One of the themes that continues to come up in my work as a psychologist is the constant quest for work/life balance. I seem to be seeing more and more people who complain about not getting enough time for themselves, resulting in emotions such as stress, anxiety, frustration and depression. These days, society demands more and more of us. We are expected to balance so many aspects of our lives, maintain good physical and mental health and positive relationships with others. We put pressure on ourselves to be there for everyone including our family, our partner, our colleagues and boss and our friends. Too often I see people lose this balance, with the scales tipping in the direction of others while they sacrifice their own needs.
So, why do we let it happen repeatedly? Generally the people whom I see are quite aware of what is needed to feel content and manage their lives effectively, but too often the need to please others and the fear of letting others down has us not putting the same value on our own time as others and doing whatever we can to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes being everything for everyone else allows us to feel needed, to feel worthy, to feel competent, well at least for the time we are busy. Avoiding conflict and avoiding guilt for letting someone else down often drives us to put ourselves last.
So, does it work? Yes, you might feel good about meeting your responsibilities to others, but how do you feel about yourself when you realise that yet again you had no time for yourself in a week? As mothers, are you setting a good example to your children by never letting them see you take even a moment for yourself, but instead always running around after everyone else? As employees, are you reinforcing a culture of extreme working hours when you are frightened to contain your day to a standard work day as others might see you as slack? Are you truly living by your values when you stop doing the things you love or even worse don’t get a moment to reflect on what you want for your life? What I see happen time and time again is people feeling resentful and depressed, so by avoiding discomfort and conflict, we end up creating even more powerful feelings of frustration, anxiety and sadness in the long term. It seems to me that this strategy of avoiding discomfort really doesn’t work very well for us.
So, what might this alternative look like? How do you achieve this elusive work / life balance?
- Stopping still long enough to reflect on your own values is a first step. If you don’t know what you want in life how can you possibly make the best choices for yourself. For some people I see, asking the question “What do I want for my life?” is very confronting and foreign, but turns out to be the most liberating and life changing question of therapy.
- Take action on your values and balance your time according to your priorities. Rather than act on the desire to avoid emotions, make the decision to act on your values and avoid regrets down the track.
- Be willing to face the discomfort and disappointment of others sometimes when it is just impossible to fulfill their requests and meet your own needs.
- Practice being assertive and let go of thoughts that feed unnecessary guilt or anxiety.
- Assess whether all of the things that are on your plate need to be continued. Let go or delegate those things that are holding you back from being still and doing more of what you want in your life.
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