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Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism

Are you a workaholic?


Workaholism is a soul-destroying addiction that changes people's personalities and the values they live by. It distorts the reality of each family member, threatens family security and often leads to family break-up. Tragically, workaholics eventually suffer the loss of personal and professional integrity.

The key to understanding workaholism is to fully appreciate what happens to an individual's behavior and subsequently character when the Feeling function no longer informs judgment. The emphasis too often is placed on the excessive hours that these people work, yet this is but one of a series of symptoms.

As a pioneer in this field some twenty years ago, I defined a workaholic as a work-obsessed individual who gradually becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control in a compulsive drive to gain approval and public recognition of success. These driven men and women live a Gerbil-wheel, adrenalin-pumping existence rushing from plan A to B, narrowly-fixated on some ambitious goal or accomplishment. Eventually, nothing or no one else really matters.

Work is essential for our well-being and integral to our identity. We suffer profound emotional distress when we lose a job, or cannot do our work for whatever reason. The alarming number of employees on prolonged stress leave is evidence that physical and psychological health do break down, especially during these recessionary times when workaholic bosses or organizations place unreasonable demands on their staff. One does not have to have a paid job. Many perfectionistic homemakers and students suffer from this serious affliction.

"What is the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic?" is a frequently asked question. A hard worker who is emotionally present for all family members, co-workers and friends, and who manages to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal responsibility is not a workaholic. Any periodic burst of overworking in order to meet an important deadline or an emergency situation needs to be purposely followed by a reduced schedule or days off to restore depleted resources. Making a resolution to save at least twenty-five percent of your energy to bring home every night, and "putting a fence" around your weekends to protect yourself from temptations are both good ideas!

Workaholics, in contrast, lack this wisdom. They are obsessed with their work performance and hooked on an adrenalin-high. Bent on self-aggrandizement, these ego-driven folks reach one goal and immediately set another more ambitious one. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure.

Workaholics walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and over schedule. While still relatively healthy, they can multi-task, but their diversionary tactics and eventual lack of focus often signal performance-anxiety as growing internal chaos causes them to try to control every action, and everyone around them. They must do things their short-sighted myopic way, and refuse to delegate because "others will not do as good a job." As the breakdown progresses, conscious and unconscious stress causes them to suffer panic attacks, claustrophobia, depression, and acute sleep disturbance.

Many workaholics are forced too quickly into adult responsibilities because of situational circumstances such as a parent's illness, a death in the family, or separation of the parents. Others come from families where there is a doing-performance-oriented value system where conditional love is granted if the child exceeds expectations, and makes the family proud. They are often the "good kid" who does well at school, excels at sports, and doesn't cause much trouble. Although workaholics rarely acknowledge their own angry outbursts, when deep anger does surface to consciousness, one of its sources is reported to be the fact that these overly- responsible adults never had a carefree childhood.

Some become the Mr. Nice Guy or Gal, the passive-aggressive PLEASER who can't say No, who desperately wants to be admired and liked, and will do almost anything to gain accolades from the boss and fellow workers. Their persona, how they want to be viewed by others, is carefully crafted. However, ego boundaries are hopelessly blurred because the Self, the "being-feeling" side of their personality, is seriously repressed. Wishing to take ownership of only their positive attributes, Pleasers tend to project unwanted faults and see these same faults in other people.

CONTROLLER workaholics crave the kind of power that allows them to always be in control. These independent and proud individuals are often arrogant and intense but can be most charming, witty, and appear sociable when it serves their purpose. They can be impatient, impulsive and demanding, and tend to be strong Thinking-type personalities who are usually found in top management positions or are self-employed. Controllers, comfortable in goal-directed activities but less so in social situations, find personal friendships hard to maintain. Many have business-related acquaintances, but few intimate friends.

Similar yet quite different are the NARCISSISTIC CONTROLLERS who absolutely must be right, have to do things their way, and can only see their own point of view. They are persuasive in their manipulations and relentlessly drive through their own agenda, regardless of the consequences. Thus they jeopardize the welfare of others and can show an alarming disregard for ethics and morality. Rules and regulations are their own, based on their version of reality. Sadly, their narcissistic views provide little or no insight into what their actions do to others because sensitivity is lacking when the Feeling function fails to inform judgment.

These bright, energetic, and competitive people rarely relax, and seemingly need little sleep. They become compulsively caught up in the seductive, persona-enhancing perks that the workaholic lifestyle offers. Unfortunately, when the repressed Feeling function shuts down, these same people lose the insight and wisdom necessary to be aware of their own decreasing capabilities.

In future posts, we will examine three concurrent dynamics whose collective influences interweave and transform a Dr. Jekyll personality into Mr. Hyde. We will look first at how perfectionism leads to obsession; and in turn, how obsession leads to increasing levels of narcissism.

Because fear underlies every obsession, we will explore the particular fears that destabilize the functioning abilities of the workaholic. There is a highly predictable breakdown syndrome that this obsession with work follows. As well, there are two key turning points - the loss of Feeling and the loss of integrity - that produce largely unconscious character changes that accelerate the progress of this addiction to power and control.

Lastly, we will examine the seductive role that denial, power, and control—what I call the workaholic trap—plays in this addiction. This combination is one of the chief reasons why workaholics fail to save themselves from the grievous losses and character changes that have been presented. It is also why today we are reading so many stories about prominent people losing their integrity through unethical acts and immoral behaviors.

Copyright 2011 Dr. Barbara Killinger

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