“The gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), author and scholar
Fake-aholics would recognize themselves in this quotation. They exist in a living nightmare made of their own choosing.
What Is a Fake-Aholic?
A fake-aholic is someone who has a compulsion to work hard, day in and day out, even when they’re beyond exhausted. But they don’t let on that they are worn out. Instead, they put on a brave front, and pretend that everything is fine.
On the outside, fake-aholics appear to have a high drive and to be highly involved in their work. To their colleagues, they seem as work enthusiasts, who show up calm and in control.
On the inside, however, there is a different reality. Fake-aholics experience low work enjoyment, even dread, because they’re constantly overwhelmed and stressed. It’s a high act of pretence that no one notices because fake-aholics are so adept at acting as if everything is in order.
What makes matters worse is that no matter how bad they feel on the inside, fake-aholics are often in denial of their situations. What they fail to see is that continually pretending to be in control can lead to emotional misery, physical and emotional exhaustion, burnout and illness.
Why Are Fake-Aholics in Denial?
Ingrained Fake-Aholic Habits
Fake-aholics develop a habit of plastering a smile on their faces to hide their exhaustion. They can also appear impassive, to conceal the fact that they’re in over their heads.
They’re so used to this behavior that it becomes second nature. They can become so desensitized to these habits that they become their way of life. Living on the edge for a long time feels normal.
Inability to Envision Alternatives
In their hearts, some fake-aholics know that this is not the way they want to spend their professional lives, but they may feel that their situations are inescapable.
Consequently, fake-aholics fear that trying to make a change may only open an emotional portal with no viable results. They see no exit, so, why bother?
Layoff Survivor Guilt
Fake-aholics who keep their jobs in the present challenging economic times might experience layoff survivor guilt. They might, therefore, be ill at ease at the thought of complaining about the intensity of work schedules, for example, when others have lost their jobs.
The Comparison Trap
Some fake-aholics fall into the comparison trap. They compare themselves with other people in similar or worse situations who seem to be coping well. The comparison reinforces their fear of appearing weak and being “found out.”
Four Solutions for Fake-Aholism
You don’t have to be defenceless against the debilitating effects of fake-aholism. Consider these four simple strategies to help you:
1. Start an Accomplishment Diary
One emotion fake-aholics grapple with is the fear of being perceived as inadequate. My coach shared this piece of wisdom with me long ago. He said, “If you don’t deal with the emotions, the emotions will deal with you.”
That is, the inability to square off with our emotions doesn’t make them go away. They stay inside, causing increased anxiety and intensified rumination. Research shows that inhibiting the expression of emotions can endanger our physical and psychological health and well-being.
One way of quieting the fear of appearing inadequate is to start an accomplishment diary. At the end of your workday ask yourself, “What did I achieve today?” Jot down your successes for the day, however big or small. Consider these examples:
- Did you create a positive environment in your team, even if it is virtual?
- Did you give up some of your time to help someone else?
- Did you express appreciation to someone who goes unnoticed?
- Did you gracefully acknowledge a mistake you made?
- Did you deliver a virtual presentation that went well?
- Did you keep an open mind during a difficult conversation?
- Did you make a wise decision?
- Did you figure out how to use a new piece of software?
- Did you take care of your family’s needs?
- Did you do something to add value to your department or organization?
- Did you take an opportunity to mentor someone?
There are many wins, big and small, that can go unnoticed in a day. Keeping score of these wins is hard data that can help you to appreciate all that you have accomplished.
2. Get Rid of Fake-Aholic Comparison
Confidence begins when you decide to be yourself. Comparing yourself to others can only lead to misery. Instead, measure yourself against who you were in the past. You can go back several years, several weeks, or just yesterday. Ask yourself, “Am I better today than I was yesterday? If not, what can I learn to do better tomorrow?”
Self-comparison is the most meaningful way to assess your growth and inspire you to continue to enhance yourself.
3. Establish a Support Network
You may feel shame at your “failure” to cope. So surround yourself with people you trust, who are supportive of you despite your “imperfections.” These could be colleagues, family, or friends.
Don’t be surprised if you discover that you’re not alone: many people feel overwhelmed, especially in times of crisis, and don’t own up to it, either.
Asking your colleagues for help may seem particularly daunting, but chances are they’d be happy to take the strain off you, and your working relationships could be stronger, not weaker, as a result.
Use social media to connect with groups that can offer guidance, and solutions you may not have considered. Talking to like-minded people is one of the best self-soothing activities.
4. Take a Break!
If you’re struggling with workload, but still find it hard to say no to new tasks, your performance will eventually falter. You can’t perform at your best when you’re at your limits all the time. So, instead of trying to keep up with deadlines and present a façade of calm, combat your self-judgment and dare to face reality.
When you’re feeling particularly anxious, step back and take time to regain control. Think about what factors are causing you to feel overwhelmed and focus on the parts you can control. Can you negotiate a deadline, or delegate some of your tasks to other team members?
By doing less, you can sometimes achieve more.
What Happens If You Have a Fake-Aholic Team Member?
There are many initiatives you can take to help a person cope with, and even overcome, fake-aholism. Here are a few to consider:
Help Them to Feel Safe
Compassion and understanding go a long way when a team member opens up to you, so make sure to listen mindfully and respectfully to what they have to say.
Then help them to understand that their fears are not unique, and that everyone struggles at one point or other in their lives. Consider sharing a personal story of your own that reinforces your point.
Look out for (Well-Meant) Dishonesty
Even if your employee has admitted to fake-aholic behaviors, they will likely continue to find it hard to be honest with themselves or you. But remember that this is likely through fear and shame, not malice.
Pay attention to their language and zero in on any unrealistically optimistic promises. Discuss their To-Do Lists and read between the lines. Observe their working patterns: what hours are they keeping, and are they sustainable?
Flag your concerns without blame or judgment. Instead, act as their defense lawyer. This is a kind and generous gift you can easily give.
Encourage the Heart
Show them that you have confidence in them, and that you are happy to have them on your team. Go over a portfolio of their achievements and contributions, and emphasize the value that they add to your organization.
Remember, we all have in us a metaphorical bucket that needs to be filled with affirmations. Helping a fake-aholic to appreciate themselves is one situation where genuine praise can go a long way.
Take a Load off Their Plate
Make sure that they don’t have too much to do in too little time. Ask them what extra resources they need to help them to carry out their responsibilities.
Discuss reassigning one or two of their projects to another team member to ease their workload. But be ready for a denial that help is needed, and reassure them that there is no implied failure in such an intervention.
If you are a fake-aholic…
Take comfort in the knowledge that, while it may not be easy, overcoming fake-aholism is doable. You don’t need to feel helpless. Acknowledge your situation and seek support. Most of all, focus on all the things that you get right and practice self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is a gift we give to ourselves. It’s the gift of self-trust.
Bruna Martinuzzi is an experienced coach, presenter and trainer living in Canada. She’s the author of “The Leader as Mensch,” excerpts of which are available to read in the Mind Tools toolkit. She’s also the author of several Mind Tools blogs.