As their psychological and physical health deteriorates, compulsively driven workaholics become intensively determined individuals who eventually lose their sense of humor and ability to experience spontaneous joy, laughter, and carefree optimism. Instead, they use black humor such as sarcasm, ridicule, or caustic put-downs that serve to defend themselves from an intimate emotional investment in their relationships. Instead, such intellectual reasoning or similar impersonal problem-solving Thinking type responses are common. Sometimes workaholics will respond with a diabolical laugh, or a chilling sneer that highlights their superiority. Young children, who haven’t as yet developed abstract thinking, hear only the concrete derogatory remark, not the subtle double entendres. Consequently, sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted, and over time, may even seriously damage a child’s self-esteem.

In my doctoral dissertation, The Place of Humour in Adult Psychotherapy, I concluded that the ability to produce and appreciate humor is an essential component of maturity that allows one to laugh at oneself, and be able to see one’s own situation in a humorous, more objective holistic light. Humor moderates intense feelings and frustrations, and helps us to accept our own weaknesses and short-comings without playing the self-sacrificing victim-martyr role. It gives us the objectivity and perspective necessary to not take everything personally, something that workaholics tend to do when acute anxiety and paranoia and the other dark sides of the Feeling function translate into ugly moods, depression, and a fate-filled pessimistic outlook.

As the obsession with work becomes more intense and consuming, the workaholic’s formerly strong defense mechanisms begin to break down. No longer do denial, rationalizing, projection of blame, compartmentalization etc. protect the workaholic from the formerly unconscious self-loathing that underlies their former cocky arrogance. Self-doubt and paranoid thoughts of being “found out” accompany a persistently rising fear that their hard won “successful” persona will be tarnished.  Eventually, nothing is funny, and alarming thoughts may create a never-ending dread.

Humor can no longer ease the painful reality of their betrayal, of insensitive thoughtless actions and often cruel behavior towards those who have continued to be loyal and supportive despite the workaholic’s increasing absence, emotional distancing, and disinterest in what is best for the other members of the family. Depending on the level of the workaholic’s narcissism, “me first,” selfish and self-serving attitude, the marital couple experiences a great deal of tension. One client in describing her sad reality, told me that one morning as she listened to the radio and heard two people laughing together about an awkward situation, “I realized that we haven’t laughed together or been light-hearted in a very long time.” 

In the later stages of workaholism, the genuine, carefree, purposeless play that fosters relaxation and creativity becomes almost non-existent. As Carl Jung warns, the collective Shadow as well as our own personal Shadow has a very powerful influence on our choices. The work ethic, materialism, sexism, racism, ageism and the negative impact of globalization and world-wide recessions have all influenced our Western culture more than we consciously recognize.

As the breakdown spirals downwards and anxiety rises, play fails to provide the healthy balance that would help workaholics counteract the excessive stress generated by the pace of their over-scheduled lives and the highly ambitious goals they have set for themselves. Earlier, these competitive striving people worked at their play, analyzed each shot, and diligently compared their progress based on their opponent’s scores. If dissatisfied, they would practice until they were satisfied with their performance. If a game went badly, they might use foul language, throw their bats or racquets in disgust – a display of temper seen too often in professional sports.

Some workaholics no longer play golf, they say, because it takes too long. It is more likely that they won’t play unless they excel, and it would take too much energy and precious time to improve their skills. I challenged one client who did still play to try not keeping score some time. He looked at me in disbelief, and exclaimed, “Well, what would be the point!”

Because of their fading self-confidence, sense of urgency and consequential over-scheduling, frazzled workaholics often come rushing onto the court to “play” squash, which of course is a shorter game. Pleasure and companionship for its own sake become a low priority as rising anxiety causes workaholics to overwork even the smallest details. For many, work becomes onerous, daunting and even meaningless. Some hard-core workaholics with high levels of narcissistic traits that distort reality persist in still competing and having to win.

Because money represents power and control, financial security becomes all important. How money is spent can become a contentious issue for couples when it comes to planning weekend activities, taking a vacation, and deciding on mutually-agreeable pleasurable experiences. Because secrecy is a way of holding onto power, many workaholics refuse to discuss money-related issues with their partner. The spouse seldom knows what the workaholic makes, spends or saves, or even where securities and life insurance policies are kept. If there is a sudden illness or death, the unfortunate spouse is left in the dark.

Love as a power itself, an open generosity, and celebrating life’s playful joy and laughter no longer serve to strengthen the bond between the couple. Instead, the tensions created by the largely unconscious personality and character changes and the fearful uncertainty that prevails during the breakdown syndrome become unbearable. It is not surprising therefore that divorce rates are high, and the children in these families suffer greatly from divided loyalties, and the sad consequences that workaholism plays in causing such turmoil.

Copyright 2013 – Dr. Barbara Killinger   

About the Author

Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger, Ph.D., was an author and clinical psychologist in Toronto who specialized in workaholism.

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