Another long summer weekend is upon us, in most of the country, and this one will feel especially prolonged since it involves no obligations to the extended family, one's religion, or a dead Queen of England. It's all yours, three whole days to head out of town with your honey pie and relax. Or not, as has often been the case for me.
I remind myself that working on holidays isn't my status quo - it's just temporary until I get ahead enough to take time off - but it seems to happen more often each year. The women in my life have been not so psyched when, after we've travelled a few hundred kilometres away from my desk, I start problem-solving work issues or whining about its stresses. I've even been guilty of one of the most vile long-weekend-at-the-cottage sins: opening a laptop on the dock. All this said, I wouldn't stand in front of a roomful of people and admit I was a workaholic - not yet. But maybe I'm working towards it?
A recent survey by Statscan showed that about a third of Canadians identify themselves as workaholics, and the number is significantly higher for men. While I've seen enough women obsessed with their work to know this isn't a male-only club, I do think that we men have more of our self-esteem tied up into success at work. I mean, women have careers and they create people. We have to answer with something worthwhile.
According to Barbara Killinger, the Toronto-based author of Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts, basing too much of one's worth on work is one of the telltale signs of workaholism.
"If your self-esteem is tied to doing and performing then when you're not doing and performing, you don't exist," she says.
Dr. Killinger's book describes how a workaholic's obsessive focus on this one narrow aspect of his life eventually leads him to give up many other pleasures - she literally mentioned "smelling the flowers" - and lose touch with something she called his "feelings."
"Workaholics go from A to B, but when they get to B, there's no satisfaction in it, because their feelings are crippled," she says. In other words, once they've triumphed over their task, they don't reap the emotional rewards, because they're emotionally stunted.
In the rare times that a workaholic does think about his relationships, Dr. Killinger says he'll tend to do it in a work-like fashion. "When a workaholic is courting, it's an A to B thing too," she said. "Once you're in a relationship, you have the prize and you're done. Then you start taking the person for granted."
I'm writing a book and sometimes get the question "Why write a book?" As if the answer isn't obvious - to get laid. Okay, that's an exaggeration, and not even my joke to begin with, but like a lot of jokes, there's a grain of truth in it. I know that some of my self-esteem is tied to the work I do, into achieving whatever I deem success at the moment. This in turn makes me feel more worthy of being loved.
Geoff MacDonald, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who studies self-esteem, confirmed it was true a higher self-esteem can lead to a better relationship.
"People who feel good about themselves, and especially people who have a stable positive self worth, are more likely to feel comfortable opening up with their partner, and getting close with their partner," he says. But, he added, "People who base their self worth on something like work - and this isn't rocket science, by the way - tend to experience more in the way of fluctuations in their self esteem." This is, of course, because work can go well for only so long before a downturn will inevitably happen. Just ask the guys who used to run the banks.
I asked Dr. MacDonald what else there was to focus one's self-esteem on, if not work.
"Even asking that question is approaching the issue from the wrong starting point," he says, noting that some of the research in his field suggests a more stable self-esteem would be based on "unconditional positive feelings about oneself."
Now that might be rocket science. Dr. MacDonald admitted it's "easier said than done."
In the end, I did contact an organization called Workaholics Anonymous - not to become a member myself, at least not yet - but to talk to someone who identified himself as a workaholic.
Robert, a 57-year-old Texan, told me he realized he had a serious problem after he'd been working 20-hour days seven days a week for eight months straight. When his girlfriend finally split as a result, he sought help in his local WA chapter. Robert also said he'd been involved in Alcoholics Anonymous and had overcome both alcohol and drug addiction.
"Workaholism is the most damaging of all the addictions for relationships," he said. "It's a subtle thing and it builds up over the years and people destroy their primary relationships because they're never available. Even when they're not at work, they're thinking about work or doing work at home."
Dr. Killinger recommended that a proper rehabilitation would require three weeks of doing nothing, since for the first two weeks, a workaholic would still be dealing with withdrawal from the adrenaline highs work used to provide. In the third week, he'd finally be able to see if he still has some of those feeling things.
I think I can manage that. Maybe I'll even start this weekend. I just have to finish a few things first.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.