Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger Ph.D.

The Workaholics

Workaholic Breakdown - Loss of Independence

Loss of Independence

Posted Nov 04, 2012

Loss of Independence

There is a certain irony involved in this loss because typically ambitious Controller-type workaholics especially have always taken great pride in being independent and self-sufficient. These driven individuals have established a public persona that broadcasts their hard-won success. They have a reputation for being highly intelligent, decisive, and pragmatic goal-oriented leaders who are known to possess excellent problem-solving skills.

During the breakdown syndrome that this addiction to power and control follows, a number of fears, chronic fatigue, guilt and paranoia build and gradually overwhelm and undermine the confidence and security of these frequently cocky and arrogant individuals. There is a turning point in this downward spiral when flat, numb affect signals serious problems. The crippled Feeling function has ceased to accurately inform their judgment. These troubled people no longer know exactly how they do feel about an issue, or more importantly, how they should feel or react. There seems to be little insight into how their dark moods, and often insensitive and thoughtless behavior or actions are affecting other people.

Because guilt is repressed, shame soon sets in and takes its place. It is humiliating to have to guess or have to watch others for clues about what might be appropriate to say or do in a particular situation. Or worse still, workaholics eventually have to depend on others just to cope. As confidence wanes, making decisions or knowing best how to proceed just gets harder.

A workaholic client named Arthur, for example, had developed a strong dependency on his wife to help him out. In my office one day, Arthur confessed that when he got home at night, he found himself going into the most mundane minute details telling his wife about some puzzling or upsetting situation that had transpired that day at the office. He would closely watch his wife’s facial expressions and study her reactions. The next day, Arthur would use this information to guide his behavior.

As this dependency grew, Arthur would purposely delay any attempt to problem-solve on the spot, and would make up some excuse for postponing discussing the stress-filled issues involved until the next day.  He came to rely on his wife for her perspective, her ideas and suggestions, especially solutions that gave him some ideas about how to deal with the different personalities of the people involved. Eventually, as Arthur became increasingly insecure because of crippling panic attacks, he managed to avoid dealing with upsetting incidents altogether. Such passive-aggressive behavior only served to increase an already tense working environment where sometimes he was unable to control his own anger or deal with the resentment that fellow workers were experiencing.

Such growing dependency can have serious consequences. When faulty thinking causes these Controller-type workaholics to make too many serious mistakes in judgment, professional dependency on others must of necessity increase if they are to cover up their growing inability to cope.  If they have alienated their co-workers and created an atmosphere of mistrust, the co-operation and team work needed to reach their next goal are no longer available, or have disappeared altogether.

Many of these workaholics are introverted loners who formerly exercised their authority over others with ease, yet rigorously protected their own privacy and remained secretive. Those who have now become highly anxious and more paranoid dare not risk public exposure of their failings or subsequent disapproval or rejection. As a consequence, many restrict their actions and fail to follow through on their intentions.

Pleaser-type workaholics who are naturally more dependent personalities often cling to the family when depression or panic attacks cripple them. Self-absorbed, some refuse to go anywhere or do anything that is not familiar or considered “safe.” As a consequence, the family becomes isolated and the couple stops seeing old friends. The spouse may have tried to keep up their social friendships, but even friends lose patience with hearing contrived excuses, or resent having their own invitations turned down. Tragically, both members of this couple become isolated, cut off from the nurturing and love that relatives, friends and colleagues could provide. Colleagues who are too often on the receiving end of the workaholic’s unexpected cancellations or “forgotten appointments” lose any sympathy they may have once had.

A sad dynamic often gets played out in these workaholic families. Because the state of dependency is so abhorrent to someone who was once powerful and in charge, many workaholics take out their frustration and anger on the nurturing and loving people who are trying to help them cope. This client’s response is not atypical. When I asked Sam how he felt about the incident under discussion where he had been outrageously insensitive and thoughtless, he hesitated and then turned to his wife looking for the “right” answer. He needed Rachel to bail him out in order to “look good” in front of an outsider. She, in turn, was trying to “help” her husband by quickly filling in the blanks, unconsciously playing out the role of the enabler.

Yet not five minutes later, Sam came out with a bitingly cruel remark that just devastated Rachel. Still deep in denial, he had twisted the facts around. Everything was suddenly his wife’s fault. According to Sam, “It was Rachel’s response at the time that had completely ruined their vacation.” The Terrible Twist, as I call such distortions, is a form of emotional abuse. Falsely accusing someone by twisting their reality so that the workaholic can appear to be innocent of wrong doing is far too common a dynamic in these families.

Workaholics who have lost touch with their authentic self are less likely to have the independent initiative and bravery necessary to confront denial. The sooner help is sought, the better the chance for a faster and complete recovery. Learning to Internalize is a first step. This is a process that I developed to help my clients be fully responsible for their own reactions in any given situation, and to stop controlling and problem-solving for others. A description of this technique and others may be found in my book,  Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. (1)

(1) Killinger, B. Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times. Montreal. Kingston. London. Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

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

Copyright 2012 – Dr. Barbara Killinger