Posted by: jedwardswright | October 27, 2011

Workaholism and Depression

In order to find out more about workaholism and depression, I contacted Barbara Killinger, PhD,  who has been a pioneer in the study of workaholism.  The following information is from that interview and Dr. Killinger’s book, Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times.

It turns out that what is commonly referred to as workaholism is not actually an addiction to work. In her book, Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times, Dr. Killinger describes a workaholic as “a person who gradually becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to control and power in a compulsive drive to gain approval and success.”

What comes first, depression or workaholism? “Workaholism comes before depression,” explained Dr. Killinger. “Depressed people are not so prone to becoming workaholics.”

Depression, Dr. Killinger writes, “is a sign of imbalance in the psyche. Depressed people become emotional easily, but they are often out of touch with their feelings and unable to make wise decisions.”

Her book outlines the progressive pattern towards workaholism that can take place in a person who becomes overly responsible early in life. Gradually feelings are “externalized” so that the self is viewed only through the eyes of other people, until earning the admiration of others becomes the dominant goal in life. Perfectionism increases as it becomes more and more essential to appear successful. Unfortunately, to achieve this end, a workaholic believes that it is necessary to control everything in the immediate environment, including people.  Eventually, a workaholic loses the capacity to experience and identify their own feelings entirely, and this, Dr. Killinger told me, is “the turning point.”

It is inevitable in life that things will happen to us that we are unable to control or influence. For a workaholic, such an event constitutes an extreme crisis. The loss of position, a marriage break-up, a financial disaster, or some other major set-back ultimately occurs, propelling the workaholic into a breakdown. It is at this point that “depression deepens as anger lurks in the shadows. After all, it is easier to adopt the self-pity of the martyr than to take personal responsibility and try to correct what is wrong.”

Since “denial is huge in people addicted to power and control” such a major challenge and the resulting breakdown is usually what it takes to get workaholics to seek help.

Dr. Killinger’s approach involves her clients gradually learning to “internalize” their feelings. Increasingly, the workaholic will be able to name, feel and communicate those emotions which have been repressed for so long. Learning to take responsibility for one’s choices is another necessary step in treatment.

Female spouses of driven workaholics are also liable to fall into depression if they “take on the disowned feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, and inadequacy of their publicly super-efficient husbands. They feel sad, get depressed, and act out anxiety for both of them.” They also repress the anger that they naturally feel towards their emotionally unavailable husbands. These women need to learn to take responsibility only for themselves and their feelings instead of carrying the emotional burden for their husbands, and often the entire family.

People with major depression “are often terrified of letting themselves experience deeply painful feelings,” but Dr. Killinger advises us that reconnecting with all our emotions is a necessary step in healing, and this is where appropriate counseling can be invaluable.

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