Workaholism might be the only addiction that we freely admit to with a hint of pride. After all, work is an important part of our self-identity, and being a hard worker is widely seen as a character strength. But there’s a big difference between working hard and workaholism.
Hard work is usually motivated by the desire to fulfill an obligation or achieve a personal goal. But the roots of workaholism are murkier. Like many other addictive behaviors, workaholism is often rooted in the drive to escape persistent self-critical thoughts – painful self-messages like I’m not good enough, I’m a failure, or I don’t deserve to be happy.
When we routinely work through weekends, constantly monitor our smartphones, refuse to delegate responsibility, obsess about our to-do list, fixate on perfection, or insist on making every waking hour “productive,” we avoid confronting those painful, often deep-rooted beliefs about ourselves. But we also limit our potential to create a happier, more rewarding way of life. For workaholism not only blunts self-critical thoughts; it undermines our physical and mental health, damages our relationships, and stunts our personal growth.
So how do we get off the gerbil wheel of work, work, work? One simple but surprisingly effective way is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness – introduced by the Buddha as a path to spiritual enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago – teaches us how to nurture our own well-being and banish the self-defeating thoughts that fuel our workaholic tendencies. Here are four easy ways to get started.
1. Focus on the present. Workaholism is all about the next deadline, the next goal, the next item on the ubiquitous to-do list. Like a game of whack-a-mole, you no sooner finish one task when five others pop up in its place. You’re juggling so many things at once that you scarcely have time to breathe – but that’s exactly what you should do. Turning your attention to your breath is the time-honored, mindful way to slow down and get centered in the present.
Simply pause periodically throughout the day to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth for three complete cycles. When we step away from routine even briefly, our mind has a chance to reset. We get a better perspective of where we are and what we’re doing. And we begin to make room in our head to consider the really big questions: what’s important to us, what we value, and how we want to live our life.
2. Become aware of your thoughts. Researchers estimate that we have around 50,000 thoughts per day. Many are subconscious and most are repetitious – that is, we tend to tell ourselves the same things over and over again. This means that even when we’re unaware of them, our thoughts have a tremendous impact on our quality of life. A habitual pattern of self-critical thoughts has been consistently linked with “impaired functioning, lower satisfaction and well-being, and various forms of pathological functioning, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive syndromes [including workaholism],” according to an article published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The first step in changing the script is to become aware of your thoughts. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein notes, “Every time we become aware of a thought, as opposed to being lost in a thought, we experience that opening of the mind.” Becoming aware of the hurtful things we say to ourselves allows us to choose a kinder, more compassionate point of view.
3. Replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Many workaholics have bought into the myth that we can’t be worthy of love or happiness until we’ve achieved perfection. Of course, human perfection is not possible. We all make mistakes, we all do things we’re not proud of, and we all suffer setbacks and self-doubt from time-to-time. Instead of accepting this truth, many of us judge ourselves harshly whenever we fall short.
But self-critical thoughts do nothing to help us solve problems or achieve the changes we wish to make. Instead, self-criticism keeps us stuck in an endless loop of negative messages and self-defeating behaviors. The mindful remedy is to practice self-compassion – to learn to accept and love ourselves just as we are. Yes, there are things we could do better. Yes, there are things we have yet to learn. But our inevitable human imperfections in no way diminish our worth or our ability to fulfill our potential.
4. Develop a spiritual practice. We live in a society that places a high value on busyness. It’s almost as if we’ve made doing the ultimate measure of self-worth. Yet in our frantic quest to get things done, we often overlook the most essential task of all: nurturing our spiritual well-being. We humans have an innate need to connect with something greater than ourselves – however, we define it. That connection blossoms only when we learn to slow down.
Many workaholics fear stillness, which we mistake for emptiness. With mindfulness, we begin to see that stillness is not empty. Indeed, it is the source of our deepest wisdom. When we learn to sit with inner stillness, we begin to hear what it has to teach us. We discover that we are more than our accomplishments, job title, or the sum of our assets. We are an integral part of the vast mystery of life. By developing a spiritual practice in whatever way makes sense to us – such as spending time in nature, praying or meditating, journaling or other creative practices – we learn to listen to our own inner voice. And by letting go of the endless quest for accomplishment, we’re free to discover the interests, values, and purpose that give real and lasting meaning to our life.
Learn more about Beverly Conyers on her blog and connect on Facebook. Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything is available for pre-order on Amazon and for purchase with all major booksellers November 2019.