Last month I had some bad news. I heard first thing in the morning. I had a big cry. I considered crawling under my duvet. Then I slapped some make up on my face and got on with my (busy) work day.
If this sounds a bit cold hearted or that I am one of those people who is weirdly able to compartmentalise emotions, I can assure you I’m definitely not. Anyone who knows me will tell you that lack of feelings has never been my thing; quite the opposite.
But I knew that the thing that would help me the most at that moment was to get stuck into work.
There was time later for more tears and chatting about it with others. All that processing stuff that therapists like me are so keen on.
But, then and there, work was a bit of a haven.
The sanctuary of work
Work, at its best, makes us feel useful and connected to others. And that’s a gift when things happen in your life that make you feel powerless and a bit bereft. And taking the focus off your own life and putting it on something else is a good way to experience that ‘flow’ of being totally in the moment.
Of course, there are times that are so difficult and all-consuming that work is the last thing on your mind. And when it’s impossible to concentrate. But at other points it can be a healthy sanctuary while your ‘life stuff’ is working itself out in the background.
But how do we gauge at what point ‘escaping’ into work becomes unhealthy? How do we know if we’re overly attached or even (whisper it) addicted to what we do for a living?
High achieving or work addicted?
Work addiction is what doctor and addictions specialist Gabor Mate describes as a ‘process addiction’ rather than the more commonly recognised substance addictions. But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what the particular process or substance is. What matters is the common denominators that all addictions share – compulsivity, dependence and self-defeating behaviour.
And therein lies the reason why work addiction is a bit tricky to identify. Because the compulsivity lurks underneath a polished veneer of high functioning success. It takes a long time to identify anything self-defeating about the behaviour…if you ever do.
It’s socially acceptable and a virtue to be a hard worker, isn’t it?
And why would this be a problem in professions like law and others where extra time working is seen as a badge of honour?
Professor Laura Empson describes lawyers and other professionals as ‘insecure overachievers’. And many of us do have fairly brittle self-esteem (I speak from experience!). Attaching our self-esteem to external recognition comes as naturally to us as crazed ranting does to certain politicians… Because we learnt it from an early age.
If you grow up as the ‘bright kid’ at school, your sense of contentment becomes rapidly dependent on coming first in the class and getting 100% in the exam. Nothing else feels good enough.
The perfect storm occurs when the driven, perfectionistic young person meets the goal-orientated, hyper-diligent career of law. And the uncertainties and ambiguities of working with clients. Whether we feel OK about ourselves or not becomes dependent on whether our clients are satisfied with us (regardless of how unrealistic the expectations).
And client contentment is a much more uncertain bar to reach than good exam grades. Our self-esteem gets attached to what they think, what our bosses think, whether we get the promotion, whether we meet our chargeable hours’ target. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.
Left brain, runaway train
Left-brain orientated careers also have innately addictive qualities. In training to become a lawyer, for example, we develop and enhance analytical, methodical and linear ways of thinking. All left-brain traits.
But it’s a bit like a runaway train, the left brain – once it has become engaged and has started on its path it is not good at knowing when to stop. That’s what makes us good at persevering with complicated, immersive tasks until we find a solution. But, on the flipside, it’s also means we can become overanalytical, hyper-vigilant and obsessed with to-do lists, even in in our personal lives.
The left brain is also not very good at linking up with the right side of the brain, associated with feelings and physicality. We need that right brain to be activated to balance out all the intellectualising with the emotional, the physical and the spiritual. We need creativity and we need play.
On the clock
Time recording systems also play into the slightly addictive nature that many driven ‘high achievers’ have. I remember, as a solicitor, being pretty much constantly aware of that little clock on the screen. Whether the clock turned green or red indicated to me whether I’d ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ on any given day.
Our brains get a dopamine hit if we record lots of hours and meeting or exceed our targets and chasing that high can be incredibly addictive.
So what can we do?
Firstly, work out if it’s a problem for you. Ask yourself whether you regularly engage in ‘compulsive work, worry or activity’ as Workaholics Anonymous would put it. And has your work life contaminated your home life such that it’s causing you problems there?
Secondly, if the answer to the above questions is ‘yes’ then create a space to think about it.
Consider what’s driving you to constantly seek that feeling of achievement. And why it’s difficult to sit still and find contentment in yourself without the benefit of external recognition.
Don’t put yourself under pressure to immediately solve the problem. But think about trying Workaholics Anonymous or therapy.
Careers in law and other ‘status’ professions often remind me of those ‘monkey rings’ we used to swing on in PE classes at school. There’s that feeling that you constantly have to be in forward motion – you can’t hang off one ring for too on long; you have to keep on moving forward. But remember that sometimes it’s OK to just hang for a while or even to fall – often that’s how we find out what we’re really made of.
Leading Professionals, Power, Politics and Prima Donnas – Laura Empson, 2017, OUP Oxford
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – Gabor Mate, Vermilion, 2018