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From Alcoholic to Workaholic: Why and How to Avoid the Trap


March 6, 2018

Being a workaholic has a certain cachet in modern society. Unlike addictions to substances, shopping, or gambling, it is hard to see how being a workaholic can harm individuals and their families.

However, workaholism is destructive, both to the workaholic and to their loved ones. Moreover, it can prevent someone who is in addiction recovery from fully recovering from their addiction. Everyone has heard of people completing treatment only to substitute another addiction for the one for which they completed rehab. Some people become workaholics, and it is not desirable or productive. It hurts people. Here are some thoughts on why and how you should avoid the seductive trap that workaholism lays.

Why Is It Especially Hard to Treat in Contemporary American Society?

Ever since the late 1980s, when movies like Wall Street celebrated the unrepentantly greedy, being a workaholic has had a certain “bad boy” charm to it. After all, the person is not shooting drugs into their veins or getting drunk and fighting people, but rather channeling their energy into "Getting Things Done." What’s not to like?

If you happen to be the spouse or child of such a person, there is plenty not to like. When you are a hard worker but not a workaholic, you are still emotionally present for those you love, and you have an overall healthy balance of work and play. Workaholism, however, is ego-driven and based on beliefs that 1) no one else can accomplish what needs to be accomplished and 2) overachieving is necessary to feel good about oneself.

Roots of Workaholism Often Traceable to Childhood

When mental health professionals dig deeper with people who are workaholics, they often find that these people have buried trauma from their childhoods. Perhaps they had a controlling parent who was impossible to please. Or maybe they grew up in severe poverty and are determined to do everything in their power never to return to that condition. Maybe they were thrust into the role of caregiver at a young age due to the death of a parent. Often, workaholism traces its roots back to a childhood where a person could only feel “good enough” by overachieving.

You Do Not Have to Be Employed to Be a Workaholic

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It should also be noted that a person does not have to be employed in the traditional sense to be a workaholic. Students can be workaholics, as can housewives, househusbands, and stay-at-home parents. What these people have in common is an unhealthy drive to achieve and a feeling of never being good enough. Wherever workaholism happens, it damages the person who is trapped in it, and it can damage their families and friends too. 

Some mental health professionals consider workaholism as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or as a hybrid between OCD and addiction. It can be a risk for the person who is in addiction recovery who does not develop healthy methods of coping with the everyday stresses of life. 

This Is Why Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders Is So Important

According to a 2014 SAMHSA report on drug use and health, 20.2 million adults had a substance abuse disorder. Of these, 7.9 million also had a mental illness. That is almost 40 percent! Addiction recovery that does not address co-occurring disorders is incomplete, whereas addiction recovery that includes treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses maximizes the chances that those in recovery will maintain their recovery and create a healthy life for themselves and those they love. 

Substituting one addiction for another – even an addiction as socially acceptable as workaholism – is not what addiction recovery is about. Fortunately, counseling techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help the workaholic to understand their condition and develop ways to overcome it. If you are in addiction recovery and are worried about workaholism or other “substitute addictions,” we encourage you to contact us today.

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