Here in the US, we are obsessed with work. We consider it among the highest virtues – if not the highest. We automatically ascribe the “hard worker” trait to anyone we consider successful, and the corresponding “lazy” trait to anyone we don’t. And we persist in these beliefs despite reams of evidence that billionaires don’t actually work harder than the middle class, but the working poor do.
I’ve written about my work addiction before. I continue to write about it precisely because it is the end result of a society that applauds working oneself to death. “Workaholic” is not a badge of honor; it is a sign that something has gone very, very wrong.
I went into rehab for chronic pain in November 2015. It ended up being rehab for my work addiction as much as anything else.
Five and a half years later, I have mostly accepted that my work addiction is a chronic condition. It will never be cured. The urge to overwork myself will always be present to varying degrees; I will always be managing it within the context of the rest of my life.
Now, for instance.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed myself backsliding on the whole “keeping work under control” thing. I find myself too fried from work to have a conversation with my spouse. Household chores have gone un-finished because I used all my energy on work. I’m increasingly snappish when ordinary, normally joyful things like a friend’s visit or garden work “get in the way” of working. I’m starting to think of the rest of my life as “getting in the way.”
Those are all red flags that it’s time for me to reconsider how I’m doing this whole work thing.
Managing a work addiction is difficult for several reasons. First, it’s more like managing a food addiction than a substance addiction. Total abstention isn’t an option. Humans need work, not merely in the “I need money to live” sense, but in the “I need to put effort toward meaningful goals in order to stay mentally healthy” sense. For addictions to essentials, there is no “just say no” campaign. There is no easy solution to spoon out.
Second, a lot of the resources for managing work addiction are not helpful. Advice like “reset your priorities!” or “hide your smartphone!” simply will not cut it for people (like me) who use work to hide from deep-rooted trauma. Often, work addiction advice reads like it was written by someone who (a) has never been addicted to work, (b) can’t quite bring themselves to advocate laziness, or (c) both.
So what does work?
In my experience, managing work addiction requires attention to three different areas, which I call “boundaries,” “alternatives,” and “issues.”
Because total abstention from work is not an option, I need strong boundaries around my work time. I work during work time and I do not work during not-work time.
Often, the most obvious symptom of backsliding is that work is creeping into not-work time. I’ll just go another half-hour! I’ll pick this up again after dinner! Writing a thirty-tweet thread about this topic isn’t really work; it’s socializing!
Maintaining boundaries requires brutal honesty with myself. And I say “with myself” because, even though my spouse often notices when my boundaries are slipping, I do not rely on my spouse to tell me about it. This is my life. It’s my addiction. That is my work, and those are my boundaries.
When I catch myself backsliding, Step 1 is always a reaffirmation of my work boundaries. It’s a re-commitment to really turning off the computer and walking away when Work Time is over for the day.
“Reset boundaries” is always Step 1 because it’s the easy part. The other two are harder.
When I stuff all my work back into the Work Time boundaries, I find myself with an awful lot of free time. Especially during the pandemic, when many of the activities I normally use to fill this time were suddenly off limits.
One of my preferred Not Work Time activities pre-pandemic, for instance, was going to the gym. I went to the gym not because I specifically love the gym, but because I cannot work at the gym. I can only gym at the gym. Going to the gym, then, provided an easy way to enforce the work/not-work boundary while also providing an alternative to work.
Since work is not an option during Not Work Time, I need alternative ways to deal with the issues I was using work to deal with. These alternatives cannot be work in disguise. They need to be something else.
This one is hard when the addiction in question is work, because that addiction doesn’t limit itself to our usual definitions of “work” as “the thing I do for money” or “the thing connected to my title at this organization.” Work addiction will happily feed itself on just about anything that constitutes the pursuit and attainment of a meaningful goal.
Here, too, self-awareness plays a key role. If a Not Work Time activity starts to feel like work, I abandon it. I left a kitchen deep-clean half-finished last week because it started to feel like work.
My preferred alternatives include exercise, reading, video games, gardening, and cleaning. I love writing, too, but I took that one off the list on purpose – writing happens during work time, because it can so easily become work. The goal is to find alternatives that do not feel like work and that can’t easily disguise work.
The third step is the hardest of all.
I can set boundaries around my work time. I can find alternate activities to fill my time when it is Not Work Time. Yet neither of these activities is going to last on its own unless I also do the hardest of the three steps in managing my work addiction: Determining what issues are triggering my drive to overwork.
Often, the issue in question is stress-related. Unsurprisingly, this past year was tough.
What issues in 2020 could possibly have been causing me additional stress? It is a mystery?? /sarcasm
When I first started dealing with my work addiction as an addiction, the issues I was avoiding were almost always CPTSD flashbacks. Over time, as I’ve worked through the trauma in therapy and in my daily life, I’ve run into fewer instances where I am overworking in order to avoid looking at some piece of past trauma.
I cannot stress how important this step is, however. Boundaries and alternative activities are a cast; they keep things in place and help prevent further injury. Addressing the underlying issues is the healing part.
This is where I feel a lot of advice about work addiction falls short. Often, it gives people things to blame that aren’t the actual underlying issue. “Oh, you’re really addicted to success, not to work” is a common one. Or “you’re not addicted to work, you’re a perfectionist.”
Those may be issues some people struggle with! Nevertheless, it seems irresponsible to me to bring them up in the context of an addiction. Addiction Brain and Trauma Brain will both grasp at anything in order to avoid dealing with the root of the problem. Tossing them an excuse to gnaw on is, ultimately, less helpful than suggesting there is an underlying cause for work addiction and it is worthwhile to seek out what that is – with professional assistance if needed.
If there is a cure for my particular work addiction, I have not found it. All I have so far is the ability to manage it. So far, though, that’s kept me alive. So far, that’s been enough.
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