by Dale Wolery
Jim Cramer, Wall Street guru and author of a memoir, Confessions of a Street Addict, summarizes what I have experienced as a recovering religious work addict. He says, “I’m proud of my performance but I’m not proud of the person I became.” For me, being work addicted had its meaningful rewards while simultaneously creating immeasurable personal losses. I did a lot of wonderful things, even things that apparently mattered in God’s kingdom, but I built limitless loss in my own person. Through work, I gained a whole new world but lost my own soul.
The rewards of my religious work addiction served and still serve as hooks for staying in or returning to the addiction. My work was compensated with affirmation. When I worked, my fear of failure diminished and my shame momentarily subsided. I even experienced a sense of entitlement that mitigated against appropriate expectations required by my close relationships. I was well compensated for my work addiction, but the payoff has ultimately been hollow in every way.
As a pastor I had the privilege of working directly for God. When I did God’s work and was affirmed by God’s people it was easy for me to do more and more and more. The affirmation hunger was fed by the enticing fare of compliments. For someone who had been so invisible as a child to be so positively noticed in God’s work world was emotionally seductive. Lacking the spiritual maturity to know that my dependence on affirmation would starve my soul, I bit hard into the work-addiction apple.
My work-addicted pastoral ministry was also rewarded by apparent success. Through contacts and hard-earned reputation I leap-frogged way beyond my internal personal capacity. My capacity to work, to do a good job and to lead others belied the wanting, wasting and withering of my real self. But at the time, the cost seemed small compared to the fear of failure that nipped like a predator at my heels. Appearing successful felt so good to someone who feared failure so intensely.
The Inner Dynamic of Work Addiction
Inside myself I was afraid of failure. Outside I appeared confident. Though most of this was unconscious, fear was driving my work addiction. I’m sure that if I had been fully aware of the role that fear played in motivating me each day, I would have concluded that it was normal to be this afraid. It would have seemed like a small price to pay for the success I craved.
I am learning there are better ways to deal with fear than numbing it out by doing. But when I am not serene enough, fear can still become a driving force for me. As with most work addicts, I was glad for the way that hard work seemed to soothe my shame-filled self. When I worked, achieved, and got it done, I seemed to matter more. The work I did appeared to fill up the part of me that said I was bad or that I didn’t really matter. Shame told me I was bad; work told me I mattered as long as I was productive. Surely productive work is valuable, but I was using it to fill the black holes that shame had shaped in my soul. Work is not designed to fix such internal chasms. The result of my using such an inadequate approach to dealing with the pain of ingrained shame was a deadly cycle of trying harder. But like a rat running in a cage, I couldn’t work hard enough, run fast enough or stay at it long enough to stay ahead of the consuming shame. The result was an ever-present, growing dark blanket of weariness that covered my interior world and depleted work’s effectiveness to convince me that I mattered. Shame always seemed to be stronger than my best hard work. But it didn’t keep me from insanely trying to use it to cover my inadequacy anyway.
The Costs of Work Addiction
When I married I was already using work to solve the problems in my soul. When the intimacy of such a close relationship challenged me, I did what I knew best. I worked harder, served the Lord more and used work to defend against my relationship dysfunction. I had to work hard. I worked hard for God to win the whole world. My theology told me I could never sacrifice enough to satisfy God’s demands on my life. So my spouse would just have to find a way to understand this or adjust to it. Living lonely was what God required of the spouse of a work addict, wasn’t it? I was using work as a free pass to not be present in my close relationships.
When children came this trend continued. I attended our daughters’ events, but I was always preoccupied with what seemed to comfort me most. I was preoccupied with the mistress of work. Worse, I thought this was the way it was supposed to be. I was busy doing such important work for God that my family shouldn’t be placing such unrealistic expectations or demands on me and on my time. Didn’t they understand how much God needed me? Shouldn’t they too adjust to life without soul or meaningful intimacy? That was what I was trying to do, and they should too.
Early in my recovery I sought to excuse such work-addicted behavior to my first counselor. I told him, “When I get through with. . . I will be able to attend to what Sara and the girls need.” His response is still etched in my psyche. He told me, “Dale, you will never get through with. You often say, ‘When I get through with. . .’ but you never do and you never will.” This was probably the first time I ever stopped, looked and listened to someone who was telling me the truth about my work addiction. The Lord used this truth to start chipping away at my self-deception.
God never intended for ministers or any of his other dear children to rush away at work and lose their own souls and intimate relationships in the process. My ingrained work addiction has required me to get more help than I ever dreamed I needed. If you are addicted to work, would you be willing to be open to the hope and healing such help could bring your way? You and your family are worth it.
Dale Wolery is a former executive director of the NACR and currently serves as executive director of the Clergy Recovery Network (www.clergyrecovery.com).