The constant pressure to go-go-go caused me to ignore my body’s alarms and wreaked havoc on my ulcerative colitis. Then I found a better way.
Welcome to Mindset Matters — a space to learn about the mental and emotional aspects of living with chronic illness. Mindset Matters is led by Nat Kelley, a certified life and mindset coach, and founder of Plenty and Well. For Nat, mindset work was the missing puzzle piece in her journey navigating ulcerative colitis, and she’s passionate about helping empower others in their journeys.
Hustle culture — or the pressure to constantly be going, doing, and producing — is a big part of today’s work and school environments. Some see it as a hallmark of success.
Once you’re caught up in it, hustle culture can feel ever-present and all-consuming and yes, necessary. But is it really? Or is this emphasis on always striving to make more money, be more productive, etc. actually harmful, especially to those of us with chronic illnesses?
Before my diagnosis of ulcerative colitis (UC), I was a self-proclaimed hustle-culture queen. I lived for the go-go-go lifestyle and loved the constant approval it seemed to get me, especially as it related to academic success, and later, my work.
When I began getting sick in college and was in and out of medical appointments, I still continued on the path I had begun forging for myself in high school. I would wake up at 4:45 a.m., run mile after mile, spend an hour in the gym, go to classes all day long, work my on-campus jobs, and then spend the evening doing my homework as perfectly as possible, working on my blog, and running my sorority.
Because my vision was so clouded by my constant need for “success,” I didn’t hear the cries of my body as my first major flare started creeping up on me.
And after being diagnosed with UC? Well, nothing changed. I believed I could take my medication, call it good, and continue on as I was before — going, running, hustling.
Because my vision was so clouded by my constant need for “success,” I didn’t hear the cries of my body as my first major flare started creeping up on me. Then 3 weeks after graduating college, I found myself lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to IVs, staring out into the summer sun. It was this moment that made me realize hustle culture wasn’t all that it was made out to be. Sure, I had an almost 4.0 grade-point average, honors society tassels at graduation, and a marathon medal hanging in my bedroom, but what good was any of that if I didn’t have my health?
The moment I got out of that hospital I made it my mission to turn in my hustle-culture queen crown and become a hustle-culture dropout.
If you resonate with any pieces of my story, know that you’re not alone. Hustle culture is sneaky — from the messages we hear from bosses and coworkers about the importance of things like staying late at the office or having a side hustle, to the questions from family members about promotions and grades, to daily TikTok vlogs showing everyone’s 5–9s before their 9–5s — and it’s everywhere.
As tempting as it can be to try and fit into the mold that hustle culture has created, I truly believe it’s not worth it, or even safe, for folks with chronic illnesses. Not only does hustle culture negatively affect our bodies, but it can impact our minds as well by encouraging comparison, making us feel like we’re never enough, and creating mental burnout.
Hustle culture tells us to place traditional measures of success, such as income, grades, and job status, above all else, but when we have a chronic illness (or multiple illnesses), listening to our bodies must come first. And by subscribing to the hustle culture ways, we are continuously pushed into a cycle of ignoring our bodies, flaring, recovering, and then doing it all over again, just as I was in college. And we — and our bodies — deserve so much more.
So, how do we, in a world that tells us our worth comes from how much we do and produce, become a hustle-culture dropout? How do we learn to see our worth as completely separate from our productivity?
Instead of focusing on “success” as hustle culture sees it, what if you redefined success for yourself?
This was the first step I took in becoming a hustle-culture dropout, which does not have to be an all-or-nothing concept. Instead of seeing success as something that could be measured by society, I decided that for me, success was living a life that is balanced — a life that still allowed me to feel financially comfortable so I could afford my medical needs, but that also included daily rest and self-care. I realized that I never actually felt that successful when I was doing “all the right things,” because I was so burnt out and disconnected from myself.
Try thinking about what real success might look like for you.
A big reason why I fell so easily into hustle culture and based so much of my worth on how much I did and produced was because I lacked self-love. Because of this, I was constantly searching for validation outside myself.
When we center ourselves in self-love, it’s much easier to remember that we don’t have to participate in hustle culture, and to rest without guilt, because we’re able to give ourselves the validation we need from an intrinsic place. Self-love can feel hard to foster when we are being constantly pushed to be and do more, but forcing yourself to slow down and get to know yourself on a deeper level is a beautiful place to start.
Getting to know all the layers of who you are — your passions, your values, your unique characteristics, your quirks, what makes you laugh, what makes you tick, etc. — is a foundational piece of starting to love yourself better. Think of a romantic relationship, for example — it would be really difficult for you to feel loved if your partner never took the time or put in the effort to learn new things about you. It’s the same thing with yourself!
Doing things simply for joy is something that we too easily forget how to do as adults, especially in the midst of navigating chronic illness. I have found that dedicating time each week to activities that serve no “purpose” other than making me happy has helped remind me that productivity isn’t the only thing in life that matters, and that there are other things I want to prioritize above simply go-go-going.
This may look like taking a dance class (if you’re physically able), coloring, reading a fun novel, or watching a new television show. Anything works as long as joy is at the center of it!
Hustle culture wants us to always be striving, because if we’re always wanting to be more, make more money, get more praise, etc., we’re going to keep forcing ourselves to do more.
Hustle culture thrives on a concept called destination addiction. Destination addiction can sound like, “I’ll be happy when I make X amount of money” or “I’ll be satisfied when I have achieved X promotion.”
Hustle culture pulls us out of the present and puts an unhealthy emphasis on the future, despite the fact that who and what you’re doing right now is always enough. Finding ways that help you stay present with chronic illness, such as writing a daily gratitude list or meditating, can help you drop out of hustle culture once and for all, because you start to find peace in the present and no longer feel a constant need to look toward the future.
Although it can feel impossible to become a hustle-culture dropout, it’s possible and necessary if you have chronic illness. Dropping out of hustle culture won’t only protect your physical health, but your mental health as well. Making small changes by allowing yourself to slow down and not push harder than you need to can make a big difference.
Medically reviewed on February 21, 2023
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