• jess

An Experiment in Workaholism; Behavior Analysis & CPTSD

Alright, so if you've been here long you've probably heard this story already.

When was the last time I had to take a "hiatus?" Oh yeah, like two months ago. Annnnd here we are again.

You know I have a fucking problem with NOT working? I can't imagine filling my day with anything except leaping from task to task, continually "producing?" But no matter how much I accomplish, I really never fucking feel any better?

Well, if you didn't hear about that already, that's my life.

Honestly, yeah, I have a lot on my plate. Two jobs, getting my MS in Applied Behavior Analysis, this "trauma project" that counts as at least another part-timer, a very broken dog-child who requires near-constant attention, community support, and social obligations (when did that start again, anyways?).

All the while I've been visiting home... which means this work has been conducted with my mom breathing down my neck, staring at me inquisitively, starting random conversations that no one needs (not even her), or getting testy because I'm not doing something or another, unbeknownst to me.

No doubt, it's a bit much.

But when I really look at what I need to do each week, it still seems like there should be some breadcrumbs of time scattered around when I could possibly, I don't know, make art to keep my head happy? Get out for regular exercise without feeling like I'm sprinting back home because I have too much on my damn plate? General feel-good, self-care activities to stop my body from shutting down with stress responses?

Hm, yeah, when is there time for that? There is none, if I let myself be in control of my own schedule.

Again, I find myself waking up between 5-6am, walking around the yard for an hour with Archie, and immediately running inside to open my computer. Again, you can cut to 6pm, I'm probably still trying to hammer out some bits of work before the clock strikes 8 and I take a break to eat dinner and go to sleep. Day after day after day.

Am I putting out a massive amount of content for my jobs and TMFRs? It sure seems like it. Am I ever feeling like I've created a single thing? No, literally never.

No matter how much I do each day, I never, ever recognize it as a day well spent. I never pat myself on the back for a job well done. I never even notice that I'm writing such an unfathomable amount of material between all my wordy chores that most people would probably struggle to believe I wasn't full of shit.

Why am I working so much? I don't even fucking know. It's not that I'm producing garbage that doesn't matter, or I throw away my writing after spending a day devoted to it... honestly, my biggest issue is this drive to "get ahead of schedule."

It sounds like a really great idea, right? Do more this week so you have less to do next week. Be super on top of your shit and you can relax down the line. Responsible! Wow!

EXCEPT, that future relaxation period never comes.

By next week I'll just be working on the material for the subsequent period. I can get a month ahead in my blog posts, podcast episodes, and paid article writing... and guess what? I'll still keep working further and further ahead.

I won't feel like I'm taking my time and really feeling the space I've created in my schedule, either. I will be sprinting, full force ahead, for some imagined finish line that is never going to arrive. Stressed from dawn til dusk, when my body and brain work themselves into enough of a disgruntled exhaustion to stop for rest.

It is not sustainable. It makes me lose sight of what's important - both in my life and in my work. It makes me resent my activities each day. It makes me neglect myself. It makes me feel like I'm one massive ball of nerves. It makes me guilty every time I take a break for five minutes... and I'm not doing something that somehow benefits someone else as I feign taking a breather.

In short... or, actually, rather long... This behavior has no reason to persist.

From an ABA standpoint, I never receive a reinforcer for all my work, which should maintain the behavior.

No one hands me a treat when I finish writing another set of 50 SEO articles. No one applauds when I write another blog post. No one pats me on the back for being a week ahead of my school reading. I don't even reinforce it, myself, because I'm never delivered the negative reinforcer of feeling a reduction in my anxiety and internal discomfort.

Theoretically, there's no reason why I continue to torture myself with this well-intended but ineffective strategy of being overly prepared. (Do I recognize this as a function of my early trauma? Yes I do. "The other shoe" effect is very real.)

So, fuckit. I can't keep doing this. I have to put my knowledge to work and actually use the APPLIED part of my ABA education. STOP DOING THINGS THAT AREN'T FUNCTIONAL FOR YOUR LIFE, DICKHEAD.

Here's my first official experiment in ABA and CPTSD since starting my MS.

Problem behavior: I work my butt into the ground, and there is no point when my ass hits something impenetrable. I create an endless hamster-wheel effect by trying to be 10-steps ahead of everything in my life. This results in a constant state of system arousal, a tendency to forget other important tasks, and an over-achieving condition in which I'm doing more than necessary by trying to predict the future.

Solution: Let's not call it procrastinating, although that's what it feels like. Just try to work within real deadlines. Stop trying to run ahead of the crowd. Stop generally fearing some unknown future consequence that hasn't happened... and even if it did... so the fuck what? From this day forward, try working on what you have to accomplish each day, not everything you technically can accomplish.

Reasoning: When I'm working a million miles ahead, there is no end goal in sight. The future is endless, and therefore, so is my work. In this way, there is no proof of having actually completed anything at all. There's no reinforcing positive consequence for my responsibility. I'm putting the same pressure on myself all the time, whether the work is due tomorrow or in a month. But getting November's tasks completed in October just means I never feel that sense of relief when the due date arrives and I've finished my job. This WOULD be the automatic contingency (positive effect), if I ever experienced the dissipation of my stress for work well done. But instead, I'm too busy moving on to December, thrashing wildly through all of those anticipated tasks, for anything in the present to sink in. I'm not aware of my existence in the moment. I'm not able to appreciate my hard work.

Hypothesis: I believe that this scheduling shift should... again, theoretically... work to create a positive consequence for my less-than-exciting daily tasks.

Connecting the Antecedent or Motivating Operation - feeling stressed - directly to the task I need to accomplish - doing said work - and receiving the desired consequence - being less stressed as I check off that fucking task on my to-do list.

This opens and closes the behavioral cycle associated with operant conditioning. The three term contingency; Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence, A-B-C. If none of that makes sense to you, don't worry, it doesn't need to. I'm just being an ABA showoff right now as I try to put it into practice.

The real point is, my anxiety needs to be managed because I'm living in a daily fear response and my brain needs to become somewhat aware of the positive effects of doing all the shit I accomplish each day.

In this way, the behavior becomes rewarding, rather than endlessly upsetting. I have evidence that I'm capable and responsible, rather than weirdly carrying this perpetual fear of failure and irresponsibility that's based on nothing. My system can relax. I can stop waking up every day already thinking of what's due again in 6 weeks while conveniently forgetting that I've already done all the work for the proceeding 5 weeks...


Stop ruthlessly "doing" for a few weeks.

Let time catch up with what you've already accomplished.

Proceed with scheduling your activities based on realistic deadlines.

In the meantime, slow down. Think about your tasks. Do things that actually benefit you.

Be present, take measured steps, and decide where you want to head instead of running blindly in a goddamn panic.

Give yourself some fucking time to be alive, instead of losing your days to endless jobs.

Track your anxiety and mood throughout.

Take note of your progress in each task - are there positive returns in any area? (improved grades/comprehension in school, better TMFR feedback, more progress with Archie)

Assess whether a realistically-timed "to-do list crossoff" acts as a positive reinforcer or not.

Cool, so that's my behavior plan moving forward.

Does any of this make sense to anyone else on the planet? Or am I alone in this battle of me versus my typing output versus my never-satisfied brain? Is it normal to ever feel this way, let alone to have serious talks with yourself every few months, weeks, or days about chilling the EFF out?

Either way, workaholic or not, this is the underlying basis of ABA as far as I understand it so far. Everyone else is working with autistic children in this field, but fuck that, I'm here to analyze my own trauma-behaviors and figure out how to stop living like an asshole.

It's sad that I need to stop and look at my life from an academic standpoint to pinpoint what's going wrong, but such is the life of a master dissociater who can't be trusted to act in their own best interest. Putting on my science hat and pulling out the academic language described by Skinner seems to be my best bet sometimes.

Viewing myself as a subject to study, rather than living from inside my messy brain all the time, is incredibly revealing when it comes to dysfunctional behaviors and self-sabotage that otherwise seem pretty old-hat in my world.

If this sounds like you, too... well shit, realize that even before I knew that Applied Behavior Analysis had a place in my trauma recovery, that's exactly what I was doing to get to this point. If there's something in your life that seems to be contributing to your anxiety, depression, obsession, or general dissatisfaction, I recommend trying to observe yourself in your natural habitat and adjust from there.

My advice, as if anyone asked: Develop little experiments with the intended result of reducing your fear and stress responses. Be present enough to realize when they do and don't work; take notes. Create routines and habits from your new data. Use that data to keep yourself on track during the times when it's really hard to even fathom a functional day.

And - maybe most importantly - figure out how to reinforce the shit you're doing right, instead of always punishing the things your inner critic wants to interpret as doing wrong.

If you want any help getting started, throw a problem at me. Maybe it's something I've already analyzed in my own trials and found a better solution to. Maybe you just need the outside perspective of an asshole with one foot in ABA and the rest of her body in CPTSD to think about other ways to enact operant conditioning for your benefit.

Maybe I'm just looking for more work to do.

Hiatus, begin.

Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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