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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Toxic Work Habits and Beliefs We Learned From Our Parents

mother and daughter sitting in a room with a window and exposed brick wall behind them looking at a laptop not visible in the frame
Bailey Zelena; Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

As soon as I sat down to read a book I’d been looking forward to reading for weeks, I couldn’t shake the pull of the dirty dishes in the kitchen. I thought to myself, No, those can wait. You finally have a moment to relax. Those plates aren’t going anywhere!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt the pull of work (whether that be a job or chores) when I try to relax. Recently though, I spent an extended period at home with my parents for the first time in a couple of years. And on one of my first mornings back, as I watched them run around—on a Sunday—to complete numerous errands and still lament how much they needed to do by the end of the day, it hit me. I had turned into my parents.

OK, I’m not a carbon copy. But it can’t be denied that our parents are often one of the biggest influences on how we see the world and move through it. So it’s no surprise that I followed the lead of my own. And after speaking with others about how practices and values ingrained in our minds since childhood have manifested in our work habits and beliefs, I realized it’s quite common.

For better and for worse, we learn from our parents. And sometimes, we need to unlearn a few things they passed on to us—not maliciously, mind you—in order to live healthier work lives and pursue the careers we hope are right for us.

Being constantly busy without breaks

My parents have always struggled to relax. Weekends and days off are spent doing yard work, cleaning the house, and running errands. They constantly compete over who did more in a day and whose Fitbit has more steps.

When my mom, a dental hygienist, was deemed “nonessential medical” at the beginning of the pandemic, she suddenly had a bunch of free time. At first, she seemed completely lost figuring out how to spend her days, but quickly began numerous projects: She painted several rooms, prepped the garden for spring, followed online yoga classes, and reorganized every closet and cupboard in the house.

Despite creating new work for herself, she constantly told anyone she talked to how weird it was to do “nothing,” and expressed guilt for enjoying any downtime. The whole thing prompted me to consider how she might approach retirement in the future. Honestly, it’s difficult to imagine my parents not constantly working. If anything they’ll work part-time. Or, as my grandparents did, retire temporarily before returning to work, an example that surely influences my parents’ own habits and beliefs.

I admire my family for their work ethic, but I’ve also taken to heart their “must be busy all the time” mindset, and only recently realized how toxic of a habit it is. Especially as a freelance writer, I always feel like there’s something that needs to be done. From pitching editors to writing stories to invoicing and networking, the list never ends. I wouldn’t trade the freedom for anything, but like my mom, I find it difficult to take a break. For both of us, it’s hard to not do something (even temporarily) that is so tied to our identities.

However, I’ve started to remind myself that we are all more than just our job titles or duties. It’s so important to take a break and separate ourselves from our work no matter what our jobs are, and I wish my parents would embrace this more. I’m certainly trying.

Jumping to the worst-case scenario

Growing up, my parents always encouraged caution. The family mantra was, basically, “Prepare for the worst.” I internalized advice—like, “Always fill up your gas tank when it gets close to a quarter,” “Your car is old, don’t go on a road trip,” and, “Don’t hike, travel, wander, etc. alone”—and applied it to life choices.

I now understand that the fear instilled in me by my parents, albeit not purposefully or maliciously, influenced my day-to-day behavior at previous jobs and is also a large part of why it took me so long to start freelancing. All of these concerns have merit, but I took it to an extreme and always felt I needed to take the safe route.

Before freelancing, I held various administrative and international education positions at universities and colleges. I worked hard, but definitely worried a lot and tended to assume the worst. Whenever I got an email, I stressed over subtext that likely was never there. When I wasn’t sure how to do something or whether I was doing enough, I assumed I’d be seen as incompetent, and ended up taking on way too much work.

The habit also affected how I approached the next steps in my career. My dad has been self-employed my entire life and, despite having had two successful businesses in Seattle (a small grocery-deli and a distribution line), didn’t want me to experience the negative sides of entrepreneurship. When I expressed interest in pursuing freelance work, he and my mother had reasonable concerns about me giving up health insurance and a guaranteed paycheck. All completely understandable. Yet in hindsight, it likely delayed me from the path I now know I was always meant to take.

What I found helpful was to actually imagine the worst-case scenario. Usually, it wasn’t that bad. For example, a worst-case scenario might be that one of those emails I was stressing over might tell me I’d in fact made a mistake. In which case, wasn’t it just an opportunity to learn how to do whatever it was better the next time? On a career path level, a worst-case scenario as a freelance writer might mean not getting enough clients and commissions to pay bills. I reasoned if that happened, I could simply take on a part-time job.

Eventually, I realized that any misgivings I had about going freelance came from others’ ideas. Once I accepted that it became a lot easier to decide whether the risk was worth the regret I’d have if I didn’t try.

Feeling like a burden when asking for help

Lauren*—an American expat in Australia who currently works in tech communications but has previously held various jobs around the world from administrative assistant to cruise-ship activity host to English teacher—says many of her habits stemmed from her mother’s refusal to show any weaknesses. Her mother raised her “with the notion that I was a burden to others if I was honest about my struggles and/or showed vulnerabilities.”

This view shaped Lauren’s work habits. She found it really difficult to ask coworkers for help across her varied professional life. She also struggled to feel justified in any job-related complaints. Now in her 30s, she says her confidence has improved but “it sometimes saddens me to think about how ‘strong’ I tried to be on my own just because I believed I was a burden.”

Self-starters are held in such high esteem in our society that it can be difficult to say we need help or don’t understand something. Throughout our conversation, both Lauren and I agreed that if we could give our former selves two pieces of advice, we’d tell ourselves to ask all the questions (especially when you’re new) and find a mentor.

Acting like we’re OK when we’re really not

Over the years, Lauren also absorbed her mother’s tendency to put on the perfect face. Working in primarily customer-facing jobs, Lauren says she was “always smiling, enthusiastic, outgoing,” even when that persona didn’t match what she was feeling. Over time, the veneer she adopted while on the clock began to overtake her life. Lauren often felt like she had to have her “work” personality on in front of her friends, too.

“I struggled so much in my 20s when I was flip-flopping throughout jobs,” Lauren says. “I honestly had no idea how to deal with mental health issues other than trying to solve them internally rather than open up.”

The switch from customer service jobs into more behind the scenes tech communications helped a lot. And while a whole career change isn’t always possible, she says if someone is feeling like they have to fake their way through the job, it’s worth reevaluating. Just because you once aspired to a particular position, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it for the rest of your life. It’s important to keep in mind we change and we outgrow things, even jobs.

Sometimes, it’s not about making a huge pivot, but rather allowing ourselves to take breaks, have more honest conversations with our bosses, or search for environments that make us feel safe to admit when we’re not OK.

These days, Lauren says she’s “extremely fortunate to work for a great place now that fully supports being open about your mental health—and funded my therapy sessions.” She’d recommend therapy to anyone struggling at or outside of work.

Assuming there’s only one path to “success”

And that it needs to be achieved as fast as possible. This was the case for Avantika Krishna, a former global communications professional turned lawyer turned digital nomad and luxury travel consultant with her own boutique travel agency, Venture X Gain. Her parents always made it clear that she was expected to obtain a graduate degree. “That never felt optional for me,” she says. Even though she wanted to attend graduate school anyway, she says she could’ve done without the extra pressure. When she worked in global health and nonprofit consulting after college, her parents always referred to it as “a break before law school,” a constant linguistic reminder of the expected path.

Krishna believes her parents’ view of grad school as an absolute must stemmed from the fact that their own medical degrees earned them “highly skilled” status and allowed them to immigrate from India to the U.S. This was the path they knew, she says, and the one they showed her.

She also notes that as immigrants, her parents have faced racism and discrimination but are “taken much more seriously [and] given respect when people know they’re doctors.” Higher education was intertwined and interchangeable with success and respect for her family. So it’s understandable they’d want education to unlock the same for her, even if it’s not necessarily what she had in mind.

Krishna understood that nuance, even when she felt pulled to a slightly different path and decided not to pursue law after completing her degree. She says she frequently wondered, “Why struggle more when they already did for me?”

Beyond career paths, sticking to the status quo in day-to-day operations can also be a hindrance. If we continue to do tasks and procedures a certain way because “that’s how they’ve always been done,” we miss chances to improve and evolve.

Krishna recommends finding “people like you who also don’t want to follow a conventional path or are, at least, open to the idea of something different”—whether that’s pursuing an unexpected career or changing up workplace practices at an office job.

“When you see others who look like you and come from similar backgrounds doing their own thing or creating their own path—and succeeding!—it makes it that much more possible for you to believe in yourself and to find the courage to pursue your dreams,” she says

*Name changed for privacy.

Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.