Understanding Work Addiction
Understanding Work Addiction: What Makes it Hard to Unplug?
One of the psychological patterns that can make it difficult to unplug is work addiction. With work addiction, it’s not just the electronic devices we are plugged into. It’s another “power source”, an internal one that can either energize us or fry us.
Sometimes we work intensely to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others. Feeling inadequate, guilty or even angry, we push ourselves to accomplish amazing feats. In Jungian terms, we identify with the archetype of the hero. We plug into an instinctual energy which gives us a needed sense of mastery or agency—a rewarding sense of overcoming a challenge, with the result that we feel reassured about our value. This is one of our most fundamental needs and best sources of fulfillment. Humans would not have gotten where we are today without it—for better and worse.
But if we aren’t balanced and mindful, this energy can take on a life of its own: we no longer have it, it has us.
One way to think of work addiction is as an over-functioning of the driven aspect of the personality, the part represented by such heroes and warriors as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus. Archetypal tendencies can go rogue, taking over our psychic functioning to the exclusion of other archetypes that could balance our psychic functioning.
It’s a lot like what my physical therapist tells me: “Gary, what you’ve done is develop one muscle so much that it has gotten in the way of another muscle functioning, then that under-functioning muscle gets weak and you get hurt because you’re out of balance.” If work of any type, not just our job, is the only place we feel that we can establish identity and a sense of worth, then we are probably are out of balance, and other archetypal needs are being ignored.
Work and scratching things off of our list then become our highest and most sacred value, our god, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.
This imbalance can happen if the real challenge isn’t being met: we keep pushing the rock up the wrong hill and it just rolls down, and we never get to the real issue. We may feel that the goal is to make more money, or to gain more power, or even to do more good.
The heroic energy that goes into the outer challenges may sometimes be better channeled into inner challenges. And I daresay that the reverse can also be true: sometimes we may withdraw from the outer challenges and escape into the internal, psychological ones.
As with any addiction, developing mastery feels good at first, but over time you may end up needing more and more of it to get the high again. Work can function as endorphins and their distant cousin morphine do: it can serve to block pain, decrease anxiety and create feelings of euphoria. But as with some drugs, used to excess it can become addictive. And it doesn’t really address the source of the pain. It only covers it up.
The Twelve Labors of Hercules
Zeus conceived Hercules by Alcmene to serve as a protector of mankind and the gods. When he came of age Hercules did in fact chose to live virtuously and to be the champion of the oppressed rather than to live in idle pleasure. But as a young man he sometimes became excessively violent in fighting for his causes, and was cursed for it by the jealous Hera. She caused him to go mad, to see his wife and children as the giants (enemies of the gods and mortals), and to murder them. Grief stricken once he came to his senses, he consulted Apollo as to how he could make amends and purify himself. Apollo said that he would have to achieve ten (which grew to twelve) labors, and serve the demanding and rather unfair King Eurystheus for 12 years. These labors included ridding the country of dangerous animals and monsters, and capturing precious treasures. In his final labor he descended to the underworld, captured the three-headed monster Cerberus, and brought him to the upper world. By completing these labors he eventually won his freedom and his immortality.
Myths inform us of the glories and the dangers of archetypal patterns. In the story of the twelve labors of Hercules, we see the benefits of the energies, and also the suffering that can come with them when they are used excessively. The pattern that the myth describes is an attempt to come to terms with our mistakes by using Herculean energy to take on impossible tasks, and submitting to demanding and unfair authority (an unhealthy super-ego or over-bearing conscience). These tasks are a way of overcoming our own inner demons, to be freed from a sense of guilt and to achieve a connection with the sacred, whatever that may be for us.
But many people get stuck in this pattern when they identify with the more excessive and instinctual Hercules rather than the balanced and conscious one. They aren’t able to stop after the twelve labors because they aren’t as evenhanded as Hercules at his best. He enjoyed playing games and the presence of children. He had been trained as a musician and loved to sing and play the lyre. When he got stuck, it was often Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, that assisted him. And as his final task he descended into the unconscious to bring to light the monster that lurks there. All of this is to say that when Hercules’ strength and drive were balanced and conscious, he wasn’t possessed by just one way of being, and he was much better at fulfilling his purpose.
Along with our love of mastery that makes work so satisfying, we need feminine wisdom, love of the arts, the innocence of child’s play, and the awareness of our demons. If not, when we plug into the energy of the hero, we may get burned.