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Workaholism and Ambition As It Relates To Relational Trauma

A determined woman balancing ambition and well-being, symbolizing the struggle against workaholism.

Explore the link between workaholism and ambition, particularly among women with relational trauma, and uncover strategies for healthier work habits.

In this essay, you’ll learn:

  • The growing research connecting workaholism with childhood trauma
  • What exactly is work addiction and how it can be treated
  • How you can evaluate your relationship with work
A determined woman balancing ambition and well-being, symbolizing the struggle against workaholism.

Workaholism and Ambition As It Relates To Relational Trauma

The Intersection of Ambition and Workaholism.

In my therapy practice, I’ve noticed a strong recurring theme about the intersection of ambition and workaholism, particularly those of us women with histories of relational trauma. 

These women find themselves in a complex bind: their relentless drive for professional, financial, and academic success serves as a means to scale the socioeconomic ladder, get themselves out of challenging early beginnings, and earn some security in the world that may have been lacking in their childhoods.

But this is a double edged sword for so many of us: while our determination to scale and overcome and achieve is admirable, it’s also important to be mindful about when these efforts and our ambition may spiral into workaholism – a pattern that can create harmful impacts in their adult life even as it creates “positive” impacts in other ways.

Let’s break this down more.

Do you come from a childhood trauma background?

Take this 5-minute quiz to find out (and more importantly, what to do about it if you do.)

The Connection Between Work Addiction and Developmental Trauma.

A growing body of research supports the connection between developmental trauma and subsequent addictive behaviors. 

Numerous studies reveal that early traumatic experiences can lead to significant alterations in brain chemistry and function, particularly in areas responsible for stress management, reward processing, and impulse control. 

To put it plainly, these neurological changes can create a fertile ground for addictive behaviors to take root. 

Like a garden with really well-tilled soil. 

That’s our brain basically well-prepped for addictive behaviors to take place when we come from developmental trauma backgrounds.

So what can this look like?

Those of us who come from relational trauma histories may have an altered stress response system, making us more likely to engage in compulsive work habits as a means to manage feelings of anxiety or stress. 

Our work environments can also unconsciously provide a structured, predictable space that contrasts sharply with the chaos we might have experienced in our formative years. 

This sense of control and predictability, coupled with the dopamine-driven rewards of accomplishment, can be particularly compelling for those of us with unresolved trauma.

Furthermore, the compulsive pursuit of work can serve as a distraction, helping us avoid confronting painful emotions or memories linked to our trauma.

But, of course, this avoidance, while providing temporary relief, can perpetuate a cycle of work addiction, as the underlying emotional distress remains unaddressed.

Expanding on this, it’s important to consider how the strong, built-in reinforcement mechanisms within work environments can exacerbate work addiction.

Recognition, promotions, and financial incentives can all serve as powerful motivators that reinforce compulsive working patterns especially when and if our relational trauma backgrounds included an element of financial scarcity, too.

Between being neurologically primed for addictive behavior, plus having such strong behavioral reinforcements, a sense of predictability and security, and receiving distress avoidance as byproducts of working, is it any wonder why working hard can easily morph into a more compulsive form of workaholism for those of us from relational trauma backgrounds?

But how do we tell the difference? 

How do we know when overworking is becoming workaholism?

What Exactly Work Addiction Is.

In my practice as a trauma therapist, I’ve come to recognize that work addiction, often termed workaholism, although it’s not classified as a distinct condition in the DSM-5, has many parallels with other behavioral addictions. I’ll highlight a few of those parallels below:

Some criteria of work addiction might Include:

  • Compulsive Engagement in Work Activities: Those of us experiencing work addiction exhibit a persistent, uncontrollable urge to work. This drive exceeds organizational expectations or personal ambitions, becoming a central focus that dictates our actions and thoughts, often leading to an overwhelming number of hours spent on work-related activities.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Echoing the patterns seen in substance use disorders, individuals with work addiction may face withdrawal symptoms like irritability, anxiety, restlessness, or depression when not engaged in work activities. This indicates a profound psychological and emotional dependency on work for our sense of stability and well-being.
  • Prioritization of Work Over Other Life Aspects: A key indicator of work addiction is the consistent preference for work over personal, social, or leisure activities. This often results in the neglect of relationships, hobbies, and essential self-care practices, with the individual’s life orbiting predominantly around their work.
  • Diminished Sense of Satisfaction: Despite significant dedication and time investment, individuals with work addiction may encounter a decrease in job satisfaction. The relentless pursuit of achievement or perfection can lead to burnout, feelings of emptiness, and pondering the true value and purpose of their work.
  • Impaired Social and Family Relationships: The excessive commitment to work can deteriorate personal relationships, leading to isolation and a sense of disconnection from loved ones. Such an imbalance can provoke family tensions and result in a lack of presence during crucial personal moments.
  • Health Implications: The persistent stress associated with work addiction can adversely affect physical health, heightening the risk for conditions like cardiovascular diseases, insomnia, and compromised immune function. Ignoring routine health care can amplify these risks further.

So again, while workaholism isn’t in the DSM-5 (the clinical manual that’s the bedrock of the mental health field) by viewing workaholism through the lense of parallels with other behavioral addictions, we can start to get a sense personally of whether or not our own relationship to work has veered into this territory.

How Do We Treat Work Addiction?

For so many of us, including myself writing this essay, reading through the criterion of what may predispose us to and count as work addiction can be humbling and demoralizing. I can certainly see my own relationship between workaholism and ambition clearly.

What do we do if we realize that our relationship with work is more like an addiction than a healthy, functional relationship?

How do we begin to work through this?

In one word: comprehensively.

In more words? 

Through brain-based, evidence-based psychotherapy and a rigorous behavioral change plan. 

Let’s break this down further.

In order to truly treat an addiction or compulsion, we have to bear in mind the idea that the compulsive activity (or substance use) is the symptom – not the root. 

We stabilize the symptom and then we treat the root causes that led to the addictive behavior or substance use in the first place.

In my clinical work with therapy clients, stabilizing behaviors, as they relate to work workaholism might include the following behavioral modifications:

  • Set Clear Work Boundaries: Define specific work hours and stick to them. Avoid working outside of these hours, and ensure you have time allocated for rest and leisure activities. Take a thorough look at your calendar and get rigorous about scoping the hours down (start with the weekends if this is you).
  • Prioritize Tasks: Learn to differentiate between urgent and important tasks. Focus on completing tasks that are truly important, and avoid overloading your schedule with unnecessary tasks. If this feels hard to discern, I have my clients bring their to-do lists to me and we weed through them together.
  • Question Your Excuses: Do you really need to be making multiple six figures a year? Could you live on less and be happier? Could living on less help you live longer? What are the relational and health costs and tradeoffs for the money you earn from workaholic behaviors?
  • Take Regular Breaks: Incorporate short breaks throughout your workday. Use this time to step away from your work environment, refreshing your mind and reducing stress and reminding you that there is a world and daylight beyond the glow of your laptop screen.
  • Learn to Delegate: If possible, delegate tasks to others to reduce your workload. Trusting your team and sharing responsibilities can lessen your burden and allow you to focus on essential tasks (and then working with your therapist to process the triggers that trusting others brings up). Hiring an assistant and building the systems so that they can ultimately free you up from work. All of these action steps can help reduce workload that keeps you trapped in an addictive cycle.
  • Seek Social Support: Spend time with family and friends, and don’t isolate yourself. Social interactions can provide relief from work stress and offer a different perspective on your work habits. So many of us ambitious and driven relational trauma survivors think that people who “clock out” at 5pm and have their weekends free are either unambitious or have their priorities wrong. Be sure to question those thoughts with your therapist and be curious about the contentment levels of those individuals compared to yours.
  • Cultivating a work identity that is part of, but not the entirety of, one’s self-concept: This can feel foreign to those of us who identify with our professions and derive the bulk of our worth from it. So doing the deep work with your therapist to question your identity apart from work (and including it in a normative way) is critical for developing a more moderate, healthy, functional relationship to work.

So those are the behavioral interventions – the action steps and questions and structural changes I might work with my clients on should they realize they’re addicted to work.

But the bulk of the clinical work I do to support my clients in treating their work addiction occurs via EMDR – the brain-based, evidence-based psychotherapy I’m personally trained in.

How EMDR Can Help Treat Workaholism.

EMDR (which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an integrative, brain-based, evidence-based therapy aimed at aiding individuals in processing and integrating traumatic memories, which often underlie addictive behaviors. 

This method involves an eight-phase process, utilizing bilateral stimulation to activate the brain’s natural healing processes. 

For those of us grappling with a relationship with workaholism and ambition rooted in trauma, EMDR offers a path to reprocess our early traumatic memories, alleviating the emotional burden and diminishing their influence on present behaviors.

In practice, EMDR can find, desensitize, and resolve memories that subconsciously fuel the compulsion to work, targeting the addiction’s root cause and fostering a significant reduction in the reliance on work as a present day coping mechanism.

Combining EMDR alongside behavioral interventions can be powerful and massively transformative (and I’m speaking as someone who is working with my own EMDR therapist on the processing piece and implementing massive behavioral interventions in my current life).

Prompts To Help You Explore Your Own Possible Workaholism and Ambition Relationship.

It’s so ironic that the very thing that once got us out of a bad, insecure, or painful early environment – an incredible work ethic, prioritizing study and the job over other things, logging long hours, grinding it out – can, for so many of us, then become an addictive pattern that keeps us from having a good adulthood despite our intent to have secured that for ourselves with the darn work.

But, like with so many other ways we coped early on with our relational trauma histories and the intolerable feelings we were struggling so hard not to feel back then, inevitably, the coping mechanisms stop working so well and create more distress in different ways now that we’re adults.

Speaking as someone who’s taking a close look at this in my own adult life and supporting just the most extraordinary therapy clients through this process, too, I’ve developed a list of prompts and inquiries you can use either on your own or with your own relational trauma therapist, to help promote self-inquiry and support you in questioning what, if any, change you may need or want to make in your life regarding your own relationship to workaholism and ambition:

  • How do I define my self-worth, and is it disproportionately tied to my professional achievements?
  • Am I using work as a refuge to avoid confronting unresolved emotional issues?
  • Am I using work to avoid painful life circumstances like an unhappy relationship that requires me to make hard decisions?
  • Can I establish and adhere to boundaries with my work, or does it dominate my thoughts persistently?
  • When not working or achieving, do I experience anxiety or discomfort?
  • What impact do my work habits have on my relationships and overall well-being?
  • Do I permit myself to engage in and enjoy leisure activities without feeling guilty?
  • When achieving a goal, do I take the time to celebrate, or am I immediately focused on the next target?
  • Do I allow myself to delegate tasks, or do I feel compelled to handle everything personally?
  • Am I attentive to my body’s signals for rest, or do I neglect them to continue working?
  • How do my past traumas influence my current relationship with work?
  • What stories am I telling myself and others about why I can’t work less? And is that empirically, 100% true?
  • What am I afraid will happen if I work less? Is that outcome empirically, 100% true?
  • What’s the cost in two, five, seven years if I keep going the way I’m going? What’s the cost on my health? On my relationships? On my ability to say that I actually lived my life?

Uncomfortable as these prompts may make you, by attempting to answer them honestly and paying attention to what comes up inside of you, you may have the information you need to start (finally) taking a look at your relationship to workaholism and ambition so that you can, despite adverse early beginnings, have the best adulthood possible (always my goal for you).

And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: 

Did you resonate with this piece? Do you likewise struggle with the fact that the very patterning that once helped you transcend your adverse early beginnings is now making your adulthood feel less satisfying? What has changed your relationship to workaholism if it’s tied to ambition?

If you feel so inclined, leave a message so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your share and wisdom.

And then, if you live in either California or Florida, and you would like tailored, expert support recovering from workaholism, either myself or my talented team of relational trauma clinicians at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – can be of support to you. 

Please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to an relational trauma therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).

And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for relational trauma recovery.

Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a relational trauma history and have used workaholism as a coping mechanism, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a relational trauma background?” 

It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of relational trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m journeying through my own relational trauma recovery journey and general adulthood. 

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

So thank you. 

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie


References Section

  1. Goldbach, I. R., & Hamza-Lup, F. G. (2020). Intelligent Tutoring Systems for Generation Z’s Addiction. IARIA 2020. Link
  2. Alicea, B., Chakrabarty, R., Dvoretskii, S., Gong, Z., Gopi, A., Lim, A., & Parent, J. (2021). Continual Developmental Neurosimulation Using Embodied Computational Agents. Link
  3. Behzadan, V., Yampolskiy, R. V., & Munir, A. (2018). Emergence of Addictive Behaviors in Reinforcement Learning Agents. Link
  4. Chary, M. (2012). A Computational Model of the Effects of Drug Addiction on Neural Population Dynamics. Link
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  1. Beth says

    Hah! I answered every single one of the question prompts squarely on the workaholic side. I never thought of workaholism as a trauma symptom, but it makes perfect sense. I, too, figured out at age 12 that getting great grades and throwing myself into as many activities as possible was my ticket out. I, too, escaped to an Ivy League university and then threw myself into workaholism to avoid having to look at (or feel) my past. Eventually, it caught up with me and derailed my life and my highly successful career.

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