You’ve probably heard of body dysmorphia. If not, it’s a condition in which people don’t see their own bodies accurately. Small flaws appear gigantic or the person in the mirror looks far larger than the one standing there in real life. The issue puts people at risk of obsession, depression, and eating disorders.
In a fascinating recent piece for Refinery29, podcaster and author Anna Codrea-Rado revealed she’s a dysmorphia sufferer. But not in regards to her body. Instead, Codrea-Rado confessed to ‘productivity dysmorphia.’
Let me tell you a story…
Codrea-Rado’s post unleashed a flood of commentary online, and it grabbed my attention immediately too. Bear with me a moment while I explain why.
Back many years ago when I was just a young whippersnapper getting started in writing for the web, I used to refuse to use the word ‘success’ in headlines. The mathematics of what humans actually click on online and my need to pay my mortgage eventually pushed me to abandon my reservations, but I still argue with myself every time I pen a piece focused on ‘success.’
That’s because I still believe what I did at the beginning: Without context success is a meaningless word. Does it mean a particular bank balance or fancy title? The admiration of others? A level of impact on the world? A state of mind? The ability to sleep comfortably at night knowing you’ve lived up to your own values? There is no way to independently answer these questions.
That makes generic advice on ‘how to be successful’ generally pretty useless (or worse, guilty of implicitly reinforcing the unexamined and often harmful assumption that success means being rich and powerful). It also means that there’s no one who can tell you you’re successful (or not) but you.
The power of the right diagnosis
When I read Codrea-Rado’s piece I immediately recognized an issue I had been thinking about for years, namely the painful gap that often opens up between people’s objective accomplishments and their sense of their own success. Her article is a powerful reminder that we may be the final judges of our own success, but we’re often pretty horrible at it. See if Codrea-Rado’s description of her issues sounds familiar to you as well:
Whenever I am asked about my work, I dodge the question. Earlier this year I published my first book and whenever someone remarks how proud I must be, a bubble of shame grows inside because, well, I’m just not. In an attempt to rid myself of that feeling, I do more. I work harder. I endeavor to be more productive.
When I write down everything I’ve done since the beginning of the pandemic – pitched and published a book, launched a media awards, hosted two podcasts – I feel overwhelmed. The only thing more overwhelming is that I feel like I’ve done nothing at all.
I have started thinking of this unhealthy relationship I have with my professional achievements as ‘productivity dysmorphia‘.
It’s a feeling like imposter syndrome but without the fear of being exposed. Or akin to burnout, but it may or may not come after a period of particularly draining work. When Codrea-Rado sent out a tweet asking if others identified with the feeling, she got hundreds of affirmative replies.
There’s no simple solution for ‘productivity dysmorphia.’
Based on that response the phenomenon of being unable to see and celebrate your own productivity seems widespread, but it’s rarely discussed. The genius of Codrea-Rado’s article is that she gives a name to the problem. But naming an issue is only the first step in grappling with it. Ideally, you’d also like solutions too. So in a follow-up piece for Insider Codrea-Rado spoke with a number of mental health professionals and workplace psychology experts to see if there was any way to fight back against her productivity dysmorphia.
Sure, they responded, but the best approach very much depends on the root cause of your particular case. Some of us suffer from productivity dysmorphia because of a deep-seated sense of inadequacy that can best be addressed in therapy. Others are impacted by horrible bosses or workplaces that don’t value and reward their contributions. One expert blamed capitalism’s persistent message that your worth lies in creating ever greater levels of material wealth.
All of which suggests there is no single, simple recipe for fighting productivity dysmorphia (sorry Internet, I’ve got no ‘three easy steps to tear down late-stage capitalism!’ for you). But what you can do as a first step is name the problem and remind yourself of the simple and empowering truth above. You determine what success means. And if you’re never meeting your own definition of the term, something dramatic needs to change.