Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger Ph.D.

The Workaholics


Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism—Perfectionism

Are you a perfectionist?

Posted Jan 23, 2012

Workaholism and Perfectionism

Our topic is the particular role that perfectionism plays in our understanding of one of the interacting dynamics of workaholism—that perfectionism leads to obsession, and in turn, obsession leads to increasing levels of narcissism. While many workaholics become overly responsible in early life because of a parental separation, divorce, or the absence or death of a parent, many others develop perfectionist traits.

When the pursuit of perfectionism and excellence becomes obsessional, the personality fails to develop normally, and chronic fears begin to immobilize psychological growth. The proud workaholic, torn between arrogance and growing insecurity, solves the dilemma by consciously identifying with only those positive attributes that project an idealized public image. A persona that broadcasts successhow that individual wants to be perceived—must be preserved, sometimes at any cost.

This means that defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization, projection of blame, compartmentalization, and dissociation must work overtime to keep repressed anxious self-doubt and despair at bay. The more frequently these defense mechanisms are needed to justify some action or deny the impact of their behavior on others, workaholics formulate their own unique viewpoint and thus distort reality.

In order to gain the acceptance and admiration they so ardently crave, ambitious goal-oriented workaholics use an external frame-of-reference to second-guess what others want them to say, think, do, or feel. By doing so, they often manage to manipulate a situation or another person so that they get the outcome or advantage they so desire, and hopefully the accolades they wish to receive from those they are trying to impress.

Work becomes the adrenalin-pumping "fix" that frees perfectionists up from experiencing the dark side of their character and/or the repressed emotional pain that dependency on external approval creates. Early in life, things typically go well and they rarely experience anything but success, as long as they measure up to their own and others' high expectations.

When setbacks do occur, or they fail at something that threatens a career-path, the ensuing shame and humiliation can be devastating. At such times, if others dare to challenge their expertise or derail a project, distraught perfectionists tend to erupt in rage or retreat further into a protective shell of denial and secrecy. No one must know! Some just try harder, senselessly repeating old patterns that no longer work.

Perfectionism often shapes a person's lifestyle. Throughout history, many perfectionists in the pursuit of excellence and mastery have made their mark by developing their natural talents in the fields of music, sports, art, entertainment, politics or science. However, those who are too narrowly-invested often pay a high price. Their personal lives suffer, and they miss out on the chance for wholeness and a life fully lived.

Perfectionistic workaholics typically become single-minded or one-sided. They tend to overwork an idea or project that attracts their interest, and try to control all the variables that will guarantee its success. Ever restless and impatient, however, they must always improve their performance. It stands to reason that if you're always "upping the ante," you are never going to be satisfied with the status quo.  As one client expressed her angst, "I always feel there is something wrong, that something is missing! Somehow, nothing that I ever do is good enough." 

Perfectionism is encouraged in families where "doing and performing" values outweigh those inherent in the "being and feeling" attributes of one's personality. Parents who believe that their child is "special," "gifted," or the "best," implicitly or explicitly send signals that encourage issues of entitlement. The child gets the message that he or she is exceptional, highly intelligent, even superior, and thus capable of great achievements and even above the rules and regulations meant for the masses. Although they are quite bright, they can become openly arrogant, highly ambitious, competitive, and extremely demanding of themselves and others.

Much is expected of these children, and there is great disappointment if the child fails to excel. As one client tearfully recalled: "If I ever got anything but a grade A on my report card, my Father would actually start yelling at me. 'How come you didn't ace that course. What's wrong with you!' He really seemed to think I didn't try hard enough, that I let him down."

Although appearing self-sufficient and independent on the surface, underneath this façade lies unconscious inner struggles stemming from the threat of losing approval and affection as a consequence of being conditionally loved for what one does rather than for the whole imperfect Self, who one actually is. Consequently as adults these workaholics require ongoing admiration and confirmation of their superiority, especially from their peers. In an effort to control the outcome of their efforts, they can demand obedience and insist on having their own way.

Thinking and Feeling are the problem-solving functions. Healthy goal-oriented thinking has a single-focused awareness that is best at zeroing in on one subject at a time, while disregarding extraneous distractions. Thinking is naturally hierarchical and therefore competitive because it wants to be on the top rung of the proverbial ladder.

 Obsessional thinking, on the other hand, narrows its focus even further and becomes fixated on an object, person, or some desired goal that becomes an end in itself. In the case of workaholics, their obsession is with work-related issues and with attaining control and power. Eventually these driven individuals reach the stage where they cannot not stay focused on work without getting anxious.

In our next blog, we will explore the dynamics of what happens internally as obsessional fixated thoughts dominate the psyche. This overtaxed thinking function gradually turns to its dark shadow side and represses the other functions—feeling, intuition, and sensation. Gradually the negative characteristics of all four functions begin to influence the decisions and actions of the stressed-out workaholic. (1)

Perfectionism has become a curse, driving the ever-ambitious workaholic on to the next ever more ambitious goal. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure, so accepting the status quo is no longer an option.

(1) For a list of the positive Healthy and negative Shadow traits of all four functions, see Appendix 3 in: B. Killinger, Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011 - ISBN 978-0-7735-3844-3.  

Copyright   Barbara Killinger  2012