The culture’s view of overwork aside, what is it inside us that pushes us to stay so busy? Each person’s drive to overwork is unique, and doing too much numbs every workaholics emotions differently. Sometimes overwork numbs depression, sometimes anger, sometimes envy, sometimes sexuality. Or the overworker runs herself ragged in a race for attention. One workaholic woman I talked to recalled that as a child, she had competed fiercely with her gifted sister for the little attention her depressed mother could offer. With her every push to do more, get better, go faster, it was if she were saying, “I will outshine my sister. I will come first. And I will get love.”
For many of us, work is the one place where we feel appreciated. The things that we long to experience at home—pride in our accomplishments, laughter and fun, relationships that aren’t complex—we sometimes experience most often in the office. Bosses applaud us when we do a good job. Co-workers become a kind of family we feel we fit into. Meanwhile, a lot of us are baffled by frictions with loved ones at home, and smoothing out problems with a co-worker is often less complicated than overcoming an impasse with a mate or child. And sadly, it can be rare that you get a “Thank you,” “Congratulations” or “Good job” for being a good parent or keeping tidy at home.
One woman, a 30-year-old factory worker and mother of two, told me when I interviewed her for my book The Time Blind: “I usually come to work early just to get away from the house. When I get to work, people are there waiting. We sit. We talk. We joke. I let them know what’s going on, what has to be where, what changes I’ve made for the shift that day. We sit there and chitchat for five or ten minutes. There is laughing. There is fun. They aren’t putting me down for any reason. Everything is done in humor and fun from beginning to end.”
But when this mother arrived home late form work, it was a difference scene: “The minute I turn the key in the lock, my oldest daughter is there—granted, she needs somebody to talk to about her day. The baby, who should have been in bed two hours before, is still awake. That upsets me. The oldest comes up to me and complained about everything her father has said or done during the evening. My husband is in the other room, hollering to my daughter, ‘Tracy, I don’t even get a chance to talk to your mother because you’re always monopolizing her time.’ The all come at me at once.”
Another working woman, 38 years old and the mother of two, adds, “I take a lot of overtime. The more I get out of the house, the better I am. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s the way I feel!”
It’s not just that we simply work hard ourselves, we also build workaholic systems around us. Parents who overwork often draw their children into dizzying schedules. Partners become workaholics à deux, keeping each other in overdrive. One woman I talked to was not a workaholic herself, but she helped keep her husband frantic. Even though her husband regularly put in 50 to 60 hours a week and traveled a lot—and therefore wanted to relax at home—she complained that he just “lazed around” after work.
“He gets home from a trip, and all he wants to do is lie on the catch and watch videos,” she tell me. “So I’ll say, ‘Have you backed up your computer files? Did you call Harry back? And why don’t you cut the lawn?’”
In truth, his relaxation made her anxious—and this could have been related to what happened in her childhood, she said.
“I came from a poor family, and sometimes my father was out of work,” she explains. “We’ve worked hard. We’ve come this far. There’s no way I’m going back.” When her husband took time off after a long week, she felt as though they were “going back” to that same poverty. So through her remarks, she kept her husband an unhappy prisoner of her anxiety.
Workaholics themselves often assign a magical power to working all the time. Work becomes a wand waved over many dilemmas. If I work nonstop, the workaholic reasons, I’ll finally feel that I deserve that promotion they gave me five years ago. If I work nonstop, it will make up for my poor personality, my bad looks, my mediocre brain. I’ll outdo my favored sibling, ward off criticism, force my mate to meet my needs, become unreproachable. If I work nonstop, I’ll have direction and purpose. I’ll seem important in the eyes of those I love.
Next: Why you need to slow down