Jueves 12 de Febrero de 2009

You might as well face it: you're addicted to success
Por Kevin Helliker

Forced to take a buyout from the Kansas City Star last summer, Paul Wenske lost his sense of identity. "I'd been an investigative reporter all my life, and then boom," says Mr. Wenske, an award-winning journalist of 30 years. "Suddenly you're not the same person you used to be. You look in the mirror. Who are you?"

The deepening recession is exacting punishment for a psychological vice that masquerades as virtue for many working people: the unmitigated identification of self with occupation, accomplishment and professional status. This tendency can induce outright panic as more and more people fear loss of employment.

"It's like having your entire investment in one stock, and that stock is your job," says Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York. "You're going to be extremely anxious about losing that job, and depressed if you do."

Over-identification with work is one of many culprits in the epidemic of recession-related anxiety and depression that mental-health providers are reporting. Fear of losing one's house or failing to find another job are likely bigger contributors. But unlike those problems, the identity dilemma is within the individual's power to address, requiring no lender mercy or stroke of job-hunting fortune. One approach can require mental exercises, lifestyle alterations and a new set of acquaintances. But the science behind cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach that aims to change self-destructive thinking and behavior, suggests that that work can bring long-lasting rewards.

Like a drug, professional success can induce a feeling of ecstasy that quickly feels essential. Recapturing that feeling can require greater and greater feats, a phenomenon that -- more than simple greed -- explains the drive for ever-larger bonuses and conquests. "With riches, success and fame ... you find that greater and greater doses of your 'upper' are needed to become 'high,' " David Burns, a Stanford University psychiatrist and pioneer of cognitive behavioral therapy, writes in his 1980 book "Feeling Good."

One recommended exercise for people caught in that trap is to evoke memories of earlier times that were free of things deemed essential today. "I've published a lot of books, but when I look back, I'm no happier than in graduate school sleeping on a mattress on the floor," says Dr. Leahy.

Often reinforcing the achievement cycle are colleagues who share the view that large bonuses, medical breakthroughs or great works of journalism are the only important measures of worth. One solution -- simpler in theory than execution -- is to broaden one's circle of friends and colleagues.

One of the biggest fears for holders of respected positions is the potential loss of public esteem. Therapists say the high achiever often holds self-defeating double standards, feeling sympathetic toward the unemployed while assuming that unemployment would bring him only shame.

For Michael Precker, that loss of status wasn't as grim as the fear of it. A veteran foreign correspondent and editor for the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Precker took a buyout in 2006 and now manages a high-end strip club. "I really wondered how it would feel to sever that link -- Michael Precker of the Dallas Morning News," he says. "But it has been easier than I thought. I feel lucky." Likewise, Mr. Wenske is working happily as a senior community-affairs adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

To disassociate identity from professional status, therapists recommend taking pride in characteristics that can't be stripped away -- virtue, integrity, honesty, generosity. They also recommend investing more time and pride in relationships with family, friends and community. Of course, obsessive attention to work can breed success. But therapists say that adding some balance tends to help rather than hurt performance, in part by reducing pressure.

For 18 years, Steve Roman was the public-relations director of the largest bank in Arizona; his forced buyout in 2000 made news in the local papers. "That separation was unsettling. Everybody knew me as Steven Roman of Bank One," he says.

His new career at a Phoenix communications firm is less visible, but gratifying because he is a founder and owner. More gratifying yet, he says, is the status his two children have granted him. "I love saying, 'I'm Kyle Roman's dad. I'm Katie Roman's dad.' "

  12/02/2009. The Wall Street Journal Online.