What Burn Out Taught Me About Addiction


They say addicts will always be addicts. They are right— I should know, I am one. It has taken years for me to separate my addiction from my self-worth and apply the “label” in a way that is productive. It’s a reminder, a warning, a trap that will swallow me whole without me realizing it.

Most of us gain our understanding of addiction as it pertains to substance abuse. It can be polarizing and confusing to someone who doesn’t understand addiction as an illness, and the consequences can escalate quickly through overdose, illness, accidents, a slow poisoning. Yet there are addictions that come with a kind of twisted badge of honor, a sign of unflappable willpower and focus. Those addictions have less lethal consequences in the short term, but long term, the consequences can take years to unravel, and for some of us, require medical intervention. I’m not a medical professional and will not be giving advice on seeking treatment or claiming my definition of addiction is accurate, but I can share what I’ve come to understand about addiction through my drug of choice: work.

Before you roll your eyes, I am not claiming my own vices are of the same severity of substance addictions. What I’m saying is: work is how I get my dopamine fix. And I crave it all the time. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up. It’s the last thing I think about when I go to sleep. It’s the easiest way for me to feel the rush of excitement that comes from making something, sharing it, and getting instant feedback. It’s the rush that comes from seizing my own destiny, to feeling in control, for feeling powerful and capable in a world where I often feel invisible and small. My need for this rush has only increased since having children. And my need for this fix has brought me to a place where my physical health is visibly suffering.

In a culture that puts being busy on a pedestal, my addiction is met with praise. I often overperformed in college, doing more than what was asked of us as students (and annoying many of my classmates in the process) and went well beyond what I was paid for as a consultant. I jumped into complicated issues, dying to feel the sensation of becoming completely and utterly immersed in a subject so the whole world would fall away for hours at a time. You didn’t even have to pay me. I’d gladly sign up for that work for the distraction itself.

And perhaps that’s why I crave it so much. To get so focused on a project that real life, the things that are consistent and steady and calming and structured to keep me healthy, are hard for me to face. It’s uncomfortable. When I’m working, I can get “high” and I can get rewarded for it. It’s a “productive” bad habit. History shows us that bad habits have a way of catching up with us.

When I went into labor at 31 weeks, my OB was baffled. I had to be induced with my first child and had little to no Braxton Hicks contractions. Yet here I was hooked up to a machine, contracting three times in twenty minutes. During my 3 days stint in the hospital and a clean bill of health, no one could quite figure out why my body thought it was time to go into labor until I took a conference call while my belly was hooked up to the monitors. As I spoke to our suppliers, my contractions began. The scary thing was… I didn’t feel stressed. My body was giving me clear signs it was in distress and my conscious brain was clueless to it. I would later give birth to Bennett a month early, two days after I went back to work. Labor began while I was designing our fall stationery collection. It wasn’t until I went back to a handful of doctors (both conventional and functional) to learn my cortisol levels were 3 times where they should be. My body was operating like I was running from a pack of lions 24/7.

Many addicts will tell you about a moment when the truth surrounding their vices become crystal clear and we decide this isn’t the future we want for ourselves. It means every day, making a choice to take the long way towards contentment. The journey where we choose to live with fewer ups and downs. Where getting high isn’t an option. When approval-seeking is tied to your work addiction, being in the world of social media is a lot like an alcoholic working at a bar. You’ve got to get comfortable with your proximity to the substance.


Here are eight symptoms indicating a work addiction:

  • Approval-seeking—The workaholic’s identity is in their work; it justifies their existence and is a means of gaining approval from others.
  • Low self-esteem—Overly concerned with image, workaholics believe that overworking earns them admiration.
  • Control issues—They work to cope with life’s uncertainties and try to gain a measure of control over the otherwise uncontrollable.
  • Authority issues—They are prone to succumbing to figures of authority in a search for approval, even if it means surrendering or lowering themselves.
  • Perfectionism—They tend to make unreasonable demands upon themselves. They may or may not extend this expectation to those around them, both at work and in their personal relationships.
  • Escapism—They also use work as a means of escaping having to deal with real-world emotions and feelings.
  • Preoccupation with work—Like clinical addicts, workaholics overwork and, when not at work, obsess about it to the point that their lives become out of balance which negatively affects their own health as well as their relationships.
  • Lying—They may begin to lie, to themselves and others, about their work habits. They also may lie about past successes and failures, exaggerating the former and minimizing or falsifying the latter.

The Work Addiction Syndrome Checklist

These are some questions that a potential work addict can ask themselves to identify if they have a problem that needs to be addressed.

  1. How much time do you spend working, and how much time do you spend with family, friends, etc.? Is your work schedule causing problems in your family or social life?
  2. Do you feel out of control or powerless at times when it comes to setting limits, going home or quitting work for the day?
  3. Are you having a difficult time enjoying the “fruits” of your labors in spite of the financial success or being respected and admired in your company or industry?
  4. Do you break promises to yourself, family or friends regarding work time, travel schedules and other related employment activities?
  5. Do you have difficulty “letting go” and delegating work?
  6. Has your work patterns affected intimate friendships, and/or important social activities you once enjoyed such as vacations, fishing, sports, museums or reading?
  7. When on vacation, is it difficult to relax and disengage from work, therefore interrupting or contaminating your vacation time with family or friends? (Phone calls, laptop, pagers)
  8. Has your physical health deteriorated due to an excessive work schedule? Have you continued to “push the needle into the red” in spite of warnings from your doctor, psychologist, colleague or boss?
  9. Have you surprised yourself at how easy you “fly off the handle” or “lose it” these days? Are people in your life having to “tip toe” around you due to this volatility? Is this different than you used to be?
  10. Have you unsuccessfully attempted to cut down or stop from overworking, over-committing, staying at the office, etc? Do you promise to spend more time at home, going to the gym or golf course and end up not following through?

If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be suffering from the work addiction syndrome.

Work will always be my vice. Living life in the “slower lane”makes me panic. But I’m slowly coming to realize that making things can be just as enjoyable and exciting when you give yourself reasonable limits. To walk into a clean office after a weekend away and a fresh perspective is starting to feel just as satisfying as indulging a new idea at 1 am. If anything, I’m learning to trust that walking to my destination might be just as efficient as sprinting.

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  • I absolutely love this post. I struggle with the same “work” addiction and am just recently coming to terms with it and starting to address it. A book that has been very helpful for me in that regard is “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Hi Rachel!! I have this book at home but I haven’t finished it yet. Its such a short read your comment reminded me to take an afternoon and give that gift to myself!

  • So much of this speaks to me – I know I have a problem, but I’m struggling to set boundaries. Intellectually, I know that the world won’t end if I don’t do EVERYTHING. But I truly am at a point where my boundaries are so lost that expectations from others have become unsustainable.

    I’d love to see a discussion (support group?!?) on setting boundaries, starting small and maintaining them, and slowly building them up. I can’t just put up the walls without risking the career I’ve built for myself.