Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Workaholism and Denial

Why it is so difficult for workaholics to develop insight and to recover.

Workaholism and Denial

The seductive combination of denial, control and power, the “Big Three” as I call them, are the chief reason why workaholics cannot escape this addiction to save themselves from the grievous losses that occur during the predictable breakdown syndrome that workaholism follows.


The defense mechanism of denial becomes a comfortable ally to maintain the illusion of perfection to avoid dealing with the reality of how their own erratic behavior and overly ambitious goals are affecting their families and co-workers, and ultimately their own career path. Impression management is the workaholic’s art. Their public persona or professional mask must be protected at all costs. The authentic Self, the person’s true personality and character, gets lost in the seemingly self-sacrificing hero turned martyr who only feels alive and important in the impersonal workplace and social situations where they are admired.

This is especially true for workaholics who have chosen to work in professions that involve health, law, or spiritual care. Many are respected and revered for their noble self-sacrificing efforts. These practitioners feed on the attention from a grateful clientele who admire their strong work ethic, and these workaholics tend to relish situations where going beyond the call of duty has people feeling sorry for them.

The fall-out from these excessive hours means that little energy is left for family members and for building close friendships. The quantity time that is so essential for close spousal intimacy, and the chance to model for the children a parent who is “fully present” and reliable goes missing. Appreciation and support must be sought elsewhere as the fear of intimacy becomes overwhelming, especially when criticism and demands are made for their personal time and involvement.

A familiar family dynamic ensues as a consequence. A depressed wife becomes resigned to what is and asks for nothing, despite her anger and resentment at hearing praise and accolades from others about how wonderful her husband is. A more robust, but similarly emotionally-abandoned spouse resigns her membership in his fan club. Her demands for attention and for sharing responsibility at home bounce off his inflated arrogance, and their destructive power struggle accelerates. Immersed in denial, this husband blames his wife for their lack of intimacy and stresses that he is doing everything that he does in order to provide security for the family. He becomes even more determined to be successful “out there.”

The children who search for attention and acceptance may receive accolades for their performance, but rarely for their sensitive, forgiving, and generous natures. Often the “good kid” who doesn’t want to risk rejection becomes overly responsible, and is attracted and rewarded for their choice of performance and goal-oriented activities. Thus the stage is set for the development of another workaholic. Those with different talents, interests, and less competitive ambitious goals often face indifference or even disapproval, and as a consequence their self-confidence and self-esteem plummet. In response, timid teens “act in” with depression and anxiety, while more rebellious children, especially in their teens “act out” in angry, often destructive behavior. Denial allows the workaholic to blame the other parent who “can do nothing right.” This dynamic is yet another opportunity for what I call the Terrible Twist, a projection of blame defense mechanism used to distort the reality of the person who is actually personally responsible in any given situation.

All of the defense mechanisms are in actuality a form of lying – both to oneself and to the deception of others. As long as workaholics believe in their own version of reality, these defenses continue to be used to justify their actions and behavior. A harried doctor tells his secretary to “tell Mr. X I’m not here” – his version of a “white lie.” She answers: “I’ll tell him you’re busy, but I’m not going to say you’re not here.” She then asks him if he would want her working for him if he knew that she lied to him? Such a confrontation, however mild, is not usually welcomed by self-important workaholics.

Saying what others want to hear instead of being candid and telling the whole truth, or choosing to remain silent are other forms of lying. This makes it difficult to learn from past errors, correct mistakes, or to understand reality and the consequential impact of the workaholic’s various choices of denial.

In addition to the following defenses mechanisms, other types of denial can be found in my book, Integrity. Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason. (see Chapter 8. Dishonesty and Wilfulness)

Projection of blame, referred to earlier, is a defense that allows the person to avoid personal responsibility “by thoroughly disowning undesirable words, deeds, or traits and experiencing them as existing in someone else.”

Rationalization “is a reasoning process that offers plausible explanations to explain behavior for which the real motives are different, unknown, or unconscious.”

Repression “is an ego defense that banishes from our consciousness uncomfortable ideas, impulses, memories, or experiences deemed to be unacceptable or anxiety producing.”

Dissociation “entails separating or disconnecting from consciousness any attitudes, impulses, traits, persona, or things that conflict with a desired positive self-image.”

Compartmentalization “involves psychic fragmentation, the isolation of separate parts of the personality normally held together.”

Depersonalization “is a non-specific feeling of the loss of personal identity, a sense that one is different or strange or unreal.”

Naivety: A Special Ignorance “is an ignorance brought on by a lack of experience, knowledge or perception of truth, rules, regulations, or laws.”

As the breakdown progresses, the heightened fears of workaholics, especially their fear of failure, increasing episodes of chronic fatigue, anxiety in the form of panic attacks, depressive symptoms that affect concentration, and the obsessive overworking of a project make it extremely difficult to make a final decision. When the Feeling function no longer informs judgment, and the short-sighted, immediate A to B goal is all that matters, serious mistakes are made.

The internal chaos which is experienced by stressed-out workaholics brings self-doubt and confusion up to consciousness. Weakened defenses mechanisms can no longer protect their false reality. Paranoid thoughts make secrecy and privacy vitally important. No one must find out that the public persona that in the past broadcast their success is in jeopardy. Slowly, the conscious awareness of this new reality breaks through. The fortunate ones who gain insight and hopefully move out of denial are the wise ones who begin to take personal and professional responsibility. Some do seek help at such times, while others continue to delude themselves.

Those still in denial remain unaware of the personality and character changes that occur during the breakdown. Their self-centered arrogance and entitlement views often alienate those they formerly wished to impress. While control and power allow some workaholics to continue performing, others eventually succumb to psychological and physical ill-health. In the next blog, we will explore the second of the “Big Three” – Control.

Killinger, B. Integrity. Doing the Right Thing For the Right Reason. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007 and 2010.

Copyright 2013 - Dr. Barbara Killinger

More from Barbara Killinger Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today