This is the second in a series of four posts describing four different types of the obsessive-compulsive personality. Each of the four types have different gifts, talents which may be pursued with satisfaction–or enlisted to ward off anxiety. OCPD Type 2, the compulsive Worker-Doer, is compelled to accomplish, produce, achieve, and fix. They usually bring this passion to their career, but may also apply it to athletic pursuits, artistic pursuits, volunteer commitments, hobbies, or to the impossible goal of being a perfect parent.
My Own Journey: Perennially Practicing and Restoratively Resting
I’ve had some experience with this.
From the time I was 8 until I was 38, I was passionately devoted to music and mastering the trumpet. I practiced compulsively, never missing a day. I’d take red eye flights so I wouldn’t miss a minute of practice. My neighbors in Greenwich Village were not happy about this. My attitude, usually not expressed, was, “Welcome to New York City! You want music? Put up with musicians practicing!”
My wife-to-be would say, “Let’s go out for a walk.”
“Can’t. Need to practice.”
“But you practiced already this morning.”
Once, near the time of an orchestra audition, a colleague suggested I take the day off before to let my lip muscles rest. My response was Biblical: “Get behind me Satan!”
I would have done better to welcome him as an angel. Any weightlifter will tell you that you need to take days off or at least alternate with lighter days so that your muscles can recover. But my disposition as a compulsive Worker-Doer blinded me to the benefits of rest.
I doubt that I would have ended up as principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra even had I learned to take it easy, but the time I spent as a professional musician would probably have been more enjoyable, and less plagued by perennially stiff embouchure muscles.
Learning to let go for a while is a lesson I’ve had to learn, and one that has allowed me to settle comfortably into my career as a therapist—which, by the way, I’m quite happy with.
Meanwhile, I’ve traded symphonic ambitions for a rock band—low culture at high volume. And I’ve learned not to practice every day.
Positive Aspects of the Compulsive Worker-Doer
My unrelenting determination as a musician is typical of the Worker-Doer. They get the job done–no matter what. Completion is a cardinal virtue and feels essential to achieving even the briefest peace of mind. Productive, hard-working and energetic, this is the kind of person you want on your team–when they’re operating healthily. They have the capacity to enjoy work and the process of mastering a new challenge. They see what’s wrong or missing and feel some urgency to fix the problem.
The Worker-Doer feels bound to create, repair and resolve, crossing victories off their list and adding new challenges as soon as they finish the old one.
Dangers for the Compulsive Worker-Doer
But they can also take on too many tasks faster than you can say “burnout.” They can lose sight of their priorities and what they want most to accomplish. Because they forget what’s most important to them, they don’t meet the goals that have real meaning for them, and they continue to feel unfulfilled. Their solution, unfortunately, is to work more and more to try to fill the emptiness. Welcome to workaholism.
Looking one level deeper, we see that work is also used to compensate for insecurities, to raise self-esteem and lower anxiety. Some degree of achievement and mastery can be natural and fulfilling, but if it’s enlisted to avoid feelings such as inadequacy, it not only leads to over-working, but also to greater anxiety—because they continue to invest in the idea that they need to prove their worth, rather than looking at what they uniquely have to offer.
When they are not able to use their strategy of doing and fixing, they can become very uncomfortable. Traffic, bad weather, corporate shuffling and recalcitrant children are all out of their control, no matter how hard they work.
Without integrating the reflective aspects of the Thinker-Planner type, the Worker-Doer may be impulsive at times in their compulsivity. They may not think carefully before pressing Send, committing to a big project, or signing up to run the Iron-Man Triathlon between work binges.
While all four types of obsessive-compulsive personality run the risk of some form of neglect, the Worker-Doer is most likely to short-change their relationships and their own well-being in a quest for productivity. Partners, friends, and children can all easily feel abandoned. Not to mention their own body. They may miss medical appointments and not sleep, exercise or eat well, all because they’re too busy, and it eventually comes back to haunt them and their families. They can usually afford to spend more time in the Server-Friend aspect, cultivating their relationships.
They usually have difficulty delegating work and try to do it all themselves. They can afford to spend more time in the Teacher-Leader part of the personality and share the wisdom and workload with others. That would also have the benefit of reconnecting with what they believe is most important, rather than push forward mindlessly.
Such a focus on work can lead to an actual addiction, known psychologically as a behavioral or process addiction. The addiction is not to a substance, but to a behavior, a behavior that produces its own substances such as endorphins and opioids, which can be just as compelling as addictive substances. This means that you’re sleeping in the corner office rather than in an alley, and there’s no shame motivating you to kick the habit.
I’ve seen people who can’t allow themselves to get engaged in therapy, despite really wanting to, because their work addiction was so intense that they could not take the time to go to sessions. And, just like an alcoholic who says, “Just one more drink,” they say they just have to finish this particular project or take that prestigious position, and continue to put off the very thing that could help them break the pattern.
And, as with any addiction, after the first few times, it’s not fun anymore. It’s just trying to feel normal again for a moment.
The Gods Have Become Diseases: Hephaestus
I noted in my previous post in this series that, as Carl Jung famously said, the Gods have become diseases. In this case the Greek god who doesn’t feel so good is Hephaestus (also known by his Roman name, Vulcan). His disease is work addiction—creating and achieving without regard to purpose. Hephaestus was the god of the forge. He created weapons, furniture, jewelry, and Cupid’s arrows, the ones that make us buy and send all those silly cards on February 14.
Hephaestus had a passion to create, so there is something to be revered here. He had a particular role to fill—he served the gods, making whatever they needed. But when the Worker-Doer loses track of what, or who, he is in service to, he becomes ill. Rather than a well-functioning forge putting out products as needed, production runs amok. He’s putting out stuff that nobody needs. He needs to go to a Workaholics Anonymous meeting immediately, if not sooner.
Let me give you just a little glimpse of a moment in the life of Hephaestus as he reported it to me in one of our sessions. He goes to the bank to deposit a check. People are chatting. No banking going on at all. He says to me,
“Don’t these people have better things to do with their time? I’ve got things to do! I built 11 iron-clad submarines with more horsepower than the Kentucky Derby. I just couldn’t stop myself! Anyway, Poseidon said ‘Wadja do that for? I don’t need any submarines!’ So, I’ve gotta put them all up on Ebay. I can’t have 11 subs just sittin’ around my forge. Besides, I’ve gotta figure out my next line. My Instagram account is nose-diving and I’ve got a rep to maintain. Hey, isn’t time up?”
As you might be picking up, one common feeling for this type, one aspect of its not feeling well, is constant urgency. Always more. Always faster. There’s never enough.
Hephaestus and I did eventually agree that he needed to start checking in with the other gods to see what was needed rather than just pumping stuff out without any idea who or what it’s for. That’s when he came up with the idea for Cupid’s arrows. Well…at least those do get used.
We all have some Hephaestus in us—some much more than others. If he takes over the wheel without collaborating with other parts of the personality, a drive to nowhere, or a wreck, is likely to ensue.
The American Way: The Legend of John Henry
But this wasn’t just a problem on Mount Olympus 2500 years ago. One of the dangers for this type is that our culture approves when it goes off the deep end, even when it’s killing you. Here’s a story that demonstrates how deeply it’s baked into our way of living.
John Henry was a freed man, formerly enslaved, who worked as a steel driver busting out the tunnels for railroads in the mid-19th century. He was known for being able to blast out rock with his hammer with remarkable speed and efficiency. When the railroad introduced a machine to speed up the process, a race was set up between Henry and the machine.
He beat the machine, but he died from exhaustion.
The irony is that Henry had to become machine-like to win the battle—sacrificing his own body and probably much more. We may admire him, but we also do well to question his martyrdom.
Such is the fate of the Worker-Doer: we may win the concrete, practical battles for a quantitative life, producing, fixing, and blasting tunnels, and maybe even proving our worth to an imagined audience, but we lose the battle for quality of life and end up burned out.
Hercules and the Motivation of Overcompensation
But why? Why do people go overboard? Let’s look at another Greek figure that was a Worker-Doer type of compulsive, Hercules. I’ve written about Hercules before, sorting out the difference between being a compulsive hero and a heroic compulsive. For our purposes today, I’ll just point out that Hercules, our proto-model for heroism, labors, and achievement, was motivated partly by his fear of not being “good,” morally good.
His was a classic case of overcompensation.
He did have reason to question his virtue; he had murdered his own family. But that was when he was under a spell fired at him by his jealous stepmother Hera, so we’ll cut him some slack. Meanwhile, we all do well to ask what spell we are operating under, what complex has taken the wheel, and to beware trying to prove our virtue by overworking.
Saving the World and Drawing the Line
But there are times when our work does have meaning, when “overworking” does serve others or even parts of ourselves. We’ve all benefited from the work of others who have sacrificed themselves for the rest of us. And there have been times when we had to sacrifice specific desires for our well-being and that of others.
My job as a therapist is not to tell people what to do, but to help them be aware of their motivations so that they can make informed decisions about how to live. In this case the danger is that our good works become a performance to gain accolades, and less about actually achieving the goal for the benefit of others or our own well-being. Of course motivations are almost always multi-determined. But we do well to beware falling head first into the archetype of the martyr just to be the martyr, rather than to be fighting for the cause the martyr sacrifices him or herself for.
Since many of the tendencies of the Worker-Doer can be healthy, where do you draw the line? Here are some indications that things have gotten out of control:
• You can’t choose when to stop. You get anxious when you aren’t doing, working or fixing. It has an addictive quality.
• Your well-being, mental or physical, begins to suffer.
• You neglect relationships.
• The “cause” you’re working for becomes less important than the appearance you hope to achieve in working for the cause, or in fending off guilt.
To be fulfilled rather than burned out, Worker-Doers need to integrate other aspects of the obsessive-compulsive personality:
• Like the Teacher-Leader, they may need to delegate, take less responsibility for getting all the work done themselves, and take more leadership rather than follow the elusive carrot of achievement obsessively.
• Like the Thinker-Planner, they need to slow down and reflect about where they’re going and what they’re working for.
• Like the Server-Friend, they need to consider their impact on other people, and that they may feel more fulfilled if they nurture their relationships more.
They also need to remember how to enjoy the process of work. Not just its completion.
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The third and fourth installments of this series are scheduled for December 5 and December 19th. Subscribe below so you won’t miss them.
For a thorough and systematic guide to optimizing the compulsive personality read my book: The Healthy Compulsive: Healing Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Taking the Wheel of the Driven Personality.
Did you know that the Healthy Compulsive Project is also available as a Podcast?