While my dad was in the hospital, on a ventilator with five chest tubes attached to his body, I thought it was a good time to start working on my website and a new blog. I’d sit in his room every day for two months reading about WordPress themes and coding tips. I’d spend lunch thinking of clever names for my blog and equally clever topics.
As I think back, this was ridiculous. While my father was lying in a hospital bed, in a medically induced coma, I was learning how to create headers. But, at the time, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable, terribly necessary, and very normal thing to do.
When he died, I returned to writing fairly quickly, and ramped up my workload. I had to. Because I often use work to retreat, to escape, using it as a hole to fall—headfirst—into.
Do you, too? Do you, too, use work to get away? Frequently? Regularly?
Maybe you use work as a “stress reliever.” Maybe you prioritize work over your well-being. Maybe you’re unwilling to take time off.
According to Natalie Rothstein, LPC, these are some of the signs that you’re using work to numb yourself. Rothstein is a psychotherapist who practices in the Chicagoland area and specializes in anxiety, depression, grief and loss, attachment issues, relationship issues and eating disorders.
Her clients turn to work to run away from relationship issues, insecurities and loss. They turn to work when they’re unsatisfied with their lives. For instance, one of her clients went through a breakup. She started devoting all her time and energy to work. She took on bigger projects and went unnecessarily above and beyond. With Rothstein’s help, she realized that her breakup was devastating to her, and she’d been avoiding connecting to her pain.
Erin K. Tierno’s clients turn to work to escape feelings of loneliness, the pain of disappointment (both being disappointed and disappointing others), and the fear of being unlovable. She also noted that numbing yourself with work might be a sign of underlying anxiety or depression.
When we use work to anesthetize our pain, we also anesthetize our pleasure. “[O]ur psyche does not know how to only numb the negative feelings,” said Tierno, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Online Therapy NYC, where she specializes in helping dynamic, intelligent, driven, busy people to connect in healthier, more fulfilling relationships through online therapy. Which means that the further away we get from our sadness, anxiety and anger, the less access we also have to joy.
But this is a pattern we can break. It’s not easy, and you may take two steps forward and five steps back. However, you can absolutely make progress, and learn valuable insights about yourself in the process. Below, Rothstein and Tierno shared their suggestions.
Set boundaries around work. Rothstein stressed the importance of establishing limits around work and making time for yourself. For instance, she said, you might leave work at a set time; turn off email when you’re not at work; let go of work-related thoughts when you leave the office; and carve out time for uninterrupted self-care. What boundaries would make an important difference for you?
Get curious about what’s happening internally. “I like to think of this as becoming a neutral third-party observer of oneself, the way a journalist might observe a scenario and be curious about the information they might glean. No need to judge what is learned, just notice it for now,” Tierno said.
Rothstein also recommended reflecting on how you really are, and how you really feel. It may help to carve out 10 to 20 minutes every evening to journal about the feelings you felt that day. Or it might help to think about what you’re struggling with or what’s going on in your life right now—and identifying the feelings you’re having about it. What’s bothering you? What are you fleeing from? What’s going on that’s making you uncomfortable? Have you been working longer and longer hours? Why?
When you explore the full range of your thoughts and feelings on a regular basis, you’re able to take thoughtful, deliberate action—which will actually make you even more dynamic at work and other areas of your life, Tierno said.
She shared this example: You realize that you get freaked out about others thinking your coworker is much better than you, which leads you to ignore him and cut him out of important meetings. You also realize that your coworker is great at his job, and you decide to foster a positive work relationship, helping him to be even more successful, which helps you be successful, too.
Plus, once you pinpoint what you’re actually avoiding, you can work through it. You can make it better. Maybe you can even resolve it, so it stops following you around like a dark cloud.
Add instead of taking away. According to Tierno, we can think of a fulfilled life as a Trivial Pursuit game piece pie: the different colored wedges represent different areas of fulfillment, which each person will fill differently, depending on their values. For instance, a sample pie might include: work, family, friends, pets, hobbies and volunteering.
Instead of cutting back on work hours, she said, add in something that feels good, a piece that might be missing from your pie. This might be a leisurely walk in the park in the middle of the day, or dinner with a friend on a random Monday. “Try to protect at least one non-work-related plan per week as if it were as important as that business meeting.”
There are many reasons why we turn to work to numb ourselves. Seeing a therapist can help you identify and understand those reasons and process your emotions (which is especially vital if you’re struggling with anxiety or depression).
As for me, it’s been almost nine years since my father’s passing. And the temptation to turn to work is something I continue to work at.