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Workaholics: An Honorable Addiction

“I’ve achieved every goal I ever set, and I still feel empty.”

The words vary. The message is the same. Uttered with defeat and resignation, they lack the exhilaration promised from accomplished goals. The executives and professionals I work with share their desperation with me. On a treadmill through life, they race faster and faster on a trip to nowhere. It doesn’t seem to matter that achieving each goal brings bittersweet dissatisfaction. Work is a drug to which they are addicted, and they have been powerless to stop the cycle.

With few exceptions, my clients are work addicts. Unlike alcoholics and abusers of other substances, theirs is an addiction that is not only socially acceptable, it is actually encouraged and rewarded.

Far from the skid row bum or the flophouse junkie, by most standards they are models of success. Top attorneys, physicians, accountants and entrepreneurs, they live in prestigious neighborhoods and drive luxury automobiles. Their children attend the “right” private schools and universities. They are community leaders.

But as one man lamented, “My wife took my family from me.” The truth was that he had left his family years before, falling victim to the seduction of his addiction–work.

In a paradox of monumental proportions, these successful people who believe they are engaged in this chase for their families often lose their loved ones in the process.

The husband of one woman reported that he’d grown accustomed to falling asleep either before his wife got home or with her working in bed beside him. Another had engaged in an extramarital affair for nearly a year before his wife even noticed his frequent absences. Still another said if she couldn’t find her workaholic partner at any hour, all she had to do was walk into the home office, and he’d be huddled over the computer.

Work addiction almost always involves long hours, but that alone does not make work an addiction. It is a far more complex problem than that. While many actual behaviors of work addicts and non-addicts may be similar, the distinguishing characteristics lie both in how and why they are done. Workaholics live in survival mode with a need to prove something to themselves and the world. While others know they have a choice about whether or how much to work, work addicts do not. Non-addicted individuals may occasionally launch into a project that they are excited about or which has a deadline. Workaholics always believe they are “under the gun.”

How Work Addiction Develops

Often the children of alcoholic or abusive parents, work addicts grew up literally learning to survive by being so perfect that there would be nothing to instigate violence. Since preventing the eruption of an explosive or threatening parent almost always proves impossible, the bar was always being raised higher and higher. As a consequence, the work addict suffers from both feelings of inadequacy and responsibility for making things work. Repeated accomplishments salve lagging self-esteem and make them feel worthy for short periods of time. But like the drug of choice for other addicts, achievement is a quick high always baiting the craving for yet one more fix.

The workaholic rarely got unconditional love and acceptance as a child. Love was something that had to be earned. So the child always sought to figure out what they could do to earn love. As a consequence, the young person often excelled in school and maybe athletics; as well as watch-dogging the home front. It should not be surprising then that the adult workaholic focuses on doing, as a familiar way to both earn and show love.

Furthermore, because the feelings generated in the dysfunctional family were often too emotionally painful to cope with, the adult who learned to bury his or her feelings as a child will continue to suppress them as an adult. As our examples show, long hours provide an escape from the intimacy making relationships difficult. The inability to maintain relationships extends to colleagues, support staff and even clients. One client refused to give his very competent paralegal cases that she could easily handle. Both she and his secretary were frustrated as they watched the pile on his desk grow higher and higher while both of them were underutilized and eager to help. It was only when he was about to lose both of them, at the very time him wife threatened to leave and his unmarried daughter became pregnant, that the cold reality of his addiction forced him to examine how he would choose to live and work in the future.

Recapturing the joy

This man’s life reflects those of other workaholics that show up in my office at midlife. Having allowed their race through life to rob them of the passion that reinvigorates and renews us, their lifestyle is a time bomb waiting to go off, if it hasn’t already. Crippled relationships often create distracting personal crises with spouses and children. The inability to participate as team members frays relationships with colleagues. Physical self-neglect fosters a range of stress-related illnesses.

Those who have managed to “hang on” and avoid a full-blown crisis are often lethargic, alienated from their families, or “under the gun” from a spouse who insists that something must change. Burned out and stressed out, by midlife the only alternative many see is bailing out of their careers at their very prime. Professionals in every field are dropping out of their careers prematurely in record numbers, blaming the job for their woes, rather than looking at the real culprit which is the way they have chosen to relate to their work. My task is to help them heal their spiritual and emotional wounds so they can recapture the joy that work promises.

Recovering from work addiction is as challenging as any. Alcoholics and other substance abusers break the control of their addictions by giving up use of their drugs. However, work addiction is a defensive attitude in which we attack life as if it were a series of battles to be won rather than a fulfilling experience to be enjoyed. Even if we could stop working, which most of us can’t, the behaviors are often turned to other activities. Breaking our work addiction demands that we change our relationship to life. It requires us to be aware of the choices that we are making in each moment of our lives. It isn’t easy. It can be done.

The following ideas are ones that I have found most useful for both my clients and myself.

The most important step in breaking the grip of the disease is to admit to being a workaholic and then to express the intention to choose a different way of behaving in the future.

Acknowledgment allows the work addict to start becoming aware of their behaviors and then begin changing them. Although it was a small step, when I was beginning my recovery process I would notice how often I’d be charging into the grocery store on the way home from work as if I were ready to do battle. Just learning to take a deep breath and remind myself that it wouldn’t take any longer if I chose to enjoy my shopping trip always made a dramatic shift in both my mental attitude and my physical body as I relaxed.

Taking a deep breath is a powerful way to come back into our bodies and into the present moment. Virtually all of my clients have identified that when they get into their survival mode, they either stop breathing or breath very shallowly. The simple practice of taking a deep breath reduces the frustrations of the day and allows us to focus completely on what is in front of us right now.

Set aside a few minutes each day to do nothing. Don’t read, listen to music, watch TV, sleep, or take a walk. Just do nothing. This will be a most challenging assignment, but in just 10 minutes each day, even the most severely addicted will shortly notice that time spent just being is a powerful rejuvenator.

Begin to be aware of what you feel and what you want as well as what you think. Using “I” statements, rather than the impersonal “we” or “you”, helps us distinguish between our unique wants and needs and what we may have assumed were universal ones.

Get in touch with your physical senses as well. Literally take a few minutes each day to smell the roses and consciously utilize your other senses. It is common by the second day of my three-day intensive with clients for them to start noticing the birds sing more loudly and the flowers smell more sweetly.

Spend a few minutes listening deeply to someone you care about. Ask them how they feel and what they want. Often you will discover that 10 minutes of your time is more valuable to them than anything money could buy. Those moments of connection will be with both of you forever.

Start recapturing your hopes and dreams. Identify something that you’ve always wanted to do and start doing it. I discovered a level of aliveness that I could not have imagined when I began realizing a lifelong desire to be a dancer. I’ve had clients who had always wanted to compose music, sing, paint, write, sculpt, play a saxophone and do stand-up comedy. Each reawakened delight in life when they followed their forgotten dreams.

Ask for support. This is very hard for a work addict who is accustomed to taking charge and doing things alone, but it is essential to recovery for several reasons. Asking for support allows us to acknowledge that we are not in this thing called life alone. We do have friends who want to help us. Furthermore, asking for help allows us to feel the intimacy of being vulnerable with another person, something for which we all yearn. Finally, changing a deeply ingrained survival pattern may be the most difficult thing you have ever done. An encouraging friend will increase chances of success dramatically.

Verbal recognition and appreciation for new behaviors, such as, “It is great to have you home for dinner”, can encourage repeat behavior. Another wonderful form of support is to ask your support partner the question, “What can I do to support you right now?” It offers the recovering workaholic an opportunity to listen to their own needs and offer a range of responses which may work for them at any moment. Possibilities might include “I don’t need anything right now, but thanks for asking”, to “I’d like some alone time”, or “I’d really like a hug!”

Get help a professional who really understands the seriousness of this addiction.

Healing work addiction will be challenging, but the rewards are great. The compromise of deeper, more meaningful relationships, improved physical health, and renewed vigor and passion for profession is the choice we make when we choose true aliveness instead of the near-life experience that most workaholics have had.

You see, life is not about money.

Life is not about what we do or what we accomplish. The one who dies with the most toys still dies.

Life is consciously choosing to live our own unique and special lives and to live them passionately. It is about having meaningful relationships with those we love. And, it really is a choice. How will you choose?

– by Kay Gilley, MS, PHR

Kay Gilley, earned her Masters of Science degree in Industrial Relations with a minor in law from the University of Oregon Graduate School of Management. Her books include “Leading from the Heart” and “Alchemy of Fear”. She is a consultant on organizational management and creativity to business and professionals. She can be contacted through her Website at: or by calling 919-572-2879.

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