In a Work Obsessed World, We’re All Hungry Ghosts

I’m not that bad off but…

I’ve been depressed lately and it’s for a multitude of reasons. One of those reasons is being confined to a single job for almost a month has given me cabin fever. The work itself isn’t too bad as I’m watching a lovely dog, but being completely dependent on someone else’s car to get anywhere or do anything has made me feel lethargic and dissatisfied. My partner was kind enough to help me with this job but they recently left the house because they got cabin fever and wanted to go back to their house for a while.

Both of us having chronic depression doesn’t help as we are predisposed to disliking ourselves or things about ourselves. Lethargy isn’t hard to kick in for either of our brains. I think cabin fever also comes from something else though: A lack of connection to one’s own life. Usually from the feeling that you’re not doing anything. Especially that you aren’t doing anything particularly useful or productive, that contains any value.

That’s a feeling that both my partner and I felt over the course of last week and it finally reached a boiling point over the weekend. We kept exclaiming that we were bored and there was nothing we were really doing. Sure, once in a while we’d go to her house or to the movies or hang with a friend. But we’d always come back to the same place or feel bound to. We couldn’t (or felt we couldn’t) leave the dog alone for too long. It was our job (and certainly my job if not hers) to watch the dog.

Eventually it felt like an obligation that was always on our minds. See, the job is nearly 30 minutes (driving) from where either of us live. So it’s a huge use of gas over our time here and it means we constantly have to be keeping it in mind as a time factor. And the fact that this job happens over multiple weeks means the monotony of our surroundings starts to weigh on us. I’m not saying we have it the worst; the job pays well and we both love dogs, but this job, in retrospect, might have been a mistake.

This lethargy, this cabin fever, this boredom I can’t abide, none of it feels good. It feels like I’m just going day by day through the motions, not really accomplishing anything and letting my routines fall by the wayside in the process. Again, the job has its perks: I love dogs, it’s a lovely home, I’ve spent wonderful time with my partner and it pays well. But this doesn’t make me feel better it just makes me feel worse.

Because it begs the question: Who am I to feel so unsatisfied? Shouldn’t I be happy that I have a job I can stand with an animal I love and a decent paycheck? What kind of person am I to still feel as if it’s not good enough?

Well, according to Dr. Gabor Maté I’m a “hungry ghost”:

In Hungry Ghosts, Maté distinguishes between contingent and genuine self esteem. The bigger the void that people feel, the greater the urge to get themselves noticed, and the greater the compulsion to acquire status. Genuine self-esteem, on the other hand, “needs nothing from the outside”—it’s a sense of feeling worthwhile, regardless of your accomplishments. “Self-esteem is now that the individual consciously thinks about [themselves]; it’s the quality of self-respect manifested in his emotional life and behaviors.”

I am definitely one of those people with contingent self-esteem. I need people to laugh at me, to validate me, to give me a sense of purpose or meaning in my life. I often make jokes, puns, self-deprecating remarks and whatever else I can think of to elicit a response. If I don’t get a response then usually I can move on and say nothing. But inside? It eats at me.

Because I identify with my own sense of humor very strongly. If people aren’t liking my humor, what I find funny or valuable then they don’t find me valuable, right? That’s wrong, of course. But it’s not hard to see why I might think this way about myself. Especially when, as I mentioned before, I have mental health problems such as depression.

And for some people there’s no worse feeling than not meeting their bosses expectations, their co-workers expectations or maybe those of their family and what they think of your job. There’s this sense of urgency around making sure that we convince ourselves that we are needed and we can prove it by doing whatever it takes for other people. It doesn’t matter if we hurt ourselves in the process, as long as people like us, it’s OK!

But it’s not OK:

The drug of being wanted was far too powerful to refuse, and in any case I needed the flame of constant preoccupation to ward off the anxiety of depression or ennui that always lurked at the edges of my psyche.” Indeed, to not be working threw him into disarray. Like “an addict in withdrawal,” he shared onstage, not having to go into work on the weekends left him feeling empty and irritabile [sic].

All you are doing in these situations is putting a band-aid on a gaping hole. It’s like when naturalists tell you to go take a walk in the forest instead of taking your anti-depression medicine you know will work. Yes, going for walks and particularly in or around nature can be soothing. It can even help calm the mind to some extent in my experience. But it doesn’t destabilize whatever is causing your bad mood to begin with.

Actually confronting your own issues is scary and I don’t necessarily recommend it being the first thing you try. But eventually you have to realize that the gaping wound in you isn’t going to be filled by pleasing others, taking long walks in the forest or working yourself to death. Instead, you’ll find that these activities, while treating the symptoms, never quite treat the root cause and in some cases worsen them.

Treating the root cause isn’t easy and it looks different for everybody but talking to friends, to your therapist, to a hotline can be a good first step. Writing things down in a list or putting what you need to do in chunks so you can manage your mental health problems more effectively can do wonders as well. And just for clarification: I’m not a mental health professional. But I’ve suffered from mental health problems for much of my adult life (if not before) and I think we need to be more honest about how work and mental health can interrelate in toxic ways.

And in that spirit I think Dr. Maté nails it: When it comes to our work obsessed world, we’re all just hungry ghosts trying to eat in a system that constantly tries to eat us back twice as fast.

We’re not winning, we need to try something else, before it’s too late.

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