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Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism—Obsession

"Has your attention become narrowly fixated on your work?"

Workaholism and Obsession

In order to further understand one of the inner dynamics of workaholism—that perfectionism leads to obsession, and in turn, obsession leads to increasing levels of narcissism—our focus now turns to the role that obsession plays.

The Thinking function has a single-focused awareness capacity that zeros in on one subject at a time. As a consequence, extraneous distractions tend to fade into the background. Because Thinking is hierarchical and naturally competitive, it strives to stay on the top rung of the proverbial ladder. Therefore, striving to be the best, winning, and conquering adversity are important values.

A workaholic is a work-obsessed individual who has gradually become emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control. Caught up in a compulsive drive to gain personal approval and public recognition of their success, these driven men and women live a Gerbil-wheel adrenalin-pumping existence rushing from point A to B, narrowly fixated on the next desired goal or accomplishment. Eventually, nothing or no one else matters.

Over time, as more and more energy is devoted to work-related issues, the individual's thoughts become ever more narrowly intense and persistent. The obsessive need to control all the variables that perfectionistic tendencies demand fuels the obsession even further until a compulsive need surfaces to impulsively take some action to ease the discomforting symptoms of distress.

The more defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization, projection of blame, compartmentalization, and dissociation are used to ward off any threat of failure or other related fears that surface to consciousness, the more workaholics shape and distort reality and ignore the impact of their behavior on others.

When energy is overtaxed by concentrated efforts to succeed at any cost, it becomes increasingly necessary for adrenalin to kick in to restore depleted resources. Soon, work is the adrenalin-pumping "fix" that serves to help workaholics avoid acknowledging the dark side of their character. As overused defenses weaken and adrenalin surges fail to energize, a growing insecurity and self-doubt rise to the surface of consciousness. Anxiety escalates as the coveted control workaholics so ardently seek is lost. At such times, angry outbursts can erupt into rage if others threaten to challenge or derail their plans.

The primary functions of Thinking, Feeling, Intuition, and Sensation are all adversely affected by the inner dynamics of obsession. As obsessional Thinking begins to dominate and overwhelm the psyche, it represses the other functions. Eventually all four functions will turn to their dark side. The following diagram depicts these dynamics. A list of the positive and negative attributes of each function can be found in my books. (1)

Positive Thinking is rational, logical, analytical, pragmatic, fair, and realistic. It examines the situation logically and objectively in order to arrive at a practical and reasoned conclusion.

The negative side of Thinking tends to be narrowly subjective, opinionated, judgmental, skeptical, and often irrational and illogical. Ruminations of this sort cloud meaning, purpose, and clarity. Extraneous but frequently relevant information fails to register. Such tunnel-vision typically diverts energy away from personal concerns to safer impersonal and concrete issues.

Pre-occupied, self-serving workaholics love to be one-up and to problem-solve for others. Their ego boundaries tend to be ill-defined, and they often become invasive "fixers" who give unsolicited advice to others, while simultaneously serving their own agenda. They are poor listeners, and their one-sided communications are often confusing and convoluted, rarely helpful or respectful. By taking on someone else's problem, the "fixer" robs that individual of an opportunity to solve his or her own problem, and thus build self-esteem.

Positive Feeling is the watch-dog of ethical and moral values. This problem-solving function makes its decisions based on what it values and appreciates. It has the capacity for diffuse awareness that allows it to do a number of things at once, and its outwardly-directed focus anticipates how others will be affected by some action or word. This nurturing function is empathic, sensitive, thoughtful, gracious, appreciative, and kind. It highly values harmony and generosity. Sharing is therefore important.

When obsessional thoughts dominate and repress the Feeling function, its dark passive-aggressive side surfaces. Blocked feelings produce sullen moods and seething resentments that simmer just below the surface of consciousness. Easily offended workaholics take everything personally, feel sorry for themselves, and play the martyr-victim game with ease. Jaws set, and eyes glare or stare coldly. Some withdraw into a hostile swirl of emotions, tune out, or leave the scene. Many use fatigue as an excuse to procrastinate or "forget." Touchy oversensitivity distorts the truth, key values grow fuzzy, and workaholics don't know what they want, or what is right. Such confusion can lead to dark moods, and eventually depression and despair.

The repression of compassion and empathy affects the fair application of rules, regulations, and judgments. Negative Feeling fails to take into consideration such realities as context, safety, and the health and welfare of all parties. Compassion is an integral component of integrity.

Positive Intuition sees meaning and relationships in concepts, and its insights stretch beyond the concrete information that the five senses provide. It is quick, curious, future-oriented, and can be visionary. Its imaginative creativity is used in brainstorming techniques.

When the individual is obsessed, negative Intuition loses its "big picture" vision. It works more slowly, is easily bored, impatient, impulsive, and even reckless. Obsession turns brainstorming into tortuous "scriptwriting," a rehearsing of endless possibilities. Such chaotic processes block creativity, dull artistic talents, and spiritual inspiration. It is frightening when a clever workaholic can no longer innovate and generate sound ideas. Wisdom is replaced by self-doubt and confused anxiety.

The obsessive personality is clearly in trouble when the Shadow-side of Thinking, Feeling, and Intuition begin to sabotage healthy functioning. Sadly, Sensation suffers a similar fate, but with even more dire consequences as the individual's neurosis deepens.

Positive Sensation focuses on here-and-now experiences and concrete realities through its five senses - sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Its physiological sense impressions are translated by the brain into thoughts and feelings about the concrete image. It then devises practical and pragmatic reasons to explain what is occurring, or what is being done.

Obsessional thinking causes Sensation's systematic slow but thorough step-by-step processing of data to go awry. A dualistic type of thinking develops which is concrete and often extreme. Things are black or white, right or wrong - there are no shades of grey. It distrusts words and wants concrete evidence. The anxious workaholics demands that the other person "show me!" or "prove it!"

Listening is largely selective, and usually focused on information and facts that support the workaholic's own point of view. Short-term thinking dominates and long-term consequences are largely ignored when Intuition no longer informs decisions. Doing something in the immediate present or overworking an idea or project temporarily eases growing self-doubt.

Negative Sensation craves enjoyment because repressed feelings have left the workaholic experiencing a flat affect, a numb and scary emptiness. Impulsive neediness distorts its normal sense of well-being, and temptations that offer immediate gratification or a "high" such as smoking and drug addictions, sexual acting-out, or shady deals become seductive. Corporate fraud and accounting scandals such as Enron and WorldCom have become all too common. Workaholism, unfortunately, is a contributing factor in the shocking loss of integrity news stories that we read about far too often in today's media.

In our next blog, we will explore how narcissistic traits develop as the stressed-out perfectionistic and obsessive workaholic becomes increasingly more self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-serving.

(1) For a list of the positive and negative traits of each function see Integrity. Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007, 2010, and Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011.

Copyright Barbara Killinger 2012

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