A few weeks ago, I noticed that the TikTok algorithm kept showing me videos of people over 20 speaking directly to the camera, urging me to “do the work”. They wanted me to know that they were doing the work and that doing the work would eventually turn them into self-actualized beings ready for greater success in life.
What exactly ‘the work’ meant was not entirely clear. Sometimes it seemed to suggest going to therapy. Sometimes it seemed to involve typical self-care practices, such as keeping a journal or meditating.
Although ‘the work’ was vague, it was clear that it was always done on the interior. I sometimes sensed a touch of disdain for older generations when this expression was used, with the implication: if you old people had done the work, you would be as enlightened as we are.
This was a new version of a phrase I previously associated with calls for deeper involvement in politics or anti-racism (something like “doing the work to unlearn racial prejudice”) and celebrity apologies (like the way Will Smith used it after he slammed Chris Rock at the Oscars: “Change takes time, and I’m determined to do the work to make sure I never allow violence to overtake reason again”).
Others have tagged “doing the job” as part of the rise of therapy language dominating culture and social media – “How to Do the Work” is a 2021 bestselling book by a clinical psychologist and Instagram influencer who calls himself “the holistic psychologist.” That year, journalist Katy Waldman in The New Yorker listed the phrase among many others hijacked from the psychiatrist’s office, writing, “It’s like the haze of our inner life is filtered through a screen of therapy worksheets.”
I confess a deep-seated aversion to “doing the job” used in this particular way. My gut reaction is: I just refuse to do more work. My life is already filled with many kinds of labor. I work full time; I cook every night; I shuttle my kids back and forth. I’m not asking for a medal here. This is exactly what is in many people’s inboxes. But should taking care of my mind and soul be seen as yet another task, another box to check, another task to optimize and conquer?
I asked Waldman via email what she thought of my distaste. She also finds “doing the job” a “uniquely irritating phrase” and explained that it “can come across as patronizing.” It implies that our big problems in life are “simple and straightforward, everyone agrees on what they are and the only reason a problem hasn’t been solved is because someone isn’t working hard enough.”
Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, held a similar view. “This idea of ’doing the job’ is just the latest manifestation of the kind of self-improvement culture that has long permeated American society and is closely tied to America’s obsessively individualistic bent,” she told me via email. A culture of self-improvement can deny the larger societal problems that often weigh people down, and it “can lead us to punish those who are struggling or deny them the support they need,” Calarco wrote. Therapy is expensive, and having time to think can be a luxury, something rarely mentioned when “doing the work” is used.
And when you notice something like this on social media, you can bet there’s an aspect of achievement at play: “Do the work” isn’t just about doing the work; it’s about being seen as a person doing the job. This kind of superficial therapeutic halo was noted last year by Mychal Denzel Smith in an opinion guest essay titled “Why Do People Think Going to Therapy Makes You a Good Person?” Smith interviewed therapists who “affirmed the idea that people are going into therapy without a broader goal than “working on themselves” and sometimes to show others that they are working on themselves. This, they said, can sometimes make sessions a bit confusing or adrift.”
I called Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of “That’s Not What I Meant!” and several other books on conversation and relationships, to ask her about “doing the job.” She said what Smith describes – that “doing the job” can now be associated with being an admirable person – is known in sociological literature as a “vocabulary of motives.”
That term was coined in the 1940s by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, and it means that people in a given culture will use whatever vocabulary they believe justifies their actions to the listener and allows for smooth interaction. But there can be a disconnect if not everyone shares the same vocabulary.
Tannen gave the example of a colleague who was surprised a few years ago when a student told her that she missed class because she was so exhausted that she had to take a mental health day. The colleague wondered, “Why didn’t she just say she was sick?” That’s because until recently, saying “I need a mental health day” wouldn’t be construed as an acceptable motive for missing a class. But now it’s more normative to focus on your mental health. Tannen agreed with Smith that when you talk about “doing the job” and controlling your burnout, there’s “a sense that this makes you a good person,” Tannen said. “Everything I think we’re saying is partly expressing something internal, but it’s also partly a presentation of ourselves.”
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with therapy, mental health days, or trying to be a better person. But if we talk about introspection and reflection as work, it makes the whole enterprise cheaper. Learning, growing and mending rifts with other people – and in one’s own soul or psyche – is a messy affair, one that transcends the temporary tidiness of a job; you can’t clock in and out of it. It’s eternal.
It’s also possible I’m just old and grumpy. Tannen said concepts of self-fulfillment and self-care have been around for decades, and it’s a hallmark of modern language that we just keep renaming old concepts so we don’t sound trite. “Society keeps coming up with new words and older people will think, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s the same thing. It’s just a new word for the same thing,'” she said. “And younger people will think, ‘Oh, this is so revolutionary.'” God bless them and their TikToks. I hope they help someone, even if it’s not me.
Parenting can be a drag. Let’s celebrate the small victories.
Yesterday the dishes sat in my sink longer than they should have, with every cup and cutlery in my kitchen dirty. My 10-year-old and I both contribute to the disorder, so today I tucked all but two of our regular dinnerware away to prevent buildup.
—Sarah Reynolds Westin, Anchorage
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