Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger Ph.D.

The Workaholics


The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome—Guilt

How we experience guilt.

Posted Jun 14, 2012

Guilt signals the need for corrective action. It is a healthy response when one’s insensitive and thoughtless behavior and irresponsible wrongful actions negatively affect and trouble others. If the feeling of guilt is conscious and truly experienced, the discomfort that it causes should serve to motivate the individual to restore harmony, to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Sincere efforts can then be undertaken to make amends, to permanently transform that behavior, and thereby improve one’s level of integrity in all personal and professional interactions.

Unfortunately when the Feeling function’s unique insight about how one’s behavior and actions affect others fails to register, obsessive workaholics remain unaware of the very real need for them to take some corrective action. Numb, flat affect signals the gradual loss of feelings that occurs during the breakdown syndrome that this addiction to power and control typically follows. As the workaholic becomes more obsessive and narrowly fixated on work, the Thinking function increasingly dominates and represses the Feeling function, along with Intuition and Sensation. The inner dynamics of obsession along with the Paradigm for Obsession diagram (1) were described in detail in an earlier blog.

Quentin Hyder (2) underscores the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. “It is a mixture of many emotions and thoughts which destroy inner peace.” It leads to alienation from others and from oneself “because of the discrepancy between what one really is and what one would like to be.” Increasingly immobilized by their fears, anxiety, and chronic fatigue, workaholics cannot risk facing the truth that their behavior and decisions are harming others. The moral and ethical values that once guided them to make fair and equitable judgments no longer register sufficiently. Their conscience is consequently flawed.

If some feelings of guilt still persist, many well-intentional workaholics do make promises to work less, usually after some crisis in the family. However, spouses sooner or later discover that their partner has been seduced into taking on yet another more visible or prestigious task. The temptation was too great, and the excuses given are once again “all about them.” The justification given is that “I’m doing all this for you and the family!”

Guilt is actually unacknowledged self-anger. The resultant remorse ought to be experienced as genuine sorrow, but too often it is replaced by a regret that is fueled by fears of rejection, punishment, or retaliation. Unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, many emotionally-crippled workaholics project their anger outwards, and the other person involved is falsely accused or blamed for the situation. By doing so, they absolve themselves of guilt. They avoid any feelings of inadequacy by rejecting or dismissing others first. These manipulative acts allow them to feel superior once again. Without compassion and empathy, these workaholics are also increasingly unable to forgive others. As the breakdown progresses, many become even more vindictive, and mercilessly punish others when things go wrong, or when others dare to challenge them. These tactics make it doubly hard for the victims of this abuse to tolerate such behavior, or to not take it personally. Anger and fear escalate for both parties with little chance for resolution of the issues involved. Any hope for subsequent positive interaction disappears.

As narcissistic tendencies increase, the defenses of denial, rationalization, and projection of blame allow workaholics to block out any unconscious self-loathing that might threaten to topple their cocky arrogance. Dissociation—pretending someone or something doesn’t exist—and compartmentalization—where contrary bits of information can comfortably co-exist side by side— become favorite coping mechanisms. Reality thus distorted becomes hopelessly warped. Unfortunately, hard core workaholics who are unwilling to open up Pandora’s box and face their demons, still manage to fool themselves and continue to fool others. Despite remaining relatively unscathed, many experience a vague sense that something is seriously wrong and a nervous anxiety persists.

When guilt is repressed and goes unacknowledged, shame takes its place. This largely unconscious state may manifest itself in ugly moods, cruel put-downs, caustic sarcasm, and vindictive outrage. Like other Feeling functions when repressed, guilt triggers Feeling’s negative traits. Workaholics then tend to take everything personally, become moody, and increasing more paranoid. Without compassion and empathy to guide their behavior, there is little or no capacity to be nurturing of others, or indeed, of themselves. Directed inwards, shame fosters self-neglect. When warning signals of bodily distress are ignored because workaholics are out-of-touch with their bodies, they continue to pump excessive adrenalin which eventually will badly affect their health. Too busy to see a doctor, to eat properly, or get enough sleep, they determine to soldier on, unaware of how they are affecting not only themselves, but concerned others. Without insight, guilt fails to be the corrective agent that might offer the insight necessary to begin the long journey towards recovery.

In the next blog, we will explore one of the major turning points in the breakdown syndrome, the loss of feelings. As workaholics become increasingly emotionally-crippled, this phenomena produces a number of serious losses that will change their character and personality from a formerly idealistic Dr. Jekyll into an overly ambitious, driven, self-serving, greedy and devious Mr. Hyde.

(1) Killinger, B. “Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism – Obsession.” Psychology Today blog in The Workaholics, February 14, 2012.

(2) Hyder, Q. The Christian Handbook of Psychiatry. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1971.

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Copyright 2012 – Dr. Barbara Killinger