I don’t want to be productive.
I don’t want to create, work, produce, do good.
And whatever other terms fit snugly under the umbrella of “Should.”
But my mind won’t let me be. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep at night because random words are flying through my head. Often they’re not words — just letters, trying to form some molecular chain that can save humanity.
When I meditate and get close to being an “observer”, I am amused at the variety of strangers having debates in my mind. Uninvited guests. Perpetual debates. Amused.
Yet, sometimes, not so amused. Occasionally — say, now — my body is slowed down with symptoms of Post-Concussion Syndrome:
Fatigue, brain fog, cognitive and emotional confusion. When this is triggered, there is no telling when it may pass. At best, hours, or it can persist for weeks.
But one thing remains constant in my recovery.
Stop everything you’re doing. Rest.
This morning, I was volunteering with a community kitchen in North London. It was a quieter day than usual. I hadn’t helped out in a few weeks, due to mental fatigue and medication-induced anxiety. As such, my perfectionism dictated that, today, I would be the model volunteer.
Which, in a community kitchen, means remembering clients’ orders, reciting them back to the Food Master, serving meals, and cleaning everything at 2 pm.
I left at 12 today, with a mix of shame and relief. Minutes before, I was borderline arguing with the charity manager, her telling me to go home, me saying I want to stay.
I left, and I thank her for it.
Even though my fatigue prompted her to dispatch me to my abode, I spent the following 2 hours running up and down London. I’d committed to delivering groceries to a man I’ve never met, who claims he is at high risk if he ventures outdoors.
I say “claims” because I have no way of knowing without breaking into National Health Service records.
The guy lives 3 miles away from my home — a gorgeous walk on a sunny day like today. Except for the fact that bright light, combined with shallow breathing through a mask, deepens my fatigue symptoms rapidly.
Where does this pressure come from? Why stick to my guns, finish the full shift, and deliver food to a stranger, while my body and mind are slowly shutting down?
A combination of historical and psychological factors, perhaps?
Looking back, I have been conditioned to put others’ needs and expectations before my own.
I may not have been explicitly told, ‘Endanger your own health for others’ wellbeing.’ Instead, I was told by people including my ex-partner, my parents, my grandmother, my high-school teachers, and one-chat-only strangers at networking events, a message distilled to:
‘Your worth as a human is in direct correlation to how much you appease others.’
My ex-partner reminded me regularly that I was less cognizant of the socio-economic plight of the Global South, than when he first met me.
My parents rewarded me with foods and smiles when I met their academic standards, and penalised me with emotional unavailability and early curfews when I did not.
My religious grandmother was inches away from disowning me when I covertly suggested to a priest that enough churches had been built with taxpayers’ money.
My high-school teachers explained that if one, such as myself, had equal flair for mathematics as for art, one should pursue the more esteemed, lucrative talent, which is —
Yes, you guessed it, mathematics.
Most interestingly of all, complete strangers preach the gospel of Job — the contemporary biblical version. In this unwritten scripture, Job is the entity that brings one blessings. Desirable to both theists and atheists alike, Job is to be kept despite all costs, augmented in title and remuneration, and publicly displayed as one’s perennial creed.
In other words, people talk more about capitalist ego boosts than about fulfilling one’s life purpose.
Such annals slowly sedimented, until my sense of self began to resemble a canyon with multiple layers of validation.
First, validation by people who may be with me for the rest of my (or their) life.
Then, validation by those in positions of power, who decide if my labours are good enough.
Finally, validation by the nameless who embody the “world” I wish to change.
And why must this canyon be listened to, rather than observed from afar with a 4k camera?
My psychological pattern finds it inescapable.
Of course, none of these people intend to stick their finger in my mental pudding and render it inedible — perhaps they were just reaching for the salt.
In fact, it’s probably the host’s fault that the salt is next to the pudding. Who does that?
Alas, I have chosen not to assign faults to the act of layering social conditionings. Instead, I want to promote self-awareness and self-love through the art of questioning.
So — why the compulsion to perform to other people’s yardsticks? Particularly when it risks yielding destructive results, such as prolonging one’s Post-Concussion Syndrome, or other physical and psychological pains.
Is there one right answer to this question? No.
We are creatures wired for connection.
In pre-agricultural times, we needed each other: to survive to the age of procreation capability, and for procreation itself.
More recently, we have bonded over emotional needs, such as communication, sharing love and joy, and recovering from pain.
For the past 20 years, Brené has analysed thousands of interviews to understand what underpins “wholehearted living”. She explained that when people don’t connect wholeheartedly with their partners or loved ones, it’s due to an underlying feeling of shame.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené says that shame can lead us to box ourselves into social norms, where we are safe from judgement.
She identifies, for example, gender-specific cover-ups: men tend to conform to expectations like “breadwinning”, “emotionally detached”, “aggressive and defensive”, while women strive to fulfill standards like “physically attractive”, “amiable”, and “doing it all”.
Most of these expectations feed the subliminal perception that something is inherently wrong with us, and that we should follow external predilections to hide our inadequacy. This, Brené points out, enables the very opposite: living inauthentically, thus limiting the potential of our relationships with others and with ourselves.
Is shame leading me to endanger my wellbeing in order to please others?
And is there something deeply human about this — the need for love and connection?
I think so.
In truth, the moments when I felt most like myself were simultaneously filled with overflowing fear— releasing the shame of being my bare-naked self. Metaphorically.
It’s scary, no? Blasting out your weird, your idiosyncratic, your unapologetic wholeness. Especially when it includes disability or nonconformity.
I, for one, was raised with a punishment/ reward system that had little tolerance for inefficiency or cognitive underperformance.
With that in mind, my neurons don’t seem to care that I barely know the charity manager I volunteer with, or the man who can’t go out for groceries. My neurons only care about escaping the shame of being inadequate and unlovable.
So, here I am, giving my neurons all the unconditional love and validation they deserve.
I am telling you, myself, and us, that treating oneself with as much care as one would a 6-month-old, comes before fulfilling others’ expectations.
And if you’re left wondering how on earth someone with fatigue and brain fog can finish an article, complete with research and coherent structures, the answer is — I didn’t. Most of it was written the next day, after a good night’s sleep.
Please note the author is not a medical practitioner and the contents of this article are not intended to be used as medical advice. The author has shared her personal experience and publicly available research to reshape a global conversation around self-care and cultural paradigms. Please consult a medical practitioner if you are concerned about you physical or mental health.
This article has been previously published in The Ascent, a Medium publication.