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I couldn't stick with Workaholics Anonymous - here's why....

Updated: Mar 17

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What is Workaholics Anonymous?

Workaholics Anonymous (WA) is a fellowship that offers individuals a safe community to share experiences and support each other to build a life free from compulsive working.


When I first heard about workaholics anonymous (WA), I thought it was a great idea to try it out. Here was a support group for people like me who loved their work to death and felt guilty about not attending to their business and projects every second of the day and night.


I started attending WA meetings in the summer of 2020 before my Portuguese Camino. I was feeling that unless I did something to address my workaholism I'd lose control of my life and burnout once again.


I was working 12-15 hours a day with no end in sight. I was working on weekends, nights, and holidays. I had lost touch with my family and friends and for a long time that was fine and comfortable, but at some point, the reality that I had no life outside of work became a heavy problem. I was working on my businesses and projects that I loved but I was compulsive, having hardly any boundaries around work and experiencing a lot of guilt and emptiness whenever I wasn't working.



The experience of Workaholics Anonymous meetings


My first WA meeting was an international one over the phone. There were plenty of American voices on it and some of the people that spoke almost put me off from the whole concept but that is a different story for another time.


After this, I found a more local group that was meeting over zoom and found the dynamics and organisation of it way better. I liked I could see faces, I could connect more and although the format threw me off and I was slightly lost as to what was happening - I found that it had a community vibe of regulars that I appreciated.


They say it's non-religious, but...


As an atheist, I was very uneasy about the fact that 12 step programs are based on religion and belief in a higher power. They say it's not religious, but the whole structure and steps heavily lean on having or finding a belief in a higher power - greater than the self.


This is all good for people who like leaning on any form of a higher power, but I am of the type of self-reliant and stoic folk, for whom the highest power there is - is the self.


I am hoping now, that my position will if not understood be respected by those who choose to believe in a higher power. There's room for all opinions and belief systems in this world.


How do the 12 step foundations rob you of your agency and inner power?


The stoic in me believes that I have control over me and my reality, that I am the creator, the highest power in my life. How I think influences my emotions and thus behaviours. I create my habits and then they create me. I am responsible for the life I lead and I am always one or two wrong choices away from ruining my life or making a big success out of myself.


The stoics have a happiness triangle that looks like this:


the happiness triangle, philosophy, stoicism, overcome addiction

* What is Arete? Arete is an ancient Greek word meaning excellence or virtue. The arete of something is the highest quality state it can reach. Using arete as a principle for living life means that you are focused on the quality of everything you do and experience. * Eudaimonia is a Greek word literally translating to the state or condition of 'good spirit', and which is commonly translated as 'happiness' or 'welfare'.

The easiest way to describe my philosophy of life is exactly through this concept and triangle.


I take responsibility.

I aim to achieve quality in my life, work, relationships, the way I spend money and time. Because time = money, and time = life too.

I focus on what I can control - my time, thoughts, actions, habits, and more.


Hence, the whole premise of Workaholics Anonymous basing their program on belief in something out there - outside, independent power that we have no control over - but influences our thoughts and actions made no sense to me.


This is why many of the 12 steps and the serenity prayer as well were absolutely no-go for me. To illustrate my point, I offer you a list of the 12 steps with highlights on exactly those points that label you powerless and want to make you reliant on external powers.


  1. We admitted we were powerless over work --- that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  6. Became entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.

  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to workaholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


Can you see how much power is relinquished if one embraces the belief in a higher power outside of them and gives away responsibility for their ''restoration to sanity'' to this external power?



How to empower yourself in recovery?


These steps and beliefs are erosive to the power within, they rob people of their agency and provide them with a soothing excuse as to why they are not making progress in their recovery.


When I was growing up, I remember listening to a dramatised tape of Huckleberry Finn's adventures - I can recite by memory the moment he complains to Tom Soyer that his prayers to God for a new fishing hook remain unanswered. Upset by the disappointment and disapproving that the widow that adopted him told him how he just needed to pray to God and he shall receive, he even says he'd rather go to hell than keep on praying and hoping.


And a few years back I read a joke that went something like this: A poor man kept praying to God every night that he shall win the lottery. For months on end he begged and begged the Lord. Until one day God got so angry with the man, he went to meet him in person.

''For goodness sake - exclaimed God - at least buy a ticket!''


Both of these tiny reflections speak to me that if you don't help yourself, even God can't and won't help you.


The serenity prayer is equally disempowering


The serenity prayer is something that all 12 step meetings end with - when people say it in unison - often, if not always out loud.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.


I do not believe that anyone needs to grant you serenity, courage or wisdom. You can source these yourself because it is all down to you embracing the power you hold.


To me embracing your agency, inner power, taking responsibility and aspiring to do the utmost best you can with what you can control - is the solution to every problem in life. This is why I couldn't even stand the foundations upon which the 12 step programs are built.


I will be awfully honest, risking upset in 12 step & higher power supporters. But I used to 'count my blessings' - happy that I was attending Zoom meetings and was able to mute the group when they used to say the serenity prayer - staying out of politeness to say bye at the end of it. The serenity prayer was the worst moment for me in those meetings.


I didn't need anyone's permission or power to change my Life. I had these myself. I just needed a better strategy and to source wisdom on how to have a better journey to recovery and healing.


Marcus Aurelius quote, How to regain your power over addiction


Why I'm against the ''forever a workaholic/addict'' label?


If you've attended 12 step programs or seen it in movies - when attendees start speaking, they start with the ''Hi, my name is .... and I am a workaholic/alcoholic/etc (addict)''.


This was another major issue for me.


Why?


Well because I am a psychologist and have enough knowledge and evidence, as well as belief in the therapeutic process to claim that people are fluid and capable of change and healing - especially when their behaviour is actually a coping strategy helping them to avoid pain, feelings of emptiness, numbness, loneliness, fear and a ton of other emotions resulting from unhealed past trauma - that is often hidden.


And sticking a ''forever'' label on people is basically a case of enforcing the effect of ''saying is believing''* as well as the self-fulfilling prophecy** - it is anything but helpful and healing.


* Saying is believing effect - occurs when tailoring a message to suit an audience influences a communicator's subsequent memories and impressions about the communication topic. Thus making a pronouncement strengthen our commitment to that point of view.

** A self-fulfilling prophecy is a sociological term used to describe a prediction that causes itself to become true, as the person is acting consciously or subconsciously in ways that will confirm the expectations. ·


People have the capacity to heal, addiction is a response to trauma - it is an unhealthy coping strategy and sadly the 12 step program does not heal; instead it pacifies, soothes a little and offers yet another dependence to the individual.


They do advise you to go to a meeting or call your sponsor if you're afraid you may relapse or when you've already relapsed. This is unhealthy, enabled, even encouraged co-dependence in action.


I do not deny that some of the steps require people to take responsibility, take inventory, address hurt and face reality without avoidance - but I do not believe that it is helpful to label oneself as an addict and lean on another dependence for your sanity and balance for the rest of your life.


And I would say to you - my opinion is that if you are working with a therapist who thinks you will be an addict forever and that you should just manage it - you're not working with the right professional. You should seek someone who is trauma-informed and skilled in working with addiction - approaching it from the point of view that your addiction is a reflection of trauma and hurt that are not healed.


You can be addiction-free - but you need to again, take personal responsibility and find the right professional to get on this very difficult but empowering journey of self-discovery and healing from within.



How to tell people you're a workaholic?

How should I describe myself? Avoiding sticky labels and cognitive traps...


I don't have a recipe for success on this one. I can only share that my way to avoid the cognitive trap of the self-fulfilling prophecy is to own my current experience and say ''I am a workaholic'' but also acknowledge the fact that it is down to me and it is my responsibility to get rid of this label, following the first part by saying ''...and I am working on it - ironically''.


Because it is true - workaholism requires working on it to get rid of it.


So my phrase is:


''I am a workaholic and I am working on it - ironically''


Feel free to steal this model of acknowledging your current experience in its fullness - and the fact that you're work in progress yourself. I hope it helps you, as it helps me.


What is Workaholics Anonymous good for - if anything?


It wasn't all doom and gloom - there were positives in attending the meetings - but the negatives that I outlined just outweigh the positives for me, hence I did not stick with attending WA meetings.


But let's be honest - here are the things I liked about attending WA meetings.


Community

The hardest thing about doing the recovery work for many people is feeling alone, misunderstood and unsupported - hence attending the WA meetings is rewarding and supportive - offering a safe space where people actually get you and empathise in a non-pitying or judgmental way.


I would say though - there are more than one ways to get or even build yourself a community that supports you and WA is not your only option.


It will take more digging out - but there are actually online groups - even on Facebook for workaholics and also great charities like She Recovers that offer meetings for people in recovery.


And as part of our work here at Bin Burnout & Thrive, we do offer folks the opportunity to connect and build community - especially in the course.


Do explore and write to us at contact@binburnout.com and/or leave a comment below if you have found community groups for people working on their workaholism - we will really appreciate it and make sure to share it wider.


Personal Stories

The personal stories shared candidly and with great vulnerability made all the difference to me. Being able to hear the reality and history of people in the group was transformative and awakening. It enriched my understanding of how we all learn to cope in the face of adversity and end up turning our coping strategies into our own worst enemy.


I will forever remember the story of a guy who shared that he came to the realisation that he's a workaholic after a burnout showed up disguised as a panic attack he mistook for a heart attack that took him to hospital unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon as he watched TV with his child at home.


When the doctors at A&E couldn't find a trace of heart failure and started asking him questions about his levels of stress, workload, working hours, self-care habits and lifestyle determined that he has burnout and had an out of the blue panic attack that he mistook for a heart failure - he realised he needed to address his workaholism before it killed him for real.


This story shook me, and it is why I was very motivated to read ''When the body says No'' by Gabor Mate. Truly enlightening how we can be so blind to our experiences until our bodies (hopefully) speak up and slap some sense back into us.


This story is why I also started embracing the care of my body as part of my workaholism recovery journey. Simply put - other people's stories can enrich your journey to recovery.


Being witnessed and feeling validated

The world and people around us can be quite harsh to our complaints and calls for help, especially when it comes to workaholism and the expectation and belief that it should be worn as a badge of honour and if you're looking to change your working habits, you're dumb and going downhill in your career.


Hence attending the meetings can feel very validating and supportive. When you are witnessed and validated in the group as you hear that other people can also relate to your experiences and thoughts - it is quite prescious.


Reminders and self-check ins

I used to stay to the end because I really liked one of the reflections at the end of the meetings. Each person will take turns to choose and say out loud their affirmation and then favourite slogan they felt they needed to embrace and remind themselves more of. It was a great reminder of how much we have to re-learn and re-wire ourselves, our thinking, our lives as a whole.


I have collected the slogans and affirmations we used and share a high-quality image of them, as I was not able to find one online - so here it is. Feel free to download it and use it yourself.


affirmations, slogans, for, workaholics, anonymous, how to, deal with workaholism


Conclusion


I will never deny that 12 step programs have helped many people to stay off alcohol, drugs, workaholic behaviours and more, and I am glad they exist, because they serve a purpose and a great many people.


However, for the stoics out there, who believe in themselves and their inner power, for those who agree with Victor Frankel's reflections in “Man’s Search For Meaning” about inner power and free will as he speaks of his experience at Auschwitz and he shares that the reason why he survived is because the Nazis could not take his will. He writes:

“Between the trigger or the stimulus and your reaction to it, there is a space.”

This is the space that one needs to find and claim power over. It is in that space, that you have a choice, and when you’re choosing how you respond to a situation or a stimulus instead of just reacting to it, you’re free and a powerful creator of your reality.


Hence I now invite you to take charge and consider - how might you want to revisit the happiness triangle - take responsibility and reclaim your power, live with Arete and take control over what you can - yourself.

Thank you for reading. I hope that you found the information and experience I shared on the topic of Workaholic Anonymous meetings and their philosophy and practices useful. And I would encourage you to have a look at the course I created to help myself and expanded in order to share with others who may need it on the topics of how to build boundaries and overcome workaholism. You can learn more about the course here: https://www.binburnout.com/online-course-burnout If you have any other questions, ideas, useful content to share or concerns please contact us anytime at contact@binburnout.com


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  • costly errors at work, and on the more personal side of things -

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3 Comments


I don't know how much WA uses the AA book but here's how AA describes it: With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. (p. 567, A.A.)


A spiritual experience is the personality change sufficient to recover. One need not convert or find a God outside themselves for the program to work. Atheists have spiritual experiences all the time in AA, and I'm sure WA can also be approached from a secular perspective and be effective. <3

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Guest
Oct 20, 2023

Higher power can just be the highest, ideal version of yourself. Or the support of your group. If one’s mind alone could fix it without something external, one would, without recovery. But… then there’d be no addiction because you‘d say no and life would be manageable. “God” is optional. Belief in something greater is mandatory.

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Guest
Feb 22, 2023

I wish there was a WA group that never uses the "Red book" or the references to God. Both felt like such a waste of time. I just want a support group to share stories, experiences, feelings, goals, etc.

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