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The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome—Six Fears

Six escalating fears.

In order to fully understand the inner dynamics of workaholism, we initially began by exploring how the perfectionistic tendencies of workaholics gradually lead to obsessive thoughts and compulsive acts. In turn, we examined how their narrow fixation on work-related issues leads to the development of increasing levels of ego-inflated, self-absorbed neurotic narcissism.

Concurrently, another dynamic is occurring that has a profoundly negative effect on the personality, health, and values of the work-obsessed individual. Our focus now turns to the highly predictable Breakdown Syndrome that workaholism follows. Because the breakdown is internal, these changes are not readily observed. However, eventually family members and fellow workers do begin to notice a number of character changes that, over time, will adversely affect the personal and professional life of the workaholic, as well as their own. A diagram of this downward spiral can be found in Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times (1) and in Integrity. Doing the Right Thing For the Right Reason. (2)

We’ll now examine the changes that occur as six escalating fears begin to destabilize the functioning abilities of workaholics and, as a consequence, their inner security and inflated personas—how they want to be perceived by others. Since fears underlie every obsession, it is important to identify the particular chronic fears that can cause workaholics to suffer severe panic attacks and debilitating depression.

In retrospect, recovering workaholics do recognize that seemingly overnight, or so it seems, at the height of their success when they were the most confident, cocky, and arrogant, an insidious undercurrent of troubling self-doubt began to seep into consciousness. The following fears do become more conscious as the breakdown progresses. Keep in mind that fear for workaholics is present in all situations where there is the potential for criticism, rejection, or abandonment.

Fear of Failure. My clients tell me thattheir fear of failure is huge, their worst nightmare! These determined striving perfectionists rarely experienced failure in their early years, and to fail would be considered an unforgivable betrayal of their idealized image. The ultimate fear for many is to be publicly fired or let go. Even demotions or forced transfers can be devastating. Themore thebeing-feeling authentic Self disappears and the carefully-crafted doing-performing persona dominates, the more acute fears become. Sally, an economist, was unmasked one day when a significant failure at work became public. Her defenses crashed. She was immobilized for weeks because she no longer knew who she was, separate from what she did. Sally came close to suffering a nervous breakdown.

Fear of Boredom.When Thinking dominates and Intuition is repressed, the “big picture” is not clear. Workaholics do bore quickly, become restless and impulsive, and sometimes plain reckless. Impatient, they want things done now. Easily agitated and quick to judge, they make snap decisions that lead to serious errors in judgment. Faster is not necessarily smarter, and efficiency suffers seriously over time. Their blunt, sharp responses and need to rush make others nervous. “Busy work” serves as a distraction when the workaholic’s life starts to unravel, and plans go awry. Without the drug of an adrenalin “fix,” the fear of boredom escalates. They cannot relax or take the time to contemplate, so they work weekends, stay connected by technology, or make an excuse to go back to the city for an “important meeting” during holidays. Retirement forces an identity crisis. With no solid work to preserve the past, no concrete signs of self-definition, no external structure, and no specific goals or purpose, anxiety reaches new heights.

Fear of Laziness. The idea that driven workaholics fear laziness seems paradoxical, but psychologically, they are lazy. There seems to be little introspection concerning what makes them tick, or where their life might be headed. Instead, they live a frenetic lifestyle of over-scheduling to achieve unrealistic expectations that belie their suspicion that if they let up, even for a short time, a natural laziness would take over. They run flat-out on the proverbial Gerbil Wheel, overworking the countless details that perfectionism demands. They feel most alive when they are pumping adrenalin, and hell-bent on getting to their next goal. A fear of being seen to be lazy steers them away from any relaxation activities that might distract them because they must succeed at all costs! Anxiety can be acute on Sundays when nothing is scheduled, and others seem content to relax. They set themselves up for the “Thank God it’s Monday” syndrome.

Fear of Discovery. As faulty obsessional thinking results in serious errors in judgment, efficiency suffers, and anxious workaholics worry about the visibility of their mistakes. Issues concerning secrecy and privacy become a prime concern. No one must suspect that in the confusion of inner chaos, making decisions is apt to become a time consuming torturous exercise. Workaholics resort to making excuses, and weave a tangled web of circuitous face-saving lies in order to continue to “look good” in the eyes of others. Taking an overdue vacation might jeopardize their coveted reputation of being a hard worker, and there is also the risk that their mistakes and cover-ups will be exposed. As one stressed out CEO explained: “It takes too much energy to get everything in order before I leave, and some weeks before I catch up. That’s just too much pressure right now!” Not only do workaholics want to fool others, they also become delusional about their uniquely singular view of themselves.

Fear of Self-Discovery. A major threat to the ego-inflated arrogance of the workaholic is the emergence into consciousness of its poplar opposite, repressed self-doubt and even self-loathing. As complaints about their insensitive behavior become more frequent, workaholics lack the insight to know how they actually do affect others. A crippled Feeling function no longer provides this information. Increasingly, they do not know who they really are, or how they should behave. As anxiety rises, they project unwanted and unacknowledged weaknesses onto a long-suffering spouse or colleague who can do nothing right. As defense mechanisms fail to protect their fragile ego, fierce anger surfaces as rage, a threat to everyone’s security. When a spouse threatens to leave unless the workaholic will go to counseling, the threat of “opening up Pandora’s box” looms large. To appease the livid spouse, some agree to go, but put on their best behavior, and try to convince the therapist that it is their spouse that is the problem. As Carl Jung warned, unless we become fully aware of our Shadow side, we are not safe. Nor indeed are those who must deal with us. That is why so much attention in my practice is given to helping workaholics become acquainted with the sabotaging Shadow side of their character. Only by recognizing their particular weaknesses can these anxious individuals learn to develop the positive side of these traits or functions. My list of positive and negative attributes of Thinking, Feeling, Intuition and Sensation can be found in my books. See footnotes: (1) and (2).

Paranoia. The increasing self-doubt and extreme defensiveness that are generated by the fears of discovery and self-discovery can lead to the fear of persecution in the later stages of workaholism. This fear of being victimized traumatizes the hypersensitive workaholic who takes everything personally. As cracks appear in the persona, the workaholic begins to suffer periodic bouts of increasingly debilitating depression. Some “act out” their anxiety by becoming vindictive, intimidating and punishing others who disagree or challenge their agenda. Others “act in” by withdrawing into a protective shell, and suffer severe depressions. Ultimately, workaholics trust no one, and they themselves become untrustworthy. Controller types tend to play favorites and weed out those whistle blowers who protest their decisions, and establish a small circle of like-minded “yeah saying” insiders. Eventually paranoid workaholics offend or alienate the very people they were formerly trying to impress.

In the next blog, we will look at why chronic fatigue overwhelms workaholics as the breakdown progresses, and explore what happens when guilt is suppressed.

(1) McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011 – ISBN 978-0-7735-3844-3

(2) McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007 – ISBN 978-0-7735-3287-8 Second Edition, 2010 – ISBN 978-0-7735-3752-1

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Copyright 2012 - Dr. Barbara Killinger

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