The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome—Loss of Communication Skills
Posted Aug 09, 2012
As a consequence of the repression of the Feeling function that is the key turning point in the predictable downward spiral that workaholism typically follows, there are a series of other losses that are largely unconscious and therefore unacknowledged which are instrumental in changing the workaholic’s values, personality, and character. (1)
Communication is seriously affected when obsessive Thinking dominates the psyche and represses or distorts information generated from the Feeling, Intuition, and Sensation functions. Gradually, it is the Shadow side of each of the four functions that will undermine the workaholic’s ability to be fair and honest in his or her dealings, and to treat others with respect, dignity, and generosity. (2)
The single-minded focus on getting from goal A to B, and figuring out the concrete practical means-to-an-end is left brain Thinking. If unsupported by right brain input, this imbalance can be dangerous. Iain McGilchrist in his The Master and his Emissary (3) differentiates the properties of the two hemispheres of the brain, and outlines the negative consequences of what he believes is the dominance of the left hemisphere in today’s world. In social interaction, without input from the right hemisphere, there is little regard for the feelings, wishes, needs and expectations of others. Because left brain thinking is goal-directed, linear, impersonal, abstracted, compartmentalized, and fragmented, control and power become all important. The personal, other-directed, empathic right hemisphere, in contrast, is concerned with the underlying meaning and emotional context of factual information as it relates to the whole which is ever changing, interconnected, and impermanent.
It is not surprising then that when the Feeling function no longer informs their judgment, workaholics often manage to offend and alienate others. Their autonomous, opinionated and often critical thoughts and rigid attitudes are delivered in a blunt, sharp, often unpleasant tone that discourages open discussion, Banal, sweeping judgments or generalization can be said in a preachy, superior way when stressed-out workaholics no longer know how they should feel or even act in a situation, especially if the interchange results in an emotionally-charged response. Logic becomes distorted, and the capacity for clear distinctions grows blurred and fuzzy. There is fog, instead of vision.
Obsessive thinking can be confusing and even bizarre because it is often inconsistent, circular, or convoluted. Communication appears to be logical, but seemingly goes nowhere. Tangential thoughts get added or retracted that totally change the message. When requested by a listener to clarify what has been said, answers may be too cryptic or vague to be understood. Emotionally-crippled workaholics have no feeling language to moderate these extreme thoughts, nor do they have the sensitivity to appreciate how frustrated the listener must feel when they cannot possibly understand what has been said or meant. The recipient of these confusing messages is left to wonder about the intent or motivation behind these often disturbingly bizarre thoughts.
Quasi-logical communication goes something like this. Peter, a respected physician, insisted in all seriousness: “My wife and I are just fine. We’re intelligent, well-adjusted, and mature. The problem is the relationship!” No matter that he was married to his work and emotionally absent much of the time, even when on a brief holiday. Peter had to be “right.” If Mary complained or he felt otherwise criticized because she had a different point of view, this workaholic would sulk or leave the room. His gradual detachment from personal and family responsibility meant that Mary ultimately had sole responsibility for running the home and caring for their children. Such passive-aggressive anger, he rationalized, was just him being “easy to get along with.” Because Peter denied his increasingly frequent outbursts of rage, this didn’t count in his appraisal of his role in their relationship.
When Mary tried to share some knowledge that she was acquiring to improve their relationship, Peter would make sneering remarks like: “You only read books you agree with!” Mary was trying to assert herself in an effort to be heard and affirmed, while Peter had to win and stay one-up in any conversation. If he didn’t like what was said, he would stop listening or exit mid-sentence. These two remained locked in a power struggle that no one was winning. No wonder communication breaks down. Outwardly, workaholics like Peter appear calm, controlled, and poker-faced. Inside they are in a state of confused anxiety, yet remain indifferent to its source.
The Terrible Twist is a term I coined to describe a devious form of emotional cruelty in which someone falsely accuses another person by twisting that individual’s experience or views. It is made clear that the speaker is obviously innocent of any wrong doing. In reality, often things have gone badly simply because of some self-serving and thoughtless action or insensitive comment from the controlling workaholic. This lethal form of projection and abusive tactic can be devastating to those loyal partners who have sacrificed much to maintain harmony in the relationship. “Can’t you do anything right!” screams the angry addict who thinks he is being perfectly clear about what he wants and is mystified by his wife’s actions. No one listens to him any more, he believes. Trust is destroyed, and family members exist in a climate of tension and anxiety, waiting for the next unwelcome outburst.
Workaholics rarely question whether they have been sending clear messages. They often become defensive and feel personally challenged if others don’t seem to understand. To complicate things further, the distortion in a statement forces others to make assumptions about what was meant or intended, and they in turn act on their own interpretation.
The spouse or co-worker who genuinely wants communication to remain open keeps trying to understand and be supportive, but sinks deeper into the co-dependent role. Someone who is left confused and vulnerable has little power, and therefore can be more easily controlled and manipulated. By remaining in this state of confusion, the co-dependent also avoids responsibility. The chain reaction is insidious. It is no wonder workaholic families become so dysfunctional, and office politics damage people’s lives.
(1) Killinger, B. “The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome – Loss of Feeling.” Psychology Today blog in The Workaholics, July 8, 2012.
(2) Killinger, B. “Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism – Obsession.” Psychology Today blog in “The Workaholics,” February 14, 2012.
(3) McGilchrist, I. The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
See Website: www.drbarbarakillinger.com for my publications and contact information, and a link to the Psychology Today blogs under “The Workaholics.”
Copyright 2012 – Dr. Barbara Killinger