Hello, I’m a recovering workaholic

I know it’s been a while since my last post. You know what it’s like. Life gets in the way and I’ve been sooooooo busy. Hang on… where have I heard that before?

As you may have heard, I’m a recovering workaholic. After two too many burnouts, I made the decision this year to take responsibility to and for myself. This year, I started this blog, my own coaching practice and my Masters. I know, I know. It doesn’t sound much like recovery, but I promise, to me, my partner, loved ones and friends, that it IS different this time. How so? Well – let me tell you…

Firstly – is workaholism a thing?

Yep. Different from being a hard worker, an addiction to work can be considered the same as other types of addiction. Beyond just being a hard worker, psychologists like Stephen J. Vodanovich, Chris Piotrowski, Rachel Shifron and Rebekah R. Reysen, explore the physical, cognitive, behavioural, emotional and social consequences of an addiction or compulsion to work.

Here’s the test – next time you’re at a work thing, whether that’s in the office, a social, or doing “one more email/report/phone call/ presentation” at home – do you tell yourself, your friends or family “I just need to get this done.” Need. How about another one? Have you ever cancelled plans with friends and family because of work? Maybe you even lied about it. Guilt. Shame. One of my personal favourites – have you ever resented taking annual leave because it takes more time and energy preparing for your absence and spending three days catching up on ALL the things you didn’t do whilst you were on holiday. Dependency.

You might have heard me say this before – when I was signed off work by doctor and work refused to have me on site, man – that was the hardest. I was heartbroken. Devastated. It took a couple of weeks to deal with that – not the delayed grief of my divorce, which was what I believed was the initial trigger. Withdrawal.

It took me a couple more years before I realised that my relationship with work was crippling me emotionally as well as physically. How did that happen?

Like other types of addiction, there are traps – many traps.

I denied that work was a problem. I told myself that I loved and enjoyed my job. I believed that there would be dire consequences if I didn’t do the things that needed do. I told people that I got more stuff done when there wasn’t anyone else in the office. I told myself that it’ll slow down in a few days/weeks/months/a year or two – I just need to make it until then. As a result, I slept badly, ate badly and relationshipped badly. This in isolation is bad enough but I can’t be the only one to get caught in a weird, unhealthy game of one-up-manship with colleagues after bouts of staying late… can I?

Well – gone are those days!

Which isn’t always easy since my commute mostly consists of five steps from bedroom to the office. I know it doesn’t sound like it – considering my list of new in the introduction – but here’s how I’m maintaining a more balanced approach to work.

Being unashamedly me

As the title of this blog suggests, I’m ambitious. I want to change the world – even if it’s one person and one day at a time. Winding down would just be settling – and I’m not OK with that. I’m happiest when there’s an abundance of activity to satisfy the different Lous. Slowing down or stopping completely will not actually sustain my wellness – so that’s not an option. The caveat is to have a range of activities that nurture and appease all the aspects of me.

Know where it comes from

As part of my recovery, I’m trying to be honest with myself – and allowing me and others to call out my unhelpful bullsh*t. This includes the motivations behind my workaholic behaviours. As a people pleaser, it became too exhausting to try and please everyone. And attracting Fakers became an occupational hazard. Now – I choose who I want to please – and I rank them. You’ll be glad to hear that I am pretty high up on that list! This means that I’ve learnt to say no and not yet to more people.

As someone who has a minor dose of saviour complex, it’s not my job or responsibility to fix or save anyone else. I can help; I can empower, and I can advocate. I cannot take on the world’s evils all by myself, all of the time.

Finally – in the past, when things went wrong, my go-to optimistic statement was “at least I know that I know what’s going on at work”. I know now, that in all aspects of my life, I always have options. There are always some things within my control. I don’t need to use work as an excuse to get lost away, or as a distraction, or to combat loneliness, or to exercise some control at a time where I feel like I don’t.

Know what works for me

When my work addiction was at its peak, I averaged around 70-80 hours a week. It took six months to plan anything social. It resulted in more than a few conversations with my partner and friends about how absent I was. Even when I was physically there, my mind would be working out how to resolve that conflict in the office, or how that would be helpful for my team to learn, or figure out how that would impact our membership.

Protecting my time takes a lot of effort still but that’s more chance to practise! In this space of new projects, it gives me a chance to assess what productivity tools works for me. I use the Most Important Task (MIT) method, which allows me flexibility and more opportunities to be spontaneous, whilst getting my essentials done. Flexibility is important to me so things like the 90-minute focus sessions or the Flowtime Technique really appeals to me and my ambitions. My most favourite productivity tool is the priority axis; on those days where I don’t know which way is up – this is my map.

Making and breaking the rules

My busy brain means that I struggle to jam it into a typical working week. I thrive in busy-ness, on one proviso. Like a vampire waiting at the front door, it has to be invited in. The MIT method above is powerfully effective for me. Instead of setting myself up within a widely recognised work schedule, each day, I pick two or three things that I want to focus on. That’s it. If I’m having a brilliant day, I’ll tick off the additional one or two tasks that were allocated as extras for that day. If more stuff comes off my priority axis – then I’ve wooden-staked it through the metaphorical heart! These get set each day, once I’ve assessed what mood I’m in. This staves off the guilt and, when taking appointments, it prevents me from overbooking. This, and working in blocks, allows me to communicate more clearly with my partner, friends, clients and peers on my focus each day and to move things about as needed, which liberates me from the 9 to 5.

Life shouldn’t be such hard work, and it doesn’t have to be. It does take practise and I might slip up but that’s what being human is about right? But I am trying, and I am learning– and so far, it’s working!

If this article resonates with you – know that you’re not alone and it’s OK to ask for help. Recovery doesn’t happen in isolation. It takes help in many forms, which can include hot beverages and baked goods. Good luck!

Climbing out the Pit

Hello– before we get into this, I just want to give you heads up that this article touches on suicidal thoughts. If you need it, whether you read it or not, here’s a hug from me!

I’ve previously written about how it important it is to nurture different aspects of your identity – and I stand by that! As workaholic who found myself in a place where I couldn’t work, this shook my very core. In the past, when everything else went wrong, I had my work – my constant. Leaving my job, feeling like a failure – it put me in a long-spiral that I hadn’t been in before. My usual tools and techniques weren’t working, and I found myself in the darkest place; a place I moved away from as a young adult. A place I managed to avoid during my divorce; after my grandfather’s passing; and after being told that I couldn’t have children. A place where I felt like there was no way but out. The Demon Pit.

Here’s how the Demon Pit works. Its special power is the ability to distort your thoughts. The walls are built from external factors, messages and observations that’s been internalised.  Its narrow walls bounce those morphed and mutated ideas over and over, unceasing in its echo. “It’s too hard.” “You’re not worth anything.” “You’re a waste of space and time.” “There’s no point.” “Everyone would be better if you would just disappear.” “Just give up already.”

The voices.

In order to work through the unrelenting darkness, I took time out to be still, to listen, to decipher. I started to spot themes and to name them. I identified them by their own needs, passions, concerns and origin stories. And now, I’d like you to meet them.

Little Lou (AKA Geek Lou) – she’s usually involved in some form of discovery, whether it’s practical, creative or non-nonsensical. She’s curious, enjoys puzzles, loves to laugh and likes to experiment and play. She’s a bit of a mischief, will play really crap but harmless pranks, and is competitive as hell! Even if she is rubbish at something, she’ll do her damnedest (go ask the other girls on the school netball team!) She is a joy seeker, with a rare but deadly tantrum tendency. Her love language will involve some form of crafting, puzzle, or pop quiz.

Warning – being the youngest, she’s mostly likely to get neglected. Her boundless enthusiasm but flighty nature tends to grate against some of the more mature personalities. She’ll also ask A LOT of questions and will eat ALL of the cake if you let her.

Mumma Lou – she’s usually lurking about but will make a grand appearance when around vulnerable, drunk and/or lost people. She’s pragmatic, sensible, and unashamedly a feeder. Will always have a handy pack of everything on her and is frequently heard to shout “make good choices” at people she deems in her care. Her love language is pretty much exclusively food and servitude.

Warning – she will absolutely put you first, at the cost of her own needs or wants. This will likely result in her inability to decide where or what to eat. She does not know how to look after herself anywhere near as well as she looks after others. Also, you’ll know by the tone of her voice if you’ve done a bad.

Robot Lou – mostly dormant but will take over the gears when things get too difficult. She’s focused, pragmatic, capable, and a bit of a control freak. Her role is to take over the day-to-day stuff when there’s too much emotional clutter in the way and box them away for you to deal with later. Her love language is taking on the load, so you don’t have to.

Warning – she doesn’t turn off automatically so you must remember to do that, otherwise she might just run, say, ten years of your life! The longer she’s in charge, the more emotional clutter you must deal with when she’s gone.

Warrior Lou (AKA Super Lou) – like Ms Marvel (spoilers!), she’s busy battling bad guys all over the show, so isn’t always present but is about as much as she can and certainly when it counts. And when she is, she’s unmatched! She’s strong, independent, strategic, and empathetic – a champion for the underdogs and oppressed. She will fight to rid the barriers to opportunities, equality, and happiness that people face, with superhuman endurance and classic comic-book sass. And she tends to show up just in the nick of time. Her love language is to challenge you to a duel of some kind.

Warning – like the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix, even Warrior Lou needs to refuel (hopefully not instigating casual genocide in the process – Uncanny X-Men #135). She might not think it most days, but she really does!

Worrier Lou (AKA Anxious Lou) – she’s really struggling in the Demon Pit. She’s fiercely protective and a bit of scaredy cat. She just wants people and things to be safe. She struggles to keep up with the other personalities, hates thinking she’s being a party pooper, and just wants to know there’ll be somewhere to rest at some point. Her love language is doing her best to protect you from harm.

Warning – like her mythological counterpart, the prophet Cassandra, she’s sounding the alarm but no one’s listening. Ignoring her just makes her worse, desperate for someone to believe her. You comfort her by acknowledging her and listening to what she has to say, so she doesn’t feel so invisible. Remember, she’s only trying to help. She also loves a good risk register!

Work Lou vs Life Lou

In my twenties, I was told it was important to distinguish the two. Especially as people were getting used to the implications of social media. Even I have spoken to students about managing their external brand. In my thirties, I realised how ridiculous this was. As a manager, I could see clear examples of how this could be detrimental to staff, especially in a membership charity, led by collaborative values. As a leader, I wanted my teams to trust me, to understand my motivations and to come with me on my ambitious adventure. It’s too much work to drag people along with their defiant dead weight! To do that, being an authentic version of myself was key.

Not just because they saw that I was a complex human like them and that we’re all in it together, but that being myself made me a happier, more optimistic, and more productive. Ergo – a much more pleasant and positive influence. By celebrating my own quirks, interests and peeves meant that one, they were prepared for them, and two, that it was safe to celebrate theirs. Unsurprisingly, I’m not actually that much different at home or with friends.

Of course, Work Lou will have a stronger leniency towards Warrior and Worrier Lous but actually, Little Lou allows for unabashed celebration and praise, innovation and creativity that the others don’t really bring to the table. Robot Lou can calmly navigate any situation, whilst Mumma Lou will nurture, support, and bring in cold medication, tissues and a bucket of vitamins come flu or Freshers season.

Life Lou is really not all that different – she’s been running a successful gaming community with her friend for over four years; she’s convinced that she’ll learn Dothraki one day – just because; she’s excited by travelling but terrified of things that might try to eat her; she hangs her laundry just so, to minimise creases before folding them away; and she will whip you up three course banquet because you looked like you had a bad Tuesday. To be fair to my patient partner, on those days that Warrior Lou’s done a full shift, I’ve been known to completely forego decision-making responsibilities at home.

The Climb

Despite being in deepest, darkest abyss at the end of 2018, despite being overwhelmed by a thousand seemingly terrifying voices, feeling all alone in that despair, it is this group of amazing personalities that gets me through. When we first landed at the bottom of the pit, each of them fought to be heard, each of them scared of the unknown. In time, I learnt to listen carefully and learn from them; to learn to love them for the individuals that they are. Because they really do make one hell of team.

Together, we’re climbing towards those outreached hands trying to pull us out of the darkness. Some days, even now, we slip and fall but we’re still making out way up together.

If you’re on your own climb, my hands are two of many who are reaching for you.



Lou

IF YOU DON’T FEEL THAT YOU CAN KEEP SAFE RIGHT NOW, PLEASE SEEK IMMEDIATE HELP. YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT! CALL SOMEONE: A FRIEND, A FAMILY MEMBER, AN AMBULANCE, A LOCAL CRISIS NUMBER… SOMEONE.

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