How do I know if I'm a workaholic?

I am a workaholic. I have been in recovery, since 1985.That was the year my therapist suggested I take the summer off. After all, I was a college professor and had four months off in the summer with pay! I can still remember the feeling of terror. I needed to work. How else would I keep those feelings at bay? The sadness, the boredom, the loneliness….Since second grade, work had been my sanctuary-my source of self-worth.

As an adult, the thought of a 4- month summer vacation was terrifying to me and I had structured my life so that I would never feel the edges of that terror. At the time, I carried a full teaching load; taught night school; offered weekend workshops and established a full clinical practice. Oh and in my free time? I was renovating my newly-purchased first home.

In retrospect, that was the summer I hit bottom. I faced the truth of how empty my life had become. I had no close friendships, no community. My work had become my defense against disappointment in relationship. My life was unbalanced. I was an addict. My drug of choice was work. Up until then, I had been proud of my work addiction. I had reaped many rewards. I was a young, attractive, independent, successful college professor.

Unfortunately, in our present work-obsessed culture, workaholism is either praised as a badge of honor or dismissed as a joke. Workweeks of 60-100 hours are commonplace in major corporations. Canadians take fewer weeks of vacation than any other developed country in the world (Robinson, 1998). Our society is based on overwork. Laptops, blackberries and skype blur the boundaries between work and home.

It’s important here to distinguish between hard workers and addicts.  Hard workers see work as necessary; workaholics use work as a haven. Hard workers know when to shut the computer off and can be fully present at the dinner table. Workaholics allow work to engulf all other areas of their lives. My accountant, who worked night and day during tax season was not a workaholic. I was.

In my practice, I see that workaholism also has a devastating impact on other family members. Partners of workaholics are resentful enablers, lonely and experience the workaholic’s emotional unavailability as a personal rejection. They describe feeling like single moms or widows. Children of workaholics crave parental attention and feel valued only when they achieve and not for who they are. They suffer from poorer self-concepts and higher rates of depression and anxiety (Robinson,1998) than children of alcoholics.

When an alcoholic turns to AA to get sober, he is told not to drink-one day at a time. But, workaholics can’t stop working! So, the goal of therapy is not the elimination of work but rather how to make work part of a balanced life.

Many clients I see in my practice say there is no room in their current lives for play. Many workaholics grew up in homes where they were forced to take on adult roles and responsibilities at an early age. They became serious and forgot how to play. They have overdeveloped hero personas-the part that focuses on goals, strength, determination and self-denial. They need to get in touch with the part of them that can slow down and smell the roses; that allows for love and compassion to flow; the part that restores the lost joy and playfulness that workaholics give up in order to achieve goals. So, recovery includes learning to do something fun that focuses on process not outcome…..a good time instead of winning.

Clients also learn how to soothe and nurture themselves in ways other than work. They need to rebuild community. Change will not come easily. Old habits die hard. But restoring balance to one’s life is worth it.

Source: Chained To The Desk, Robinson, 1998.