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That Thing You Do: The Workaholic – Episode 2

“Okay! What’s next” was the thought that constantly ran through Martha’s head, like a metronome keeping her in beat to her non-stop lifestyle.  Anytime there was a beat, a pause, a silence – “What’s next?! – egged her on.

Martha was indeed a work-a-holic!

Like all emotional habit patterns, staying busy was that Thing She Did, to minimize difficult emotions, and/or cling to the good feelings.  Similar to, but different from, last week’s emotional habit pattern of Perfectionism – today we’re going to unpack the underlying components of this potentially toxic habit pattern – and what you can do to break the cycle.


That Thing She Does: What You See on the Outside

Check lists, Siri reminders, efficiency apps, color-coded work-spaces, and endless things ‘to do’ defined Martha’s busy life.  Her work ethic and ability to get sh*t done was indeed, impressive! Just watching her could make others feel like a wilted flower – utterly incapable of keeping up.

This is what we see, and feel, from the outside when we meet one of these go-getters. But the important take away in this series is this: what we assume or how we feel about another person’s behaviors is frequently very different from what actually drives them.

In other words, outcome is something very very different from intention.  Two people, doing the exact same behaviors, may be, and usually are, driven by very different, and unique internal stimuli – based on their past experience.


The Busy Bee: Martha

Martha was raised in a family with extraordinarily high expectations, for performance, and ‘making good use of the time you have the privilege to be on the planet!’ as her father often lectured.

So Martha had some pretty serious passenger programming about the need to maintain a breakneck pace and her worth equating to her output.  Throughout her childhood and adolescence, performance was rewarded and shown off to friends and family.  ‘Laziness’ or ‘idleness’ or any lack of activity was frowned upon, or even ridiculed.

So you can see how Martha’s busy bee behavior was just the outside representation of her emotional habit pattern.


What Might be Going on Inside

An essential first step to building objective self-awareness of our own ‘Thing’ is to know the difference between what’s happening on the inside, from what’s happening on the outside.  Martha wasn’t quite aware yet of how the endless ‘to do lists’ as a fact in life, was something different from her way of attending and reacting to them.

Her habitual ways of thinking and doing kept the Emotions – Thoughts – Actions (ETA) system spinning her into anxiety and burnout.

For Martha, thoughts like, “I can’t handle this,” “I need help,” coupled with, “But I need to do everything myself, or I’ll be mocked!” led to a whole symphony of discordant emotions.  Doubt and anxiety emotions pushed the action impulses of DO more and reassurance seeking.  Irritability pushed the action impulse to express disagreement, interrupt, and generally get kind of snarky.

She felt trapped inside her body, with tightness in her chest, muscle tension, and an itching restlessness.  She was super uncomfortable!

Over and over again, in a desperate attempt to get rid of her discomfort (i.e. anxiety and self judgment), Martha would turn back to the crack pipe of emotional control efforts.  She used her work to distract, and regain a sense of mastery (and thus relief) over the chaos she was experiencing.

Have you ever noticed how calm you feel when really focused on a task?  Our brains love tasks!  But like a computer with too many windows open and without the occasional reboot, we begin to slow and may even shut down unexpectedly.

Martha’s Groundhog Day of work, sleep, repeat – increased her sense of control in the short term, but not in the long term.  The all-consuming game of whack-a-mole she was playing never gave her a chance to pause and listen to her internal compass.  She lacked that delicious sense of truly knowing what she wanted her life to stand for.


The Skillful Alternative: Holding Bothness

The key to masterfully moving through the difficult, and often opposing, thoughts and feelings related to our goals is by practicing, what I call “Holding Bothness.” By doing so we are honoring and validating both the difficulty of pursuing what’s important, and keeping our eye on the prize.

The good news is, we’ve got a practice to help you build your ability to hold this balance!  Adapted from Dr. Jenna LeJeune’s Two Sides of the Same Coin, this exercise helps us to reflect on this idea while adopting a different stance towards pain – a more willing stance.  Ready to be willing?  Head over to Mindful-Mastery for the practice!


This blog is inspired by Dr. Fielding’s upcoming book: Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up, which includes QR code linked skill videos to guide you on your journey of self-discovery and emotional self-care! To get the blogs, AND a free skill video, straight into your inbox, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery SKILL WEEKLY newsletter. Or check back here next week for the next post: The Smartphone Addict. We can also hang out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Or YouTube for skills videos!

That Thing You Do: The Workaholic – Episode 2

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2018). That Thing You Do: The Workaholic – Episode 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Nov 2018
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.