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Why You Feel So Guilty When You’re Not Working

Vector illustration of a people seen through a windows inside their home during quarantine or self isolation, doing activities in their home. Includes fully editable eps 10 vector with jpg.

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For millions of people, working from home has not meant working fewer hours. The average workday has grown longer – about 49 minutes longer – and people are going to more meetings than they were before the pandemic began.

Whether you’re still heading out to work each day or you’ve transformed your home into your office, there’s a good chance you were struggling to disconnect from work even before the coronavirus. Burnout is so common worldwide that the new edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases will include it as a syndrome, an occupational phenomenon marked by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and negativity.

If that sounds familiar, it might be time for some reflection. When was the last time you watched a movie or show and did not glance at your inbox? When was the last time you left the house without your phone? Can you eat a meal or sit for an hour without doing any work at all?

Journalist Celeste Headlee spoke with Amelia Aldao, a therapist in New York City, about what we can all learn to work a little less and relax a little more.

Interview Highlights

On the loneliness epidemic

People are a lot more isolated, no matter what their situation in life is, whether they live alone or with a partner or with kids or with an extended family — there is a sense of isolation that [is] becoming really problematic. We’ve had a loneliness epidemic for quite some time in America, and it’s only getting more and more exacerbated — and that, of course, has a lot of detrimental effects on people’s anxiety — also their depression, and their physical health as well.

Why we feel guilty when we aren’t working

It comes from the internalized voices, from our parents, from our family growing up…Guilt is obviously a very, very problematic emotion. But like every other emotion, it makes sense right in the right context. So given that we have such high expectations about our productivity, it would make sense that we would feel guilty when we don’t meet them or when we feel like we haven’t met them. That’s what guilt is there for. It’s a signal that things are not going the way we think they should.

So the way to work around guilt has to do with changing the way that you frame your environment, the way that you reset your expectations, the way that you restructure your life — so that the guilt is less likely to show up in the first place. Once it shows up, it’s really hard to work with it because it’s a very, very powerful emotion. So a lot of the work needs to be done up front. So that when we begin to feel that creep up, we can actually be like, no, you know — I’m not going to go that route.

On using exposure therapy to treat your compulsion

What has helped me, and what has helped my friends as well, is to come to terms with this idea that we’re not going to get through everything in our to-to list, and prioritizing what we can and cannot do, and learning to let go.

I’ll give you a more concrete example. I used to be an inbox zero kind of person. No email went unread, everything got responded to in a minute. And when the pandemic started, I just couldn’t get through my email. I still can’t. But I prioritize my clients, I prioritize my team…and then everything else gets done whenever it gets done.

And it took a lot of work. It took a lot of sitting through anxiety. It took a lot of moments when I panicked at how many unread emails I had. But again, over time it got easier. That’s a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy that is called exposure. The more we do the things that make us anxious, the less anxious they make us over time.


The podcast version of this story was produced by Clare Lombardo.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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