Do you keep yourself busy on purpose?

Are you super busy, always trying to get something accomplished? 

In “The Hidden Trauma of Overachievement,” Amanda Westland explains that overachievement is a survival instinct resulting from unresolved childhood wounds that leads many people to associate their value with how productive they are.

It’s a flight response that causes some folks to stay perpetually busy in order to avoid intimacy. “Such flight types have great difficulty showing anything but their perfect persona,” writes therapist Pete Walker in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

When developed in a healthy fashion, this flight response can work well for people by insuring “good boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy self-protection.” But when it becomes a way to cope with unhealed wounds, it “impairs our ability to relax in an undefended state.”

As a coach, and in everyday life, I see evidence of this everywhere: women who keep themselves busy in order to distract themselves from their true feelings. Men do this, too, but it seems to be more pronounced in women—perhaps because it is women over the past 30 years who’ve been raised to achieve at all costs.

Excessive busyness isn’t restricted to those who work around the clock in their careers. There’s plenty of uncompensated work we all do— housework, yard work, “working” out, raising kids—that keep us busy and distracted.

Regardless of what kind of work it is, the goal is the same: to keep one’s feelings at bay.

These are the folks who struggle to be vulnerable or to say “I can’t” and still feel they’re doing enough. Only via production do they feel worthy. “For me … anytime I wasn’t working, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough or I felt guilty or I felt bad,” notes television personality La La Anthony in People magazine.

That’s classic workism, and it goes hand in hand with failed or strained relationships. You can sense this unease in a person’s inability to give a heartfelt hug. Or very often conversations with them feel cryptic because there’s only so deep they will go.

But their feelings have to land somewhere. For some, it may be alcohol or drugs. For others, it’s excessive busyness or the need to succeed in the professional sphere. Each big sale or promotion at work provides that self-validation they crave. But like trying to push a ball under the water and keep it there, those buried feelings always resurface. None of us can hide from who we really are.

One of my Facebook commenters had this to say about the subject: “I actually pity successful people because I know it’s really an indicator that their lives are out of balance. There are exceptions, of course, but so often great success is the result of running away from some inner turmoil that one can’t enjoy the simple things.”

So how does this workism, this need to be chronically busy, affect one’s ability to experience intimacy? Intimacy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability means being able to relax in an undefended state. To truly open up to someone, you can’t hide your feelings—you have run toward them. Yes, even the uncomfortable feelings. Especially the uncomfortable feelings.

As someone who openly expresses her feelings it’s hard for me to relate to being closed in this way. If anything, I overshare. But I do know this: If you’re walking through your days trying to fill up every moment in order to avoiding your true thoughts and feelings, you’re just biding time before it all comes crashing down. That’s why you have those moments where you break down and no one’s around to see it.

I know it’s scary to open up for those who’ve built up a wall to protect themselves from getting hurt. But if you don’t tear the wall down, you’ll never know what’s on the other side.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, a coach, and a podcast host committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.