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Are You Just Working Hard or Are You a Workaholic?

Financial Freedom

Our money behaviors are rife with emotional triggers. So many hidden issues play out in how we handle it, how we put it at risk, how we hoard it, or how we push it away. In short, how we don’t serve ourselves well in our relationship with money.

Workaholism is one of the twelve classic money behaviors. Of the three general categories these behaviors fall under (pushing money away, pulling it towards you, and using it to mess up relationships), workaholism falls in the second category. A workaholic woman places work above all else as a result of, or to cover, memories of painful incidents or negative emotions, often from as far back as her childhood.

But no money behavior is as insidious as workaholism.

In America, as in other countries, working hard is considered a good thing. It’s part of the fabled American work ethic, something we’ve been told all our lives is required if we want to succeed. Look, for example, at many of the cultural heroes on popular television shows, especially those about doctors, attorneys, and successful business men and women.

And in this era of economic difficulty, where unemployment is high, Americans are working harder than ever. Entrepreneurs are burning the midnight oil to start their businesses up or to keep them open. Business managers are in overdrive to avoid pink slips. Doctors are struggling against greater regulations, astronomical insurance premiums, and lower compensation from government reimbursement plans.

Everybody is hustling.

But the line between working hard and workaholism is very thin. In fact, workaholism is one of the most confusing negative money behaviors. Why? Because, more than being just socially acceptable, even working “too hard” is valued by society. Who wouldn’t show pride over working long hours? But when it becomes an out-of-control behavior, workaholism is far less innocuous. It can result in failed marriages, disaffected children, and dangerously neglected health.

One of the triggers of workaholism is the belief that money has magical powers…and that it will make the workaholic and her loved ones happier. To start, she is perceived by others as being a capable person. Beyond that, she also appears to be a great contributor to society. Bravo!

Interesting fact, though: a 2010 study by Kahneman and Deaton shows that, as annual household income increases to a level of $75,000, happiness does increase along with income because more and more basic needs can be covered.

Why does that only hold true to $75,000? One theory is that spending patterns change once all basic needs are met, somewhere in that $75,000 range. People don’t stabilize their lifestyle costs and bask in the peace of mind that comes from having excess income. Instead, they start pushing up the cost of where they live by changing neighborhoods and “moving up.” They change how they dress and maybe where they buy their clothes. They buy new toys. They change how they eat, straying from their cautious buying patterns and filling their grocery carts with “wants” rather than needs.

What happens after that? Here’s the slippery part: unless they have a very healthy relationship with their money, they will increase their expenditures to match or exceed their income. They do that to stay in the same psychological place where they feel comfortable. If being under tremendous financial duress feels familiar to them, they will keep themselves there. If they don’t feel they deserve the joy of financial security, they will be sure they don’t have it. And so all that hard work and sacrifice by the workaholic will have been for naught.

Another workaholism trigger harkens back to low self worth, so often the result of negative childhood messaging. For example, some women might believe that they have to be productive in order to be considered valuable. It follows that the more they work, the more valuable they feel. Taken to extremes, irrational thoughts kick in: “I must work to have worth” becomes “I must be perfect to have worth.” Some women even protect their weak sense of self by overcompensating with grandiose and demanding attitudes. We’ve all known bosses, teachers, or other authority figures like that, as well as infamous movie and television characters.

Adrenaline can play a role in this unhealthy money-related behavior as well. Some workaholics go on work binges.  They pull all-nighters in order to look like the company superstar, only to crash in exhaustion. Where work is used to deal with emotional pain or inadequacy instilled in childhood, it becomes the only thing that can calm the demons, so one crash triggers another binge. And so on.

Workaholism can mask relationship issues. Women who face any intimacy issues in their relationships may feel more comfortable in the arm’s length relationships they have at work. They may feel more in control and more connected in a work environment. Or they may truly believe that — like drones — their role in life is to work hard and sacrifice for the good of the hive — or family. And that belief could only come from something learned as a child, something instilled in teachings about money.

It follows that workaholism is often an intergenerational problem. Either a parent passes down standards of unattainable perfectionism, in which case the child replicates the parent. Or the parent doesn’t work enough, and the child develops contempt for the parent’s laziness and swings to the opposite extreme.

In either case, the price paid by the family of a workaholic is frequently the total lack of physical and emotional availability. Ironically, in their pursuit of financial success and security, these women lose what they say is their driving force: their family.

Whether always racing against the clock, hiding at work, arriving late to everything, or missing event after family event, being a workaholic is ultimately a very lonely place to be.

What ultimately defines workaholism is a matter of degree. The same holds true for other unhealthy behaviors, such as gambling or overspending, where an acceptable behavior becomes compulsive in its excess. And, as with the others, there is an organization available to deal with the symptoms and — hopefully — the causes:  Workaholics Anonymous.

Following is a questionnaire borrowed from the Workaholics Anonymous website. The site indicates that “If you answer ‘yes’ to three or more of these questions you may be a workaholic. Relax. You are not alone. Many have found recovery through the tools of this fellowship.”

Why should you care if you’re a workaholic? Because, as you focus more and more on financial issues and how to solve them, it’s all too easy to neglect loved ones…and yourself. It’s too easy to cross that very thin line. I was concerned, so I took the test. Why don’t you do the same and let me know in the comments section below how you did?

Twenty Questions: How Do I Know If I’m A Workaholic?

1.    Do you get more excited about your work than about family or anything else?
2.    Are there times when you can charge through your work and other times when you can’t?
3.    Do you take work with you to bed? On weekends? On vacation?
4.    Is work the activity you like to do best and talk about most?
5.    Do you work more than 40 hours a week?
6.    Do you turn your hobbies into money-making ventures?
7.    Do you take complete responsibility for the outcome of your work efforts?
8.    Has your family or have your friends given up expecting you on time?
9.    Do you take on extra work because you are concerned that it won’t otherwise get done?
10.    Do you underestimate how long a project will take and then rush to complete it?
11.    Do you believe that it is okay to work long hours if you love what you are doing?
12.    Do you get impatient with people who have other priorities besides work?
13.    Are you afraid that if you don’t work hard you will lose your job or be a failure?
14.    Is the future a constant worry for you even when things are going very well?
15.    Do you do things energetically and competitively including play?
16.    Do you get irritated when people ask you to stop doing your work in order to do something else?
17.    Have your long hours hurt your family or other relationships?
18.    Do you think about your work while driving, falling asleep or when others are talking?
19.    Do you work or read during meals?
20.    Do you believe that more money will solve the other problems in your life?

(Our thanks to Workaholics Anonymous for this questionnaire.)

Sharon O'Day

Sharon O'Day's mission is to show as many women as possible how to become financially free for the long term.

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