Hustle and Bustle/Max Pixel Free Photo
Source: Hustle and Bustle/Max Pixel Free Photo

The designation “taskmaster” is rife with negative connotations. Consider its definition in "One that imposes a task or burdens another with labor." It’s hardy surprising that synonyms for the term include “tyrant, bully, despot, drill sergeant”—and even “slavedriver.”

What I’d like to suggest is that, in its implications, the phrase inner taskmaster is paradoxically ambiguous. For having a powerful work ethic can actually be an asset, providing you with various gratifications, rewards, and advantages. But on the other hand, it can also be a repressive—and oppressive—force that controls your life and prohibits you from experiencing many of life’s joys.

So before discussing what’s harmful about having such a rigid, unrelenting ruler inside you, let’s look at this driving energy from a more positive perspective. And this will serve as a caveat when I go on to describe the negatives of such a compulsion, since it can become habitual, excessive, and self-defeating. However adaptive it might have been originally, you may now need to learn how to put it back in its proper place—before, that is, it completely takes over your life.

Genetics, Biochemistry, and Your Work Ethic

As regards personality measurements, the Big Five scale (heavily researched and presently considered the standard) includes Conscientiousness as one of its five key factors. And, as characterized by biophysicist Brett Olsen (Quora, Mar. 12, 2013), this trait—seen as the most reliable barometer of one’s work ethic— comprises such complementary elements as “self-discipline, desire for achievement, ability to plan actions, organization, and dependability.” One research/review study, specifically on the Big Five (J.C. Loehlin, 1992), estimates that about half the total variation in personality is genetic. So scientific findings offer convincing evidence that the strength of your work ethic cannot be attributed solely to environment.

A second, even more popular, personality index is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). And in this instrument one of the four personality factors is “Judging” (J)—vs. its opposite, “Perceiving” (P). Here are some descriptors of the Judging individual: “scheduled, organized, systematic, methodical, and planning.” And here, too, is an excerpt from an overall characterization of this behavioral style: “[Judging people] tend to live in a planned, orderly way, wanting to regulate and control life. . . . Their lifestyle is structured and organized. . . . They enjoy their ability to get things done” (1993, I. B. Myers, Introduction to type, 5th ed.).

But the simplest summation of the Judging individual’s natural predilections comes from a book on the MBTI (2000, P.D. & B.B. Tieger, Just your type), which contrasts industrious J’s with more easygoing P’s in this fashion: J’s “have a strong work ethic: work, then play”—vs. P’s, who “have a strong play ethic: play, then work.”

Actually attempting to account for the great divide between “go-getters” and “slackers” (cf. MBTI’s J’s & P’s) has long remained a scientific mystery. But an article in dailyhap (06/20/2012, Is your work ethic genetically pre-determined?) cites a study done by researchers at Vanderbilt that sheds new light on this intriguing topic. For this research team, utilizing positron emission tomography (PET scan) on their subjects, concluded:

People who are willing to work hard for rewards—go-getters—had a higher release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation [namely, the striatum, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the anterior insula], whereas those . . . less willing to work hard for a reward—slackers—had high dopamine levels in the brain area that plays a role in emotion and risk perception. (And for a much more technically detailed explanation, see M. T. Treadway et al. in Journal of Neuroscience, 2 May 2012, 32 (18) 6170-6176; or go to DOI.)

In short, those with a pronounced work orientation may be biochemically different from those without one. Put simply, work is more gratifying to them. (And what could be a better reason to not blame, or shame, people—including yourself—who are less work-inclined than others?)

Environmental Influences on One's Work Ethic

If about half of what determines your work orientation is inherited, what about the other half? Let me present two possible scenarios here:

(1) Needing, as does every child, to feel that your parents value you—that you’re cared for, comforted, respected, and loved—you’re acutely sensitive to just about everything governing their reactions toward you. After all, what could be more important than experiencing your so-vital attachment bond to them as steady and secure?

Ideally, you’d feel your parents unconditionally accepted you for who, by nature, you are—vs. how well, in this or that instance, you behaved. But the reality is that many (if not most) families prize their children on the basis of how much they meet their standards and expectations.

So if, say, you get positive recognition from your parents only when you bring home A’s, and you receive either not-so-benign neglect, or even harsh judgment, when your report card displays mostly B’s and C’s, you’ll get the clear message that to feel emotionally safe in your relationship you need to excel academically. And a similar “adjustment” would feel required if you experienced being valued in your household only when you were performing a task, or foregoing a pleasure to help them with something. Conversely, they may have frowned at you and made you feel lazy, selfish, stupid, or guilty when they discovered you resting, playing, or just goofing off.

If you grew up in a family where only productively “doing”—rather than merely “being”—was favorably responded to, you’d likely be driven, adaptively, to cultivate a strong work ethic. For unless you outright rebelled against your parents’ dictates (even if they were more implied than explicitly stated), this “conditioned” work ethic would have felt almost compulsory to you.

Too young and vulnerable to comfortably resist such external pressure, you may have concluded that such a habit of nearly masochistic self-discipline was essential to be assured that your behavior protected your parental bond. And once you internalized this sense that your family well-being was inextricably bound to your (largely self-denying) performance—as well as threatened when you weren’t doing what they wanted—it’s virtually inevitable that you’d develop a powerful work orientation. And one that would persist even after you’d left home.

(2) It could be that in growing up, and mostly independent of your family, you saw yourself as acceptable only by compensating—or over-compensating—for certain perceived deficits. In which case you’d strive to compete with other children in ways you believed might make you more equal to them, or possibly even superior to them. You may not have been as physically coordinated as they were, or you may have had difficulty making friends, or—for a multitude of reasons—you may have felt compelled to demonstrate to yourself and others that you were as good as, or better than, them. If so, you might have developed a habit of putting forth great effort to excel at something, so you could convince yourself that, despite any painfully recognized limitations, you were still okay, or “good enough.”

And by working harder—whether in school or in doing odd jobs that other kids weren’t interested in—your world did seem to grant you approval. So your reinforcement history would actually have “programmed” you to become almost abnormally self-disciplined. And, however unconsciously, if applying yourself diligently to any task at hand made you feel good about yourself, then becoming your own “slavedriver” would have felt not just necessary but downright rewarding. You’d have learned to work hard—but without playing hard as well (if at all). In fact, at its extreme, letting yourself go, acting spontaneously, and simply enjoying yourself would actually induce anxiety. So transitioning into a more relaxed state of mind and feeling could become practically impossible for you.

It’s easy to imagine how living a life of such unbalance, or dis-equilibrium, could negatively affect your relationships. For, really, how could anyone be there for another when they can’t be there for themselves? Consequently, your well-rehearsed, “successful” program of rigorously applying yourself can turn out to be not just dysfunctional but pretty joyless, too—despite its becoming over the years involuntary and automatic.

Countering the “Authority” of Your Inner Task Master

Obviously, if you’re to attain some equivalence between work and play, activity and rest, personal achievement and interpersonal affiliation, you’ll want to revisit why you committed yourself to such a self-sacrificial behavioral pattern in the first place. Either on your own or with professional assistance, you’ll need to review your child self’s earlier decision to continually prove him/her self. And you’ll need to find ways of convincing that younger you that it’s now safe to modify that decision—that you no longer must prove your value, that you’ve already established it and it’s time to "kick back" or "chill out." That, finally, you're no longer obliged to estimate your value in terms of eternal doing.

So, if you couldn’t unconditionally accept yourself in the past, can you now diligently "apply" yourself to accepting the premise that everyone has not just the right, but a core need, to see themselves as “good enough”—independent of outward accomplishments?

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.