It’s harder and harder to unplug from work. We sleep with our mobile phone next to our beds, checking on the office before we go to sleep and when we wake up. Frankly, for many of us, this can become a slippery slope and develop into a problem. As the boundaries between our work and private lives continue to blur, we lose sight of self-care and what we truly value.
As human beings, we need balance. In terms of work, we need to detox from our days in order to maintain balance. We need to recharge, physically, mentally and emotionally. This is best done through exercise, sleep, meditation, healthy eating, time with family and friends and fulfilling hobbies. If we get sucked into the notion that achievement at work is the end-all-be-all, we can lose touch with the other areas of life that we value. If we have the genetic predisposition for addictive disease, use substances to cope, and our stress levels continue to increase, this can be disastrous to our overall health and well- being.
Culturally, we’ve become conditioned to think that the more accomplished you are at work, the more successful you are and the happier you’ll be. But that’s not always true. As dedication to a job edges into an obsession, you may set yourself up for unhealthy consequences.
When perfectionism takes over
The patients I treat are some of the most monetarily successful people in the world: Captains of industry, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, actors and world-famous scholars. All of them also struggle with substance use disorder and/or process addictions. Most of them are highly driven people, working to achieve what others might think is impossible.
The problem is that their success is never enough. Many are perfectionists – consumed by their careers. On paper, their bank accounts may be overflowing; however, there is a chronic emptiness that they continue to try to fill by external means.
Oftentimes, this drive for perfectionism stems from a perceived failure. We all have a drive to succeed, whatever that looks like for us. This is adaptive for many of us; it is what propels us forward. Alfred Adler called this a “striving for significance,” and we all operate from what is called a “felt negative” generating a constant need to succeed.
Related to this is the concept of core wounds. We all have core wounds, an event that happened to us in our lives that shapes the way we respond to the world. In this case, we internalize the negative message and it become a mantra we subconsciously repeat to ourselves.
Examples of core wounds can be “I am not enough, I am unlovable, I am unwanted, I am flawed.” These wounds influence our behaviors, our self-perception as well as how we interact in the world. What is particularly important here is that it is in our wounds that we connect, and the opposite of addiction is connection. When we foster community and connectivity, sharing our experiences with others, this promotes wellness.
Getting at the core issues
For many of my patients, their importance lies in what they achieve. This is often rooted in family dynamics. They have operated under the belief that if they obtain the right degree, make this one acquisition, or become extremely wealthy, this will bring them happiness. But no matter how high up the ladder of achievement they go, it’s never enough, and many end up medicating these feelings of inadequacy by using drugs, alcohol, or compulsive behaviors. In treating the substance use disorder, it’s often not enough to simply detox from the substance, as the substance use is a symptom of the underlying problem.
Human beings are often resistant to change. Taking away a substance or compulsive behavior is difficult; oftentimes, the compulsive use of substances has been an adaptive coping mechanism… until it’s not. Sometimes, the addict is the last one to see that self-medicating is having the opposite effect. So often we see the motivation for someone to get treatment is external: “My wife is going to leave me. My boss asked me to get help. My kids won’t speak to me.”
In treatment, what we try to do is move that external motivation for to an internal one. “I want to do this for myself. I am enough. I can learn to deal with emotions in a healthy way.”
Overall, in the disease of addiction, I have found one thing to be paramount for recovery, and that is human connection. Whether it is workaholism, alcoholism, process addictions, etc., what helps people get well is a true connection to others. For many, becoming vulnerable is scary and has often been dangerous. To see the most “successful” people in the world, get real, take their masks off, and truly connect with others is the most gratifying part of this work. That is where the healing happens, in authentic relationships.