April 11, 2020
“Workaholism is the one form of addiction that is worn as a medal rather than a ribbon that says, ‘dysfunction’.” —Virginia-based Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LMFT-S
This statement hit me hard. I’ve struggled for most of my life with workaholism. I can remember doing homework until midnight as early as the fifth grade. People would often comment that I put too much pressure on myself. “You need to know when something is “good enough,” they’d say.
I didn’t really understand the concept of “good enough.” I only knew what it was like to be the best. It’s not that my parents were the ones pushing me, although it’s no coincidence that they were workaholics, too. Sometimes you don’t need someone to tell you something to internalize what’s expected and valued.
If you struggle with workaholism and being “always on” for work, here are four tips to create a better relationship with work and to help live life with greater joy and ease:
As with most addictions, the first crucial step is recognizing that you have an unhealthy relationship, in this case, with work. “If a person is in denial,” explained Catchings, “the behavior will not change.” While it seems like it would be obvious for someone to identify that they are “always on,” Catchings finds that many do not. Sometimes other people have to help you see the reality of your workaholic behavior.
Since hard work was always highly valued in our household growing up, it took a long time for me to realize my desire to perform well had morphed into a compulsion. I had the added element of being diagnosed with a learning disability when I was ten years old, requiring me to put in twice the amount of effort as my peers from an early age. I resigned that I would always have to work harder and longer than others. Hard work became my competitive advantage. When something becomes your competitive advantage, it’s very difficult to let go of.
Catchings finds that some people who struggle with being “always on” are actually struggling with a lack of structure or organization skills. Without clear direction, a reasonable workload, or the skills to say no or ask for help, people can find themselves in a position where they have to work long hours to simply stay afloat.
One way that Catchings suggests working smarter, not harder is to know your triggers. She’s had clients that want to set a boundary or start working on an upcoming deadline but don’t understand why it’s so difficult. “This person can go on and on all day and part of the night trying to finish the work but nothing is accomplished,” elaborated Catchings. “This person might have been triggered by the assignment, the time given, the person he is working with, or even personal biases. Without being able to recognize the issues, it is close to impossible to do the work.” Understanding our triggers and having the tools to work with, or around them, is essential to save time and internal conflict.
I honestly used to think working yourself into the ground was the only way to succeed in life. I thought that was just part of the deal. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the driven little girl who did homework until midnight in the fifth grade grew up to be someone who clocked 12-14 hour work days, six or seven days a week. When I was twenty-two, my entire world revolved around work. I managed to squeeze in a tiny bit of self-care via working out in the wee hours of the morning or very late in the night, however, this was mainly because I simultaneously struggled with an eating disorder. It’s strange when you think you are doing all the “right” things — what society tells you to do — and it ends up destroying you from the inside.
Catchings finds it’s important to recognize workaholism as a form of addiction. “Workaholism isn’t simply a dedication to work or working long hours, nor is it something to be observed with admiration,” said Catchings. “Workaholism is a grave process addiction, driven by mental anguish, causing a devastating compulsion to work despite damage to personal relationships and even physical and emotional health.”
She said what’s even more alarming is the fact that untreated workaholism can pave the way toward even more dangerous addictions. In her experience, people who are “always on” can experience physical symptoms such as headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, and painful joints, as well as emotional symptoms such as high stress levels, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and even substance abuse or drug addiction.
According to mental health professionals, workaholism is a maladaptive coping mechanism subconsciously designed to create distractions or escape from co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, or trauma. Catchings is careful to point out, though, that it’s possible that the workaholism is at the root of their mental health problems. This is what can be especially tricky about workaholism. People can become workaholics, develop mental health disorders as a result, and continue to engage in workaholic behavior to avoid dealing with the discomfort of the resulting mental health issues.
Developing a meditation practice and learning how to be more mindful has been essential to overcoming my own workaholism. Catchings agrees that mindfulness is one of the most effective in helping individuals interrupt the pattern of being “always on.” “The more aware we are of the problem and what we need to do,” she explained, “the easier it is to learn to take care of ourselves and to start creating the life we truly dream of.”
There are still days when I push myself too hard and I slip into my old ways of working. On those days, I try to have compassion for myself and the younger version of me who didn’t know any better. The one who was taught hard work was the only way to succeed. The one who didn’t know she was wearing a badge she didn’t want.
A licensed therapist can help you work through workaholism and address any underlying issues. To speak with a therapist today, try online therapy.
This piece was originally published on Talkspace.