Escaping from Work Addiction as a Highly Sensitive Person

Silhouette of a highly sensitive person lowering his head as he struggles with work addiction

Are highly sensitive people more likely to overwork themselves — and how do they stop? 

For highly sensitive people like me, achievement and overwork can sometimes be a way to receive positive recognition and avoid criticism for being different. After all, our peers may be recognized for charisma, extroversion, entertainment value, or assertiveness. But sensitive people — who tend to be cautious, thoughtful, and often a little quiet — can feel like we are hiding in plain sight. (We may even end up bearing a greater share of responsibility and workload, but receiving an inequitable share of recognition.) Some of us adapt by working even harder. Doing the best job possible — and working the hardest — becomes a way to prove our worth and be seen. 

Sometimes, this is a good thing. Work can become a rich source of fulfillment for sensitive people, if it’s well-matched to their strengths. For example, in my experience as a highly sensitive person, I received praise and recognition for academics early in life, and later for being a high performer at work as a software developer. All this positive attention, along with family upbringing and temperament, set me on a path to being a high achiever.

But that’s not the only place it led. It also took me to a dark struggle with work addiction. 

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What Is Work Addiction? 

Work addiction is an unhealthy and all-consuming relationship with work, in which the person feels compelled to work or feels guilty for not working. Among researchers, it’s also known as workaholism, work dependency, or overwork. 

Work addiction often goes unnoticed because people value work as a good thing. However, it may be time to examine whether you have a pattern of workaholism if you relate to these signs of work addiction:

  • You find it hard to relax
  • You struggle to walk away from work tasks at the end of the day
  • You feel like you must always be productive
  • You tie your value and self-esteem to work
  • You take pride in the amount of work you do or emphasize how busy you are
  • You feel guilty when you stop working because you didn’t do “enough”

In today’s United States, it has become especially hard to distinguish work addiction from everyday life because it is so pervasive. (One columnist even suggests that work has become our new religion.) In a way, we are like animals raised in captivity: once we’re placed outside in the wide, wide world of freedom, perhaps just for a Saturday with no plans, we feel lost and unsure of what to do with ourselves. What should we be doing if not getting something done? 

Many Sensitive People Don’t Realize They’re High Achievers — or ‘Over-Workers’

Work addiction may be even more common among highly sensitive people (HSPs), because many HSPs are also high achievers — we have a strong drive to excel and succeed in our pursuits, or at least do everything “right.” Such high achievers (often perfectionists) set high standards for themselves.

Growing up, I never would have called myself a “high achiever” — it was just what was expected of me. I didn’t consider that there was an alternative to pushing myself. For HSPs, who desire to please others and are already subject to a message of needing to “toughen up” or “do more,” this experience is common. Many of us are high achievers and don’t even realize it. 

For me, I didn’t seek to impress others in sports or performance, but instead in the quiet ways that suited my sensitive, introverted personality. When I looked at the research on these related traits, however, a particular trail toward work addiction seemed to be mapped out for some HSPs.

Does Sensitivity Lead to Work Addiction?

The Personality Profile of a Work Addict

Looking at the research, we see that high sensitivity has been often linked with feeling more anxiety, self-consciousness, and depression, along with being prone to internalize negative experiences. Notably, HSPs skew toward introversion, and introverts also tend to experience more negative moods, are less socially inclined, and report lower levels of job satisfaction. This may result in focusing on work rather than socializing in order to achieve success in their job. 

Additionally, although introversion is different from sensitivity, it’s worth noting that introversion has been shown to be directly related to workaholism, especially for introverts who have a dominant rather than submissive personality. We might expect a similar pattern for HSPs. 

It may seem incongruent to associate sensitive people with dominance (a need to reach power, influence, and control). But, in the work environment at least, I wonder if some HSPs turn to work and intellectual achievement as a way to excel and feel a sense of control in a world where they are often overlooked or underestimated. 

(Sensitive people also make the best leaders, so the idea that sensitive people would seek authority or power is not a bad thing. Many great change-makers are highly sensitive.) 

Based on this, you may be at higher risk for work addiction if, besides being sensitive, you’re also introverted and/or have a dominant personality.

What Causes Sensitive People to Become Workaholics? 

Work addiction can develop for a number of reasons, including internal and external factors. Some HSPs may be drawn into overworking seeking positive feedback or reward. Others may overwork to avoid negative feedback such as criticism, guilt, shame, or loss of opportunity. This approach/avoidance pattern can drive a feedback loop that develops into workaholism.

That feedback loop may be especially strong for HSPs. Researchers have reported that individuals with a high sensitivity to rewards tend to have greater motivation to pursue those rewards, including those gained through work. At the same time, a high sensitivity to adverse outcomes can increase the motivation to engage in activities perceived to alleviate potential harm. In either case, the coping mechanism can be more work.

Either way, when work addiction develops, the drive to work overshadows other domains of life. This imbalance can have a negative impact on relationships, physical and mental health, and overall well-being. 

Stuck in the Hamster Wheel of Work, Chasing the High

While highly sensitive people and introverts may not want to stand out and be the center of attention, positive feedback and praise can feel rare and wonderful, especially in a culture that typically does not cheer and praise those who are more quiet and reserved. Trouble arises when we become dependent on this kind of positive feedback for determining our personal value and worth. (This may be why highly sensitive people are drawn to jobs that burn them out.) We risk forgetting, or never giving ourselves a chance to learn, how to achieve it anywhere else in our lives. We can wind up chasing the praise, feeling like we have to constantly achieve and prove ourselves to others. After a while, we begin to feel invisible even to ourselves unless we can point to external accomplishments.

How an HSP’s Childhood Contributes to Work Addiction

While there is no one road to becoming a workaholic, there are experiences that many workaholics share — particularly in their childhood. You may be at greater risk for workaholism if:

  • You were encouraged and/or expected to excel from an early age.
  • You worked hard to get good grades.
  • You engaged in a well-rounded set of extracurriculars.
  • You were expected to help out at home.
  • Your family expressed a strong or even puritanical work ethic that was never questioned in your home. 
  • To be accepted, valued, worthy, and loved, even, meant you needed to work, strive, please, and achieve.

Today, as an adult, you may feel like there is no end in sight, no time to rest, no safety in rest, even if part of you yearns for it. The hamster wheel keeps turning — you run faster and faster only to have more expectations and more work piled up on you.

And yet at the end, you feel the same emptiness inside. This is not to say that work achievement or pursuing goals is bad by any means. However, when work takes over not only your sense of identity, but also how you see yourself in the world, and how you see your value, it’s time to pause. 

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The Impact of Work Addiction for HSPs

As highly sensitive people (HSPs), we need to be aware of how our relationship with work impacts our overall well-being. If we are constantly stressed and feeling pressure to perform, the impact is even more acute for HSPs. The result may be sickness, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and even a sense of hopelessness. To gain perspective and check in with our intuition, which sensitive people are so attuned to, we need time and space.

A 2019 research paper suggests that using work to regulate mood may lead to a loss of control over the behavior — similar to other addictions. For example, we know that regular use of alcohol to regulate, escape, or numb only makes the addiction/compulsion to drink stronger. This same vicious cycle is well-documented in cases of excessive working.

The path to a healthy relationship with work does not mean that we have to suddenly become something we are not. But it does mean that bit by bit, we need to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves. These lost parts are the ones who believe that they are not valuable if they do not produce something that is valuable to others.

How to Recognize Workaholism

Work addiction can be hard to identify in a culture that glorifies achievement and business. You may have moments where you wonder, “What is the point? Is this all there is? Work, work, and more work until I die?” To the outside world, you may appear to have it all together. You may be smart, accomplished, and have an impressive resume, but on the inside, you feel alone, distant, lost, and lonely. You feel like you don’t even know who you are anymore outside of work, whether that work is at home, in the corporate environment, or at school.

It’s essential to remember that you are more than what you produce, and you are more than what you do for others. There is an essential Self within you, and reconnecting to it is where you will find the answers. However, this is not easy work. It means playing with the edge of what feels safe and comfortable to you. Working more and more may feel safe and controllable, even though you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and burnt out. Turning to work is what you know, so you continue down that path, repeating the same script over and over again: a new job, a new task, a new project, a new goal that will get you another job, a raise, a promotion, or another credential.

When you start to question whether you’re a workaholic, you will encounter resistance. You will find that, in your mind, your work = your value. Or you will feel like you cannot stop, and that working less scares you. 

Despite this hesitancy and resistance to change, at some point, you may realize that you’re working more than you need to, or doing things you don’t enjoy. You may find yourself wondering, “Why should I stay in this job that I hate? Why should I keep doing this work that makes me feel uncomfortable?” And it’s worth asking yourself how being so focused on work has served you — does your work act as a shield from having to be vulnerable in other areas of your life?

How to Stop Overworking as an HSP

The Road Back to Work-Life Balance for HSPs

As you examine your relationship with work and what keeps you in the work addiction cycle, it’s likely you’ll uncover some hidden landmines that you may have unconsciously or consciously avoided thinking about for most of your life. Moving away from a life dominated by work may start with small steps:

  • Start with allowing for the idea that it is possible to introduce balance, joy, pleasure, and play into your life. You are unique, so what this balance is for you is going to be different than what it looks like for anyone else. But, as an HSP, remember that you are at your best when you have empty space in your schedule to allow you to process and reflect. 
  • Second, dig into those “landmines” you’ve internalized. These may be childhood messages from your parents or other family members, religious messages, beliefs about your value as a human being, insecurities and fears around money and finances, beliefs about what it means to do something because you like it versus what other people want you to do. As you recognize them, ask yourself why you believe these things and what an alternative way of thinking is.
  • Finally, I challenge you to think of two to three small ways in which you can take time for yourself, and only for yourself, this week. Make a choice to just stare out a window or sit outside and watch the trees. Work on a jigsaw puzzle and just see how long you can relish and be in the feeling of discomfort of doing just one thing at a time. At your next meal or lunch, just sit down and eat your lunch without checking email, without writing a report, and without mentally scanning your to-do list.

Work activities have their place and time. It is less about the specific work activity so much as it is your relationship to it. When you turn away from being alone with yourself or being present in the moment with a loved one, consider: What am I running away from? What am I running towards?

Your Work ≠ Your Value

You deserve to be happy and fulfilled, and you can find this when you step out of the “rat race” of overwork, stress, and sacrifice. If you feel like you have a problem with work addiction or overwork, it may be time to take a step back and take stock of the situation. The organization for Workaholics Anonymous provides additional resources such as online support group meetings.

If you are ready to examine this issue further, wrestle with your resistance to change, and find a path to greater balance and thriving, then it may be time for you to seek the help of a therapist who specializes in working with high sensitivity.

Are you highly sensitive? I invite you to add to the growing body of research on sensitivity by participating in The HSP Narrative Project, my research project to document more real-world stories of what it is like to live as a highly sensitive person. Learn more and share your story here. 

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