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Everybody just calm down. Why are Americans obsessed with stress?

By Anna GragertJune 10, 2015

work life balance
work life balance Lozanona/iStock

The other day, a friend (we'll call him Frankie) asked about my work schedule. As a freelance writer, who does many other odd jobs, I get this question a lot. Most people do not consider my freelance career to be a normal, let alone a real job.

“What time do you wake up?" Frankie said. "When do you finish working? How many hours do you work a day? Do you work on weekends? You must have a ton of free time to relax, right?”

Despite Frankie’s excessive questioning, I answered honestly, emphasizing my schedule, which consists of more working hours than a standard nine-to-five job. Almost defensively, I found myself trying to prove not just that I work, but that I work hard. I wanted Frankie to know I am just as good as anyone who is chained to a cubicle all day. 

But why? Why was I doing this?

American culture has an unhealthy relationship with work and stress. If you are not stressed, it is assumed you are not working hard enough. And if you aren't working hard enough, it means you are not contributing — to society, to the economy, to your family, to your bank account and to the many other entities that our culture values. 

I come from a family of workaholics, and I have seen this societal standard in action from a young age. I’ve always felt the pressure to work, to provide and to appear hardworking to others. I've never viewed relaxing as an activity that is equally as important as working. I've never thought about balancing work and play.

No matter what we do for a living, after a long day at work, it's natural to want to go home and relax. Without down time, most of us would go insane. Yet, society has come to a point where me-time results in a sense of guilt. The guilt stems from the lingering concern that you are not currently contributing in an acceptable fashion. 

I have internalized my feelings about these unreasonable standards — and I have a feeling I am not the only one. When I take a moment to de-stress, I catch myself thinking, “Did I work enough today? Did I write enough? Did I make my workaholic parents proud?” 

The question “Did I do enough?” stands out to me. 

What exactly is enough? Why shouldn’t I take some time for myself? I spend a significant amount of time working, but downtime nourishes my soul; it recharges my creative juices, which must always be pumping in my profession. 

When it comes to the many trials and tribulations that we experience through work, it is integral that we create our own standards as it pertains to work-life balance. The individual should create his or her own definitions, labels, and opinions that are in-line with who we are. 

I am not the type of person who will work at a job that I hate, or at a job that is not based on creativity. That’s just not me. As a unique (and admittedly unusual) individual, I am likely never going to do anything – professionally or personally – that society deems “normal.” That’s just not how I roll. My definition of a normal job should not be the same as society’s dictionary-abiding definition. My definition of a normal job should be work that makes me happy to get out of bed in the morning. And there is nothing wrong with that. 

As for my definition of a work-stress relationship? Do whatever works for you and cast guilt aside.