The Myth of Work-Life Balance
Meet Linda and Jim, who consulted me for psychotherapy. Linda is a lawyer with a large firm; Jim heads a major trade association. They told me they're totally committed to their marriage and to being good parents. But they also said it's pretty hectic juggling all their responsibilities at work and at home They have two children of their own plus a child from her former marriage. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it "hard just to come up for air," Linda said. Sound familiar?
Or listen to Bill, a 43-year-old who initially consulted me for help with some career challenges. Before long, he acknowledged that he's worried about the "other side" of life. He's raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself - one of the rising numbers of single fathers. He's constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He tries to have some time for himself, but "it's hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a ‘life,' " he said. Recently, he learned he has hypertension.
It's no surprise that these people, like many I see in my psychotherapy practice as well as in my workplace consulting, feel pummeled by stresses in their work and home lives. Most are at least dimly aware that this is unhealthy - that stress damages the body, mind and spirit. Ten years ago, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that 70 percent of all illness, physical and mental, is linked to stress of some kind. And that number has probably increased over the last decade. Much of this stress comes from struggling with the pressures of work and home - and trying to "balance" both. The problem seems nearly universal, whether in two-worker, single-parent or childless households.
I think these conflicts are so common because people have learned to frame the problem incorrectly to begin with. That is, there's no way to balance work life and home life, because both exist on the same side of the scale - what I call your "outer" life. On the other side of the scale is your personal, private life - your "inner" life. Instead of thinking about how to balance work life and home life, try, instead, to balance your outer life and inner life.
A Different Balancing Act
Let me explain. On the outer side of the scale you have the complex logistics and daily stresses of life at both work and home - the e-mails to respond to, the errands, family obligations, phone calls, to-do lists and responsibilities that fill your days. Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world. It's where you use your energies to deal with tangible, often essential things. Paying your bills, building a career, dealing with people, raising kids, doing household chores, and so on. Your outer life is on your iPhone, BlackBerry, or your e-calender.
On the other side of the scale is your internal self. It's the realm of your private thoughts and values. Your emotions, fantasies, spiritual or religious practices. Your capacity to love, your secret desires, and your deeper sense of purpose. In short, it embodies who you are, on the inside. A "successful" inner life is defined by how well you deal with your emotions, your degree of self-awareness , and your sense of clarity about your values and life purpose. It includes your level of mental repose: your capacity for calm, focused action and resiliency that you need in the face of your frenetic, multitasking outer life.
If the realm of the inner life sounds unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you, this only emphasizes how much you - like most people - have lost touch with your inner self. You can become so depleted and stretched by dealing with your outer life that there's little time to tend to your mind, spirit or body. Then, you identify your "self" mostly with who you are in that outer realm. And when there's little on the inner side of the scale, the outer part weighs you down. You are unbalanced, unhappy and often sick.
When your inner life is out of balance with your outer, you become more vulnerable to stress, and that's related to a wide range of physical damage. Research shows that heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, a weakened immune system, skin disorders, asthma, migraine, musculoskeletal problems - all are linked to stress.
More broadly, when your inner and outer lives become unbalanced, your daily functioning is affected in a range of ways, both subtle and overt. When operating in the outer world - at work, for example, or in dealings with your spouse or partner - you may struggle with unjustified feelings of insecurity and fear. You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you don't understand. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional "default" positions forged during childhood, such as submissiveness, rebellion or self-undermining behavior.
Even when you're successful in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner remains hazardous to your psychological and physical health. Without a developed inner life, you lose the capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies with awareness, self-direction and judgment. Personal relationships can suffer, your health may deteriorate and you become vulnerable to looking for new stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best - maybe a new "win," a new lover, drugs or alcohol.
And that pulls you even more off-balance, possibly to the point of no return. The extreme examples are people who destroy their outward success with behavior that reflects a complete disengagement from their inner lives - corporate executives led away in handcuffs for indulging in ill-gotten gains, self-destructive sports stars overcome by the trappings of their outer-life successes, political leaders whose flawed personal lives destroy their credibility, clerics who are staunch moralists at the pulpit but sexual predators or adulterers behind closed doors.
These are our modern-day counterparts of Shakespearian characters like Macbeth or Coriolanus, whose "outer" lives are toppled over by unconscious aims, destructive arrogance or personal corruption.
Of course, most people want to function well in the outer, material world. Doing so is part of a successful adult life. But what you choose to go after in work and life often reflects values and behavior that you've been socially conditioned into through your family and society. Much of that can be hard to see because you're immersed in it. What gets lost along the way is what your inner life might tell you about the consequences and value of what you pursue in your outer life.
Learning To Rebalance
But there's good news: Reframing your challenge from trying to balance work and home to balancing your inner and outer lives will help you build overall health, internal well-being and resilience in your pursuit of outer life success.
That is, servicing your inner life builds healthy, positive control over your life - mastery and self-directed action, not suppression or rationalization. A stronger inner life creates a solid moral core and harmonizes your inner and outer selves. It informs your choices and actions by providing the calm and centeredness essential for knowing what demands or allures of the outer world you want to go after, or let pass; and how to deal with the consequences of either.
For example, clarifying which of the personal commitments, career goals and relationships you want or don't want. Whether this job or career is what you really desire, despite the money it pays or what people tell you that you should want. And, whether you believe that your relationship gives you and your partner the kind of positive, energized connection you want and need.
In short, a strengthened inner life brings your "private self" and your "public self" into greater harmony. That's the foundation you need for dealing with the stress-potential of outer world choices and conflicts; for knowing how and why you're living and using your energies out there in the ways that you do. With a robust inner life you feel grounded and anchored. You know who you are and what you're truly living for. Your inner life builds a state of heightened self-awareness and wholeness; a "heart that listens," as King Solomon asked for.
Finding The Gaps
Brad was a financial consultant, noticeably underdeveloped in his inner life. One day he came face-to-face with a classic inner-vs.-outer dilemma. For him, that triggered an important awakening. He was debating whether to leave an out-of-town meeting early, which would create some difficulties, in order to be at home for his daughter's 18th birthday.
I asked him the simplest question: Which choice would he be more likely to feel good about at the end of his life? Tears came to his eyes as he said that he knew in his heart that it was being at his daughter's birthday. He told me that he felt enormously troubled by the fact that he'd been trying to rationalize away what he knew he valued more deeply.
At that moment Brad was able to see the gap between his inner life values - his true self - and the choice he was about to make based on his outer life conditioning - his false self.
His awakening to his inner-outer gaps is instructive. A good initial step toward awakening your inner life is to identify the gaps between what you believe in, on the inside, and what you do on the outside. Everyone has those gaps. Here's an exercise that can help you awaken to them:
Developing your inner life is a practice. Think of it like building a muscle or developing skill in a sport or musical instrument.
In Part 2 of this post I'll describe some practices most anyone can do to build a stronger inner life. They involve your mind, body, spirit and actions in daily life. You will see that the more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other. They help you build greater psychological health and resilience in today's unpredictable world.