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Big Feelings and the Compulsion To Work

“Each person’s drive to overwork is unique, and doing too much numbs every workaholic’s emotions differently. Sometimes overwork numbs depression, sometimes anger, sometimes envy, sometimes sexuality. Or the overworker runs herself ragged in a race for attention.” – Arlie Russell Hochschild

Ever found yourself on a free weekend afternoon having reached for your phone or laptop to get a few things done? What is it that makes one choose working over a free block of time on a weekend? Are you the type who is smart enough to break for the gym and food, but thinks about work over dinner and through a date night only to hop back on for a few more hours to get stuff done before bed? What is that impulse? 

Compulsion to work arises out of a variety of fears and drivers. Some of us get dopamine hits for our outputs and associate productivity for meaning–without it, we feel empty. Some are afraid to slow down or stop for fear of becoming irrelevant. Some are driven by perfectionism or chased to work by other powerful demons such as shame. Some of us are under the spell of hustle culture. 

“For workaholics, all the eggs of self-esteem are in the basket of work,” notes management consultant Judith M. Bardwick. (Not sure if you’re a workaholic? See also: here and here.)

What fuels your relationship with work? If you’re not working, what happens for you? What does your organization or workplace culture say about work-life balance, and how does everyone at the office behave regarding work-life balance? What are the unspoken office rules about how we work?

Sometimes, our company cultures create a sense of urgency–that we must always be on, that we must always be working. In the case of a young analyst in the finance industry, for example, the expectation is that you will always be working long hours. Other teams in other industries function with urgency below the radar of the spoken value of “work-life balance” while employees work late in the evening and schedule emails to send the next morning at 8 AM sharp. We don’t trust that if we don’t respond to that late in the day email pronto and instead wait until tomorrow, that that’s really Ok. Other folks have been working non-stop since they were 16, panting and tense and not getting a lot of sleep, trying to make something out of a business, or to stay afloat, or to create a legacy. Some of us work overtime when we don’t need to, when no one asks us to, to avoid the feelings that arise when we are not working. 

Granted, since hybrid work environments have taken hold and work from home has begun to shape our orientation to work, some of us are reaching for flexibility in our hours. And, there are those who simply have a different way of working, that is: always working. 

How does shame drive workaholism? It works on our nervous system such that it’s hard to be truly regulated. There’s a subset of folks who take to their working lives by operating in a faux window of tolerance. That is, they operate chronically outside their optimal arousal zone, or the pace where they show up at their best and most resilient. For many with this tendency, they tend to be in a state of hyperarousal. This pattern may not be unique to their working life and may show up in how they navigate many other parts of life. Yet, despite this tendency, they have developed management strategies that make it seem as if they are experiencing and operating out of their optimal arousal zone. However, under the surface, something else is happening. 

Often, what’s happening below the surface of those management strategies (which are also known as “defensive accommodations”) is an aquifer of feelings relating to self-worth. Shame is a big feeling found here. (It’s also the big feeling behind imposter syndrome.) This vat of shame may be a feeling someone has not been aware of or made conscious. Yet this big gnarly feeling can drive workaholism. 

“I want to consciously explore my shame,” said nobody ever. Shame is one of those big emotions we move away from, sometimes by any means necessary. Yet, that’s just the problem: we keep moving away from that feeling, that feeling that we don’t want because it can be loaded with so much feeling about who we are. Unpacking shame takes a load off of the psyche. And, wouldn’t we rather move willingly towards more of what we’d like in life?

If the shame driving workaholism is left uncovered, that nervous system only operates in a faux window of tolerance until their nervous system, body, or mental health breaks down. “Hitting a wall,” burnout, or arriving at depression are other common end games for the nervous system fried by underlying drivers with big emotional energy. If we arrive here, we have an opportunity to look at what’s really driving us. 

Have a sense you’re driven by unconscious motivators? Do you get uneasy when you’re not working? Consider these questions: 

  • What is your relationship to your work hours? What makes you stick to what’s required of you? What keeps you going past “a good day’s worth of work?” 
  • When you stay longer, start earlier, and put in more time, how does that make you feel?
  • What do you know about how you show up at your best, when you are able to function most effectively? 
  • When have you been able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty? What was happening in those moments, times or situations? What made that possible? How did you feel in your body? 
  • How often do you find yourself in that state day to day? 
  • If that state is not how you normally move through the day-to-day, what does happen for you? What happens in your body? What are your thoughts? What are predominant emotions? What behaviors or patterns do you notice you do often? 
  • In those moments, what are you believing about yourself and the world? 

In this conversation with Liz Fosslien and Molly West, authors of No Hard Feelings and their latest book Big Feelings, Liz opens up about her “compulsion” to work. Molly and I join in with our own versions of this big feeling. Together, we tease out identity from work, productivity from creating value, what fears and dreams drive us, how to detach from work, and how to lean into joy versus feeding the stress monsters that can drive us to our inboxes when life is waiting for us.


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