Self Care Saboteurs: #1 Puritan Work Ethic

One of July’s themes is self-care. This article looks at the systemic impact of the Puritan ethic, which undermines self-care via a punishing work ethic. Self-care is viewed as a weakness.

We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, here and abroad. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

No pain, no gain. Is this true? Wouldn’t it be fun if Judge Judy type shows could investigate these types of assumptions, in service of really setting things right? Because if this isn’t true, the entire basis of capitalism, of the Western World and its philosophy, could be way off. Big surprise! These days with Covid, mega change is needed in many foundational structures and economic systems.

Effort effort effort. Don’t stop. Make sure everything’s done, before you get to relax. Push push push. Never enough. Sound familiar? Some are blessed with an ability to relax. How do they do it? This doesn’t always mean they get less done, funny enough. One friend gets most of his creative ideas when he’s resting and napping. He does this a lot. If he decides to teach a course (Nap Yourself Productive?), I’m first in line.

You get many messages, when it comes to self-care. What did you learn? The first layer is often this Puritan ethic stuff – self-denial, effort, and driven-ness. The sense that resting is weakness. The next layer might be your ethnic input. Many workhorse ideas are rooted to generations ago, anchored in survival fears of that time.


The next layer there, has history and clout still. What might religious beliefs say about how to take care of yourself? It’s better to give than receive? Better get to the end of the line. Next, another layer could be what your local sector taught. Being raised in NJ, there was an unforgiving, fast-moving crowded pace to life, versus say California laid back-ness.

All of this input melds into your personal beliefs and approach to work, rest – life! Due to this exposure and training, you can have a balanced life, or not. Your own creative adoption, often unconscious, of those cultural and family messages create your work ethic and your ability to replenish. If you’re waiting for something to happen, before you can relax and reward yourself with self-care, ask why this is.


How it all shows up? Maybe it’s a feeling that you can never relax. There’s always more to do. You’ll rest when you’re dead. It’s never good enough. Relaxing is indulgent. It’s a sign of being lazy, or an indication of bad character.

A favorite symbol of mine is a hammock. Just thinking about it makes me take a deep breath, always a good sign. It is not yet installed as a permanent feature of the yard, but hey, I do have a camping hammock.

This WORK HARD ethic may help you for a while. It might make sense in your field or line of work, especially at certain stages of growth. Usually though, you finally hit a wall, or crash. Whether it’s depression or anxiety (that wonderful early warning system), or illness, or loss / derailment of something important. All this can lead up to the saddest finding, often found too late. On your deathbed, you realize you neglected too many things in favor of pushing too hard. You miss the gifts of life with this distorted focus.


You’ve likely heard that self-care and relaxation, this intelligent, advanced practice, aids productivity, creativity, and quality of life. You can learn this, if it’s a blind spot. Taking self-care and recovery time – AS YOU GO – aids better work and more effective actions. When you include self-care as part of the equation, it provides an antidote to untrue assumptions. Your work is more enjoyable, and, is more likely to line up with what you really want to experience, and contribute.

So when old instincts and instilled beliefs say, “KEEP PUSHING!” Or, “Don’t stop now!” Just notice that. Take a breath there, friend.

Instead of pushing, try using this voice as a cue for: BREAK TIME! Note all that you’ve already done. The skill of acknowledging progress along the way is neglected in the Puritan work ethic. These breaks feed innovation. They help you catch something you might miss, and better deliver well-rounded efforts.

Then try a new message: Well done! Time for a pause that refreshes!


Take a slow breath for a few rounds. Looking within, examine your unique work ethic. What has influenced you? If there is a self-care deficit or driven energy, how is this working?

Checking with your intuition, ask within how you might inject some proactive self-care and appreciation in your day. Fifteen minute breaks? A “Good on ya mate” moment at the end of a morning work shift with a luscious smoothie or coffee break outside?

Try this for a week with our theme for #JulySelfCare. Your work may more enjoyable, and more productive. Imagine that!

Let us know with a comment: Is past history and old beliefs making your work pace too harsh?

See the Series on Self-care Saboteurs:

Four Ways Self-Care Gets Waylaid
#2: False or Limiting Beliefs
#3 and #4: Time Management Fumbles, Perfectionism


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