Journeying Toward Wholeness

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After Labour Day: Meaningful Work, Workaholism and Perfectionism

September 10th, 2018 · workaholism

The intense period after Labour Day is a good time to look at meaningful work, workaholism and perfectionism.  These are big issues in our work-obsessed world!


Work has at least two distinct faces in our place and time. We truly need to stay aware of both of them.
The one face of work is that it’s essential for our health and well-being.  This is true both in a physical sense, in that we need work to get the means to obtain the food, shelter, transportation and other things necessary to maintain life.
This is just as true psychologically: if an individual is to be healthy, growing, and, as Jungians would say individuating — becoming and expressing who is is that they truly are — then a human has to be engaged in meaningful work.
What that meaningful work is, varies greatly from person to person.  As they say, one person’s meat is truly another person’s poison!  In my case, I would probably rather do prison time than work as an accountant — for many people, it’s their dream job!

But the Trouble with Work Is…

The other face of work is, that while we need meaningful work, but we also run the risk of getting over-involved in work in unhealthy ways.  As I learned in my days in the legal world, two inter-related ways in which this can happen are workaholism and perfectionism.

Simply put, a workaholic is someone who is addicted to work.  Often workaholics enjoy their work, but sometimes they simply feel a compulsion to work overly hard.  A workaholic tends to neglect family and other social relationships and often loses track of time at work.  Psychotherapists know that workaholics are often perfectionistic people, for whom what they have done is never good enough.  The intense preoccupation with work often hides anxiety, low self-esteem, and intimacy problems.

Where the Workaholism Treadmill Can Lead

Workaholism isn’t benign in its effects.  Often, people are in denial about being workaholics, but if they just continue on the workaholic treadmill, with the compulsion to work becoming ever stronger, it can create devastating situations in the life of the individual.

The longer an individual continues on the treadmill of workaholism, putting in longer and longer hours, the more his or her productivity usually declines until they may not be able to produce in an 80 hour week what they could formerly have produced in 50 hours.

It is not at all uncommon for workaholics to experience deteriorating relationships as they go farther and farther down the path of workaholism, the whole time being in denial about the impact of their addiction to endless work hours.  This is one way in which workaholism resembles other types of addiction.

Workaholics may also come to the place where they experience profoundly debilitating burnout, where they have little alternative but to at least temporarily cease working.  Or, as the Japanese recognize, individuals may even suffer premature death as the result of overwork, referred to as karoshi.  This happened to the 31 year old Japanese reporter, who after doing 159 hours overtime in a single month, passed away with her cell phone clutched in her hand.

And we haven’t even begun to describe the agonies that a person struggling with workaholism can experience in connection with the major life transition to retirement.

Meaningful Life, Meaningful Work

Depth psychotherapy recognizes that the journey away from workholism has a lot to do with finding self-esteem, connection and relatedness to others, and meaningful in life, an important part of which is meaningful work.  An important part of this journey is finding our identity, distinct from our work identity or work persona.

The journey to uncovering our true identity hinges on accepting and valuing who we most fundamentally are.  The discovery that “I am bigger than my work”, and the process of moving towards a compassionate acceptance and valuing of the whole of who I am, can be a transformative adventure of which meaningful depth psychotherapy can be a vital and highly supportive part.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst


PHOTOS: rene.schlaefer (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)


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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 2

March 19th, 2013 · individual, individual psychotherapy, workaholism

Given the current epidemic of workaholism, it’s an issue for individual psychotherapy to take very seriously.

individual psychotherapy

We need to understand as much as possible about how it can possess and consume the lives of individuals.

If we take workaholism seriously as a form of addiction, what does that imply for the way we look at compulsive working?

Workaholism as Addictive Self-Medication

If workaholism is a form of addictive self-medication, we need to think about it in terms of one of the key cornerstones of addiction therapy.  That is the principle that you will never get a person to give up an addiction, unless we understand what the addiction actually does for the individual, and help him or her to find another way of meeting that psychic need.


Prof. Ruth Simpson of Brunel University has described a phenomenon she calls “presenteeism“.  In addition to the tendency to come to work when one is ill and shouldn’t be there, Prof. Simpson characterizes it as “”the tendency to stay at work beyond the time needed for effective performance on the job”.

Is working endlessly a form of self medication?   It most surely can be, by performing several functions for the individual.  Two primary things it does are as follows.

1) It allays my anxiety by giving me the feeling that I’m exerting additional control over the work load.

2) It assures me that, through my satisfyingly virtuous performance, I am doing more and better than the others.  No one is putting forth the effort that I am.

Work and the Hero Archetype

Individual Psychotherapy

Heroic Work: Hercules Cleaning the Augean Stables

The workaholic, whose work is never done, strives to accomplish the superhuman, the Herculean, the task beyond mere human doing — more…better.  As such, the he or she is in the grip of a monstrous inflation.  He or she is identified with the hero archetype.

True heroes aren’t human.  Ulysses, or Achilles or Hercules — or Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter — are beings from myth.  When we try to literally live hero out in human life, as the workaholic does, we set ourselves up for a potentially tragic outcome.  As James Hillman has it:

“…the hero then, in a living world of gods, and the heroic today are two very different cases….

Then he [sic] was half-man and half-god, but when the gods are dead, the hero becomes all too human….  Today, cut off from this psychic background, the heroic becomes the psychopathic: an exaltation of activity for its own sake.

“Exaltation of activity for its own sake” — could any phrase better characterize workaholism?

Freedom in the Self

Healing from workaholic compulsiveness involves the kind of self-acceptance that allows persons to be free and adequate in themselves.  To truly be oneself, in the awareness of one’s own self and life as enough, is no small thing: it is the root antidote to compulsions to be god-like or superhuman in competence.  Such self-acceptance is the goal of the journey of individual psychotherapy.


PHOTO: Attribution Some rights reserved by vtsr ;
© Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Individual Psychotherapy: A Golden Age of Workaholism 1

March 4th, 2013 · 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.


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.


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)




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Overwork and Workaholism, Part 2: Work and Soul

July 29th, 2011 · work, workaholism

This post continues the themes of overwork and workaholism .  It further explores some of the soul and feeling dimensions of overwork and workaholism through musical expression.

  • When You Know You Can’t Slow Down

One of the outstanding aspects of overwork and of workaholism, is a compulsive, potentially all-absorbing character.  It can take more and more of a person’s thoughts, and has a way of demanding more and more of a person’s waking hours and energies, as a person tries to meet ever-increasing inner and outer demands.  It can create a kind of tunnel vision in a person’s life that excludes all possible alternatives.  In this respect, it truly is like addiction.

Although it is 40 years old, there is probably no piece of music that captures this sense of uncontrolled driven-ness as well as Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath , with its image of a workaholic man’s life as an out-of-control locomotive hurtling down the track — “no way to slow down…“:

  • Disconnect

Another dimension of overwork and workaholism is what it does to a person’s sense of relationship and connection, especially to significant others.  That is, it has the capacity to profoundly disconnect.  I relate to the following music on a very personal level, as it keenly reminds me of the workaholism of my own father.  It’s also an insightful comment on the way that workaholism can get passed down through the generations — “The Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin:

On the feeling level, both of these pieces of music convey something very powerful about the emotional and relationship cost of overwork and workaholism.  The overidentification with the work role is a very dangerous fusion with the false self.  Or, as Jungians would say, it is selling out your true self for the sake of persona, in the hope that love and positive self regard can be found in this way.  This locomotive starts rolling slowly, and just gradually picks up speed, until we are hurtling along on something demonic that we have no idea how to stop.  If you’re the engineer on this ride, it’s time to get help to make it better.

In your experience, when does work contribute to self-realization, and when does it take away? I’d welcome your comments.

Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst | Oakville, Burlington and Mississauga Ontario




PHOTO: © Yuri Arcurs |
© 2011 Brian Collinson
2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)


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Individual Therapy, Overwork & Workaholism

July 22nd, 2011 · individual, individual therapy, overwork, therapy, workaholism


There is a real difference between overwork and workaholism, and it makes a real difference to the issues that arise in individual therapy.  Both of these things are way too prevalent in our culture, but they are not the same.

  • Differences Between Overwork and Workaholism

Workaholism has an obsessive-compulsive, addictive character.  Workaholics often think continuously about work, and often use work as a way of avoiding pain or hardship — or intimacy — in other areas of life.  But someone may be subject to overwork, without any of these things being true.

  • Workaholics Overwork; Overworkers May Not be Workaholics

Workaholics do overwork, in terms of hours and/or effort put into work.  They are part of the general epidemic of overwork in our society.  In our culture, an increasing percentage of people work themselves into sickness, premature old age, even death, through work related stress.  Both the workaholic, who feels an inner compulsion to work, and the person who works harder and harder out of fear of job loss, form part of this picture of ever-increasing overwork — both often need individual therapy and burnout treatment.

  • Workaholism and Overwork May Feel Productive, but Actually Aren’t

Often those compelled to overwork in short bursts for specific goals feel that their additional work is effective and productive.  Workaholics may also feel this, but we know that they are wrong.  It may feel like more is getting done, as endless hours that are put in, but studies show clearly that, with increasing hours, productivity is declining.

  • Both Overwork and Workaholism Can Keep Life From Being Meaningful

Work is ultimately only meaningful and satisfying if life overall is meaningful.  Both the self-imposed, compulsively avoidant working of the workaholic, and the oppressively imposed burdens of the overwork culture can deprive life of much of its real meaning.  From a Jungian perspective, the goal of life is to find those things in life that are genuinely meaningful to the unique individual.  To acheive that requires a life in which there is meaningful work life balance in combination with other vital endeavours that each person’s unique being requires of him or her.  Often Jungian psychotherapy can play a key role in assisting the individual to reach this point.

What does genuinely meaningful work really mean to you? I’d welcome your comments.

Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst | Oakville, Burlington and Mississauga Ontario



PHOTO: © Yuri Arcurs |
© 2011 Brian Collinson
2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)