Online Extra: Q&A: "As a Culture, We Need This Recession"

Therapist Stephanie Brown says for Silicon Valley's workaholics, the downturn breaks the denial that their lives are out of control

Silicon Valley's workforce has been running at breakneck speed for five or more years now. The current slowdown is forcing many people to reevaluate their lives, whether they gained and lost a fortune, or whether they're simply exhausted from the demands of Internet time.

And some of them are turning to professionals like Dr. Stephanie Brown, who runs the Menlo Park (Calif.)-based Addictions Institute. Her specialty is treating people suffering from alcohol, drug, sex, and, work addictions, in addition to family members affected by such compulsive behavior. Brown considers herself an outsider to the high-tech environment that she lives and works in, but for at least several years, she has been disturbed by what she feels are classic signs of addiction that have manifested themselves in Silicon Valley's hard-driving culture.

She believes that the downturn is not unlike the catastrophic event that finally pushes an alcoholic to seek help -- an arrest, an auto accident, abandonment by a partner. She and lots of other therapists are seeing many people for whom the stock market's decline has been the last straw.

"This culture was characterized by tremendous denial and euphoria. It was the idea of no limits," says Brown, and that notion was particularly dangerous among the many young people in the Valley with little perspective. A healthy perspective, she says, is the kind "that comes with taking steps one, two, and three on the way to 10, rather than starting at 10. These young people have missed important developmental steps that provide an inner foundation to hold them through hard times." The therapist adds: "Many young people today face a threat of massive depression. It's not just that there's a recession, it's the emptiness within." Brown recently talked with BusinessWeek's Joan O'C. Hamilton about this phenomenon. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What are the specific parallels to addiction in Silicon Valley? Is this just workaholism on a large scale?

A:

Technology has separated itself out of normal culture. Silicon Valley became organized around the idea of no limits. People strutted around and believed they were above the rules and norms. Grandiosity and no sense of limits -- [this] characterizes addiction. The college all-nighter became part of the culture. Nobody was able to step outside what they were living to see it clearly. That's what happens in pathological systems. You adapt yourself to the system's logic and norms so it doesn't seem odd or problematic. I talk to people who began to feel like they were failing every night because they had to go home, when perfection had become 24/7.

Q: What has the fallout been from folks being addicted to a 24/7 working lifestyle?

A:

Infertility problems -- when you're working like that, your body doesn't function properly. Divorces. Children are in serious psychological trouble: Their parents are running around with a phone in one hand and at the computer constantly. Now, people are experiencing the shock. Individuals cannot control what's happening to them now, and it's a catastrophic emotional experience.

Q: It seems like we went from denying the downturn, straight to being depressed about it.

A:

At first, people respond in the"ain't it awful" mode and assign blame outside the system [such as to Alan Greenspan or venture capitalists]. But I'm surprised at the speed with which this decline escalated. I've suddenly had three people come to me in the last week saying: "I can't take it anymore." They were in high tech, and they're exhausted. Blame and rage are part of denial, but when the battle is over, there's no more fight. They're depressed. Depression comes as part of the recognition of limits.

Q: I know you feel that the healthiest thing here will be if the downturn continues for awhile. Why's that?

A:

This breaks the denial that was going on. This is a righting of values that were terribly skewed to this out-of-control money chase. If the market starts climbing again, people will climb back on it. They won't have to change. People still come in who don't want to change. They're feeling like failures because they couldn't keep up, and so they want to make changes to help them keep up -- not to change their lifestyle. They need to accept and adjust to the reality of limits. If we get a long-enough decline, it will be harder to fall back into this [self-delusion] again. As a culture, we need this recession."

Q: Like addicts or drinkers who have to hit bottom and accept that they can't control their problem?

A:

Yes, otherwise they say: "I hope you can fix what's wrong so I can keep on doing what I'm doing. I want you to help me with my drinking so I can drink and not have a problem with it." Or it's the dieting myth -- I want to lose a lot of weight so that I can get to a level where I can eat anything I want.

Q: How do you help people confront this sort of lifestyle addiction?

A:

First, people begin to have trouble. I can then start to make links between the problems they're having and the lifestyle they're leading. It may take a long time and a persistent challenge on my part before an individual can begin to see that their beliefs, values, and behaviors -- all designed to catapult them to success -- are, in fact, the cause of their multiplying, serious problems.

This is a shock and very hard to change because if you slow down, you feel you're failing. This is the same process of coming to terms with loss of control that the alcoholic must face. In the culture, loss of control is the frenzy of the pace and the drive for speed.

Q: I've heard that even at the CEO level support groups are forming where shell-shocked executives can get together and discuss what has happened here and how to steer through it. Is that a good thing?

A:

I recommend that people get support. People need to talk to other people in their situation. But I would not advocate for the groups if they sit around and just discuss the process of recapturing control and getting back on the bandwagon. A lot of companies were built on a gambling mentality, and there was no capacity for normal growth and development.

Q: That makes sense to me from a personal standpoint, but I don't think Silicon Valley was necessarily built by emotionally well-adjusted people. We've got executives who glorify the motivating power of paranoia, we've got all kinds of extreme workaholic characters who invented something, defied the odds, and drove their companies to be a success. Is it realistic to think this culture can actually "recover" per se?

A:

I often think about how you apply a 12-step program to a culture. I think it begins with accepting your own reality -- in this case the out-of-control pace that's reinforced by skewed values about progress -- and asking for help. People were caught up in the adulation of speed in and of itself. That has to stop.

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