“Addicted to work? Well, I never!” - can you imagine this rebuttal over a family conversation? I can, as there's often controversy as to whether certain addictions are “real" - especially from those less appreciative of the subtle aspects of human psychology. Addictions which are scientifically measurable or less socially acceptable are often more readily accepted. Take narcotics which have a clear and measurable effect on neurotransmitters and brain chemistry, over a short and long term. They also can have a clear impact on the addict. In this case addiction is “prove-able” and “visible”.
But this limited definition of addiction is progressively changing. Alcohol addiction has been acknowledged for many years, though occasionally gets challenged. Recently sex addiction has become more widely known and understood, in part thanks to representation in film and television. More progressive societies are starting to see addictions to hard drugs as a matter of public health rather than a crime, reflecting that there is much more than a biochemical process at play.
So what does this have to do with the festive period? Well, it's commonplace in the therapy room for the excitement and anticipation of the festive period to be coupled with concern. Will I get depressed? Will there be a family argument? Will I have a family holiday that meets expectations?
Some of these concerns are real - family dynamics do tend to surface around this time of year and there is a huge amount of emphasis placed on getting these experiences “right”. But there’s a more subtle dynamic at play. On breaks, many things we usually do (including work) are taken away. Instead, we’re left with long periods with much less to do and more time to be.
This presents an interesting dilemma to most humans. When we aren’t busy doing, we then have the opportunity to feel our underlying feelings. These, often, are less than pleasant. We might simply say we’re “bored” or “at a loose end”, but what feeling is under that idea? Perhaps it’s a lurking unease. Perhaps it’s a low level worry. Or perhaps, there’s something more pronounced, like a deep anxiety, or a feeling of shame. And it’s these underlying feelings which are what addictions are so good at masking.
Being busy however, seems to occupy a special place in our collective psyche: it's revered, normalised and sometimes even faked. It’s even been called the new “fine” - a throwaway comment used in response to being asked “how are you”. I think most of us can identify with this. And while Holidays have plenty of it’s own opportunities to be “busy”, the most powerful panacea to idleness, “work”, is mostly unavailable.
So if you find yourself drawn to check your work emails, to update that spreadsheet which has been lurking, or to finally get around to writing that report, the invitation I offer you is: STOP! Just stop for a moment, notice your breathing. What are my feelings? And I mean, actual feelings, not thoughts. What is the feeling that work promises? And what feeling does work cover up?
We all want to belong. We all want to be valued. These needs I believe are highly related to work addiction. And at holiday times, without work - we have the opportunity to engage with ourselves and with our loved ones, to feel safe, valued and loved, without the need of “doing” anything.