Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger Ph.D.

The Workaholics


Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome - Loss of Empathy

Loss of empathy and compassion

Posted Sep 12, 2012

The loss of empathy and compassion has serious consequences not only for workaholics, but for those who live and work with them. A previous blog (1) explained the dynamics that occur when obsessive Thinking dominates the psyche of workaholics, and their concentrated energy is narrowly invested in a single-minded fixation on work-related issues. The subsequent repression of the Feeling, Intuition and Sensation functions has serious consequences. No longer does the collective wisdom and invaluable input that these functions provide adequately inform the workaholic’s judgment. The ability to make sound and wise decisions that fully consider the impact of their actions on others is seriously damaged.

Empathy is a “joining with” experience, an emotional yet objective attempt to understand what another person might be experiencing. Psychologist Carl Rogers defined empathy as “the ability to accompany another to wherever the other person’s feelings lead him, no matter how strong, deep, destructive, or abnormal they may seem.” (2) It is important however to acknowledge that the objectivity necessary for true empathy is only possible if the observer respects ego boundaries, and possesses the insight and respect necessary to be able to differentiate and honor the separateness and uniqueness of each person’s experience. One must therefore refrain from projecting, second-guessing or making assumption about the other person’s reasoning, behavior or motivation. Workaholics rarely take the important second step of asking that person questions to learn more about his or her actual experience and reactions to the troublesome situation.

Good listening skills fade when workaholics become emotionally-crippled. As the breakdown progresses, burned-out workaholics even find it necessary to second-guess themselves. Many no longer know how they do feel, or indeed how they should feel, especially when faced with emotionally charged encounters. Ask these stressed out individuals how they feel, and they will tell you what they think. Feeling language and behavior becomes increasingly foreign in their left hemisphere thinking world where the focus is on usefulness, and figuring out the concrete practical means-to-an-end to get from goal A to the next even more ambitious goal. (3)

Compassionate understanding is expressed through words and deeds that show kind and thoughtful emotional support and encouragement. Genuine offers to help are guided by the other person’s expressed needs and wishes. Workaholics, on the other hand, are the ultimate “fixers” who act on their own assumptions and problem-solve for others without consultation. Most certainly have the expertise to solve problems, but frequently lack the insight and wisdom to know when “help” is an invasive gesture. This is especially true during the breakdown when so many things start to go wrong, and their self-esteem and confidence are under threat. Self-absorbed, arrogant workaholics fail to realize that problem-solving and giving unsolicited advice robs others of the opportunity to find their own unique solutions and thus succeed in building up their own confidence and self-esteem. 

The loss of empathy and the ability to show compassionate understanding affects family members greatly. One must feel in order to be able to express genuine emotional support. Feeling language and behavior does this best. William James believed that by expressing an emotion, we actually strengthen it. Maurice Boyd (4) in his sermon entitled “Happy At Home” added: “When we express love, we don’t merely express how we already feel, we increase our capacity for loving.” Being able to verbally express our caring and genuine concern and sympathetic understanding when a troubled spouse or child is suffering is a precious gift that enhances the bond between two people. Friends, co-workers and even strangers appreciate and benefit from knowing that we honestly do care about them.

The opposite happens when the Shadow side of the workaholic’s personality erupts and profound character changes are revealed. People and their needs become a nuisance. Hearing about others’ needs and appeals for attention become annoyances which are best ignored or mocked. Any interruptions that waylay the workaholic’s agenda are barely tolerated. Negative Intuition’s lack of curiosity, quick impatience, impulsive and restless nature works against taking the necessary time and energy to fully understand someone else’s upset state. 

Self-centeredness replaces empathy, and intolerance destroys compassion. Narrowly focused stressed-out workaholics build up resentments that poison relationships. They neglect or refuse to acknowledge the rights and dignity of others. Trust and respect are pillared as a hurry-hurry, rush-rush attitude leaves little time for working things out together and solving unfinished problems, or even gaining insight into another’s needs and wishes. The fast-paced, technologically driven world in which we live, along with anxious economic times that threaten personal and financial security, has hastened the speed at which the downward spiral of the workaholic’s breakdown progresses.

Too often expediency wins out over the time, energy, insight and other-directed wisdom necessary to develop and share the precious attributes of empathy and compassion.

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

(2) Rogers, C. Quoted in R. J. Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary, New York: Oxford University Press, Fifth Edition, 1981, p. 215. 

(3) Killinger, B. “The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome – Loss of Communication.” Psychology Today blog in The Workaholics, (August 9, 2012)

(4) Boyd, R.M. “Happy At Home,” A Lover’s Quarrel With the World. Burlington, Ontario: Welch Publishing Co, Inc., 1985, p. 90.

See Website: for publications and contact information, and a link to the Psychology Today blogs under The Workaholics. .___________________________________________________________________________

Copyright 2012 – Dr. Barbara Killinger