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Friday, February 26, 2010

Psychotherapy: Overcoming Workaholism

What is Workaholsim?
Workaholism is a powerful obsession. It occurs when a people don't have a healthy balance between work and the other areas of their lives: their relationships, family, friends, leisure time, and social activities. 

Workaholics derive their sense of self and feel good about themselves primarily through work activities. They use work to derive a sense of approval, respect and success. They might spend 60-70 hours or more per week working. They have a hard time slowing down and relaxing. 

They often feel irritable and uncomfortable when they're not working. For some workaholics, even if they're not actually working, they're thinking about work most of the time. It's their main preoccupation. Often, relationships with their partners, children, and family suffer.


Workaholism is a Powerful Obsession
We Encourage Workaholism in Our Society
In our society, we often, unwittingly, encourage workaholism to the detriment of the individuals involved. Workaholics are often rewarded with praise, status, and money. Rather than encouraging people to have a healthy balance between work and personal life, many work settings take a narrow view only in terms of how their employees add to the bottom line.

But, over time, workaholism takes its toll on the individual's health and his or her relationships. Often, over time, when workaholics can't relax, workaholism will also take a toll on their work life because an extreme workaholic will eventually suffer from "burn out."

Martin (a composite of several cases with all identifying information changed):
When Martin came to see me for his first session, I found him pacing up and down in my reception area, on his cell phone and looking at his Blackberry at the same time. He sat at the edge of my couch and he had difficulty settling down. I encouraged Martin to take a few deep breaths before we began talking because he seemed so agitated. After a few minutes, he was able to calm down somewhat, but he kept glancing nervously at his Blackberry. I could tell that he was annoyed when I asked him to turn off his phone and put away the Blackberry.

Martin was referred to me by his coach, who had been trying to help him achieve more balance in his life. According to Martin's coach, Martin, who had been a successful salesman, was suffering from burn out. His burn out was evident in his insomnia, exhaustion, poor diet, problems at home with his wife, who felt neglected by him and, ultimately, in his sales performance.

Martin's personal life and ability to take care of himself (e.g., learn to relax, get to bed at a reasonable hour, eat nutritious meals, and so on) had been declining for some time. It wasn't until his boss spoke to Martin about his declining work performance that Martin sought out an executive coach. He found it intolerable that his work performance was slipping.

At first, he thought that he could just whip himself back into shape and his sales numbers would soar again, as they usually did. But Martin was running on empty, and if he couldn't whip himself back to where he had been before, he didn't know what to do. He thought that if he hired an executive coach, he could get back to his peak performance. But his coach recognized early on that Martin had more serious emotional problems that were beyond coaching. So, he referred Marin to me.

Initially, Martin had difficulty seeing that his life was completely out of balance. He had worked compulsively for so long that it seemed normal to him to work 80-100 hours a week. Even when he was not physically working, he was thinking obsessively about work. His wife was completely fed up with Martin's workaholism, and when she threatened to divorce him, Martin began to finally admit that he had a problem that could not be solved by beating himself up constantly.

Admitting that he had a serious problem was the first step in Martin's recovery from workaholism. But learning to actually let go of his obsessive need to work was a big challenge for him. As a result, work in therapy went slowly at first. But, gradually, over time, he began to understand that his obsessive need to work was just like any other addictive behavior.

Since he didn't know how to relax, at first, he had to learn to schedule in leisure time into his week. With some difficulty, he learned to meditate in our therapy sessions and he started meditating once a day in the mornings. He and his wife also scheduled a date night once a week. During their date night, Martin learned to turn off his phone and focus on his wife. Gradually, he learned to incorporate other leisure activities in his life.

As Martin learned to relax and take better care of himself, his work performance also improved substantially, even though he was spending a lot less time working. Because he was taking care of himself, he approached his work with much more vitality and creativity. His boss noticed and commended him for his improved performance. But Martin had to learn not to allow that praise to trigger him into starting to work obsessively again.

As we explored Martin's family background, it became evident that praise and admiration were strong triggers that drove Martin's workaholism. His father, who was usually emotionally distant, was a workaholic himself. He only praised Martin and showed any affection for him when Martin achieved perfect grades (all A's). His father could not tolerate anything less than perfection. So, as a child, Martin pushed himself harder and harder to gain his father's praise, which meant everything to him. Martin's relentless need to achieve as a child was the beginning of his workaholism.

Part of Martin's work in therapy was to grieve that he didn't have a father who could express affection to him for Martin just being himself. Martin grew up feeling that he was "not enough" and had to excel at whatever he did, especially schoolwork, in order for his father to love him. He only felt as good as his current grades. He was very competitive with his fellow students and felt that he always had to be the best.

The type of work that Martin chose was also conducive to his workaholic style. He was paid by commission and his salary structure fueled his obsession to earn more and more money. But no matter how much he earned, he only felt gratified for a while before he felt the need to earn more. Prior to coming to therapy, Martin was caught in a vicious cycle of greed. As an adult, instead of measuring himself by his grades, he now measured himself by the amount of money that he earned. In many ways, this was worse than performing for grades because his earning potential was nearly limitless if he brought in the business. The sales numbers for all the sales people were also always available for Martin and his colleagues to see, so that also fueled Martin's obsession to work compulsively.

Martin's therapy was not short term. After he was engaged in therapy and learned to be curious about his problems, he was able to delve deeper into the roots of his compulsively. It wasn't easy for him, but Martin came to his sessions regularly. Over time, he learned to have more balance in his life and he found his life much more fulfilling.

Workaholism Also Shows Up at Home
Workaholism is not just about what people do in their careers. It can also show up at home: The man or woman who cleans obsessively at home is also a workaholic. It's the same obsessive need that drives the person at work.

If you're a workaholic, learning to slow down is often a challenge. Learning not to treat yourself like you're a human being and not a production machine can also be challenging. But the benefits to your overall well being and your relationships cannot be overestimated.

People who are workaholics often cannot learn to stop working obsessively on their own.

If you think you're a workaholic, ask for support from your loved ones and get help from a licensed psychotherapist.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist. I have helped many clients overcome obsessive and addictive behaviors.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.


photo credit: t3mujin via photopin cc


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