Being Gentle with Yourself amid Grind Culture

I recently listened a wonderful, powerful podcast episode featuring Tricia Hersey (1). She is a champion of “rest as resistance” and connects grind culture to white supremacist work culture. It is embedded within our psyches to only value our day if we’ve been “productive” or have garnered some achievable output. Our bodies are viewed as tools for production and money-making. She contends:

“Grind culture is simply white supremacist work culture. It’s an extractive culture, it’s hustle culture, it’s seeing productivity as a function of your worth …white supremacy has been using the body as a tool for destruction since the beginning of time. To not name and put white supremacy in the center of this, it doesn’t make sense. You have to speak about that. When you speak about capitalism, you cannot speak about that without speaking about white supremacy.

Centuries and centuries of plantation labor. What that all was was capitalism beginning. It was all done as tool to make people produce, to make money. The entire economic infrastructure of America was built off the backs of Native people and Africans.”

What does it even mean to rest? Rest and leisure is now commoditized these days. Borrowing from philosopher and theorist Guy Debord (2), rest is “framed under the auspices of production.” When my past manager tells me, “Rest is good for productivity,” they are implying that rest only serves as a function of work. That is not true rest. I find that sitting in my backyard with my cats and enjoying the birds, hummingbirds, and plants – it’s the closest I can get to pure rest without an ulterior motive. Animals and other non-human creatures have a lot to teach us about the present moment.

How do we differentiate grinding from working hard? I’m curious if working hard involves captivating yourself in a state of flow (3), a psychological state that is beneficial to our well-being (4). When we are in flow, we feel immersed and energized in our work. In a grind state, we are partaking in superficial busy-ness, humming at a non-stop pace. Working hard shouldn’t mean you don’t carve out time for moments of rest. 

Something my therapist once said to me when I was telling her that I wish I exercised more, but hate doing it and wish I didn’t have to do it: Why do you do something you don’t want to do? You don’t have to do it. What do you get out of it? She encouraged me to follow the feeling being pulled toward something rather pushing myself to do something. There’s an emotional shift that occurs when you tell yourself “I want to do this,” instead of “I have to do this.”  That could be the distinction between play and enjoyable work versus grind culture and working for The Man. It also represents the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. 

But if you blindly follow the feeling of being pulled and what feels good, it’s hard to trust that everything that needs to get done will actually get done. Action begets motivation, not the other way around (5). Once you’re able to take the first baby step, then do you start to get into it. So you can’t always go with what feels good or wait for inspiration to strike.

It’s useful to question the why behind what it is you want to do, especially if it feels hard to do. In the case of exercise, I felt that it was something I had to do because every body and every research article out there extols its benefits. It’s pretty much indisputable. For a moment, I thought to myself, “What if it is just a hoax and we’re brainwashed to think exercise is some sort of panacea?” That’s probably not true. But it doesn’t stop feeling really hard and really boring.

I’ve tried to reframe exercise by telling myself “I’m working through mental resistance,” (6) or “Studies have been shown that it improves cognitive function,” (7) or simply “I feel so much better after I do it.” And I can sometimes trick myself by saying “Let’s just go for a walk or run,” and that gets the motivation going and then I feel better about doing more. That way I stop overthinking it, just focus on the next step and keep myself form getting overwhelmed. But I still struggle. I’m learning to be gentle on myself and not judge myself too harshly if days or weeks go by without exercise. I’ve also been trying to do dance or soccer which are more fun forms of exercise, but it unfortunately doesn’t replace weight lifting which is hard and all about pushing yourself.

Seems like it boils down to: if you intellectually know something is good for you, how do you approach that somatically in a way that is gentle?

Also, how do you balance being gentle with yourself and doing what feels good with pushing yourself and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations for growth? You can’t always stay in your comfort zone if you want to improve and grow. Though we—or speak for myself, I—could probably serve to benefit from not constantly pursing personal growth. Our bodies, minds, or souls aren’t a project to be incessantly fixed and worked on. We can learn to stay static for a while and be happy with where we are at.

In the article How to Be Kind to Yourself and Still Get Things Done (8) the author writes,

“Do good things because they are ways to love yourself. When we do positive habits like exercise, eating well, meditation, journaling, finding focus, etc. … these aren’t to become better people. They are ways to be loving towards ourselves. So these good habits are forms of self-kindness.”

I’m starting to think a lot comes down to tuning in to how you feel in the moment. I’m reminded me of this quote by Deepak Chopra (9): 

“If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another.

The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience. 

If this sounds too mystical, refer again to the body. Every significant vital sign–body temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, hormone level, brain activity, and so on- alters the moment you decide to do anything… decisions are signals telling your body, mind, and environment to move in a certain direction.”

If you want to push yourself to do exercise let’s say, that would be just fine. And if you want to not exercise, that would be fine as well. Some moments are meant for pushing yourself if your body wants to, other times not so much. 

Tricia Hersey also mentioned in the podcast that because we don’t take the time to rest and unwind, we don’t know how to listen to our bodies and intuition anymore. I like to think that is somehow connected. I had a witchy friend tell me that listening to your intuition is a muscle, you have to practice and work at it.

Before you start to work, how do you feel? Is it that you need take the first baby step or is your body trying to tell you something, that this is not the time to push? We need to get better at listening to when our bodies are telling us “I’m feeling a lack of motivation but I know I want this, so I just need to get started and get over that initial hurdle,” versus “I am really not feeling this and I must stop here.” 

The same goes for when we are in the work already. We must listen to when our bodies are telling us “I want to push myself to go a little further and see what I can do,” versus “I can’t go further and this is enough for today.”

I’ve learned that I am only able to truly get 3 or 4 things done in a day if I am deep and focused on them, while also allowing time for rest and play. Even if I might have 10 projects going on at once, I choose what feels right to work on that day. If I don’t get to a particular project in a while, I trust that I will be pulled toward it eventually.

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References ⬇

1 Tricia Hersey, For the Wild https://forthewild.world/listen/tricia-hersey-on-rest-as-resistance-185

2 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

3 Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

4 Dr. Laurie Santos, The Science of Well-being at Yale

5 Dr. David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

6 Nicole LePera, The Holistic Psychologist

7 Mandolesi, et al., Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/

8 Leo Babauta, How to Be Kind to Yourself & Still Get Stuff Done https://zenhabits.net/kind-done/

9 Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Lif