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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 1

March 4th, 2013 · No Comments · individual, individual psychotherapy, Psychotherapy, workaholism

In my clinical practice in individual psychotherapy in an affluent suburb, workaholism is one of the more common issues.

individual psychotherapy

I’d go so far as to say that the present time may one day be known as The Golden Age of Workaholism.

What is workaholism?  The simple answer is “a consistent and compulsive addiction to working too much.”   And certainly long hours are characteristic of the workaholic.  But there is much, much more that characterizes a work-addicted person, as pioneering psychologist Barbara Killinger has outlined.

Work-Obsessed

It’s common in individual psychotherapy to encounter individuals in whom work takes up inordinate amounts of psychological space.  It is not just that it takes up too many hours; work can almost completely absorb the energy and feeling life of the individual  As Dr. Killinger observes, it’s “a Gerbil-wheel, adrenalin-pumping existence rushing from plan A to B, narrowly-fixated on some ambitious goal.”  At the extreme, nothing may matter outside of work.

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Divorced from Emotion

In individual psychotherapy we regularly see people who are effectively divorced from their real emotional life as a result of addiction to work.  The fixation can be so extreme that little else — spouse, children, outside commitments, even religious affiliation — has any meaning alongside work.

Compulsive Drive for Approval

How does this diminished sense of  one’s life come to take hold of a person?  Very often, it stems from a need to assert power and control — perfectionism striving to completely “master” the work environment.

Such a drive for control can be rooted in a deep inner compulsion to win the approval of others, and/or to gain recognition of one’s success.  Often such a powerful and unrelenting drive can be rooted in a very deep-seated sense of feeling profoundly unfulfilled or unloved.

The Uncontrollable Chariot

individual psychotherapy

The myth of Phaethon captures much of the psychology of workaholism.  Phaethon was the son of the sun god, Helios.  Taunted by schoolmates when he tells them this, Phaethon visits the sun god Helios in his palace, to confirm that he is Helios’ son.  Helios affirms this, and lovingly grants Phaethon a wish.  But Phaethon asks to drive the sun chariot — great hubris, for not even Zeus could control those fiery horses.  Helios tries to dissuade him, but cannot.   Phaethon takes the reins at dawn, mounts the skies, but cannot control the fateful horses. His wild ride threatens the earth.  Zeus is compelled to destroy Phaeton with a thunderbolt.

individual psychotherapy

Phaethon is driven to ego inflation by deep questions about who he is, and about his own value as a person.  Consequently, he single-mindedly fixates on the power and prestige of driving the sun chariot, and, as a result, meets his end.

Similarly, emotional blunting and inflated single-mindedness can burn up the workaholic.  A key goal of individual psychotherapy for workaholism is to bring him or her into acceptance of what he or she is, and to move beyond work as the sole validation of worth.

PHOTO: Attribution Some rights reserved by Raychel Mendez ; detail from “Apoteósis de Hércules” by Francisco Pacheco
© Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)