I am a type A, hyper-responsible, over-achiever, workaholic who is in daily recovery. I know I am not alone in my pursuit of excellence, I am aware that it is not always the healthiest vantage point from which to view life. This condition has been with me for as long as I can remember. I had a revelation earlier today following an intense (is there any other kind for someone so afflicted?) workout at the gym.
“Realizing why I like going to the gym. It is one of the aspects of my life in which I feel some sense of control. If I lift weights, do cardio and stretching, the outcome is that I become stronger, more flexible and develop greater endurance and vitality. I know it and don’t doubt that it is so. I ask that I feel the same in all other segments of my life and witness the same results.”
The other aspects revolve around work and relationships. They are not as predictable, primarily since they are at the affect of the choices of others and not simply in my purview.
A friend’s response to my confession, was asking why I have such a need to be in control. After contemplating for, oh, about a minute, I provided an answer, “I think it harkens back to childhood asthma. I didn’t feel like I could control my breathing and when the asthma attacks would kick in. Scary sometimes. I wanted to feel like a ‘normal kid’ and I was super competitive and always pushing myself to succeed.”
Riding the Emotional Elevator to the Penthouse
When I feel a lack of control in any area of my life, my stress levels rise dramatically. It is like riding an elevator that could potentially stop at any floor, but generally moves from the basement to the Penthouse without pause. Sometimes it even feels like the Wonkavator from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which has the ability to move up and down, sideways and eventually breaking through the roof. I need to remind myself that there are other buttons I could push
Paul Pearsall, PhD, author of The Beethoven Factor contends that, “It is not stress itself preventing us from enjoying life, but our negative reaction to stress that does the damage.”
As I was exploring Pearsall’s writings, I came across a thought that could have been written specifically for me and I am certain that others who are reading this can relate.
“Work addiction seems to be an addiction we are proud of. We almost seem to brag with mock displeasure that we are “overwhelmed” with busyness, sometimes as an excuse for not really being able to do what we really want to be doing. Work addiction is a symptom not of working your brains out but of your brain working you out. Why are you doing what you’re doing for a career and how do you like doing it? Do you like your answer?”
Workaholism: An Addiction That Is Encouraged
I can answer definitely that I like what I have chosen as a composite career (writer/speaker/therapist) and engage in it as my right livelihood line of work. It is fulfilling and yet, like anything else, it can be mis-used as a means of feeding the need to succeed. Pearsall is correct in that workaholism is the only addiction that is encouraged. For many years, it was my go-to drug and a way to self medicate challenging emotions. If I wanted to avoid feeling, I would dive into work. Even after a heart attack in 2014, I catapulted into cardiac rehab with the same compulsive zest as I had with my income earning activities. I saw a bumper sticker that read, “It’s not sweat. It’s liquid awesome.” My thought was that unless I was producing copious amounts of that bodily fluid, I wasn’t reaching my potential. It wasn’t until a series of tests at the office of a specialist, brought with it identification of adrenal fatigue (some medical professionals indicate that it is not an authentic diagnosis, but may be related to other conditions, such as high levels of stress, poor sleep and cardiac issues, all of which were impacting me profoundly at the time) that I took it seriously. Even then, when my doctor insisted that I reduce my workouts from five times a week to three, I balked. I felt as if my ‘fix’ was being taken from me. She pointedly asked, “Do you want to get better or end up back in the hospital?” I reluctantly cut back on my visits to the gym, but still walked nearly daily. I did honor my body’s needs by napping when fatigued.
Put Down The Coat
Today I attended services at Circle of Miracles, which is an interfaith community that has been part of my life for the past 15 years. The speaker, Christi Maybo, shared a message that could have been picked directly from my brain. She is a gifted healing catalyst and teacher who has assisted many in recognizing the blocks that prevent them from moving forward in their lives. Although much that she said was pertinent, a few thoughts loomed large for me. One was that, often, people would focus more on her ‘gifts’ than that she was a person with a full human range of emotions that had the right to be expressed. She used the analogy of a chair that was piled with items to represent our past. In order to sit in it, she needed to remove them. One prop was a coat which she draped over her arm as she walked around, continuing to speak to the congregation. After awhile, it may have gotten heavy and cumbersome, so she put it down. I can’t tell you how many years I have ‘carried the coat’; mine, or someone else’s, believing that I simply had to. It wasn’t so that I would feel like a martyr, but instead, earn brownie points. After all, that’s what good people do, I reasoned. Added to it, my professional calling and I had a legitimate reason for a well weighted down and tired arm. I had been toting it around for so long, that I had stopped noticing it was even there. Christi reinforced that she was not responsible for anyone’s healing and that all she could do was offer suggestions and tools. I forget that myself, far too often.
After the presentation, she fielded comments and questions. I raised my hand and thanked her for what seemed like a personal message. I reluctantly admitted that I ‘struggled’ with much of what she shared and that I don’t like to use that word. She smiled and responded that many of us think that the use of that s-word means we are weak, because we need help too. As a therapist, I often feel as if I should be able to access sufficient internal resources to manage any eventually that arises. Her beautiful reminder is that we are every bit as worthy of support as are our clients.
Sometimes we need to allow others to help us carry the coat. When I consider that, I realize that ‘struggle’ is not a four letter word.