape?
Well, yes, there is. Brené calls it being “wholehearted.” In essence, living wholehearted means “cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” The first time I read that sentence, I almost fell out. I am enough? Who the hell are you kidding? I’m not enough–I’ve never been enough.
And that’s when I really got the connection between productivity and all this shame stuff.
Productivity practices are predicated on grappling with constant scarcity. Not enough time. Not enough control. Not enough perspective. Not organized enough. Not reliable enough. Not [fill in the blank] enough. From the moment we awaken, to the second we fall asleep, to the time we wake up in the middle of the night worried sick about what needs to get done, we are behind, backlogged, and battered by ‘not enough.’ “The opposite of scarcity is enough,” writes Brené. At the core of Wholeheartedness “is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”
I’m not totally convinced yet–that I am enough–but I have this sense of hopefulness about it that’s getting stronger every day. And the closer I get to accepting this worthiness as the truth about me, the calmer I am and the more confident I become. It’s a bit strange that embracing less control, more uncertainty, and greater vulnerability can give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen, and (ironically) be more productive, but I’ll take it.