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Susie Orman Schnall Wants You To Find Balance

How To "Have It All" in Work and Life

Does work-life balance exist?

Susie Orman Schnall, used with permission
Source: Susie Orman Schnall, used with permission

Susie Orman Schnall says yes. As the founder of the Balance Project, Schnall has been collecting stories from dozens of working mothers who struggle with achieving work-life balance, including actresses and writers such as Molly Sims and Tracy Pollan. And with her new book The Balance Project: A Novel she hopes to bring attention, support and advice for people trying to achieve their vision of a balanced life.

Studies suggest that working mothers spend a great deal of time “multitasking” and that this experience can be very stressful. For Schnall, the Balance Project originated from her own struggles trying to juggle the various aspects of her life. “I definitely struggled with issues of work-life balance. And I very much still do,” Schnall said. “I started the Balance Project out of a desire to find out how working mothers I admired were managing all of their responsibilities — work, family, marriage, self. I was struggling with all of that. I thought it would be fun and informative to formalize my curiosity, and the Balance Project was born.”

After embarking upon the Balance Project, one of the first things that Schnall realized was that the perceived “ideal” of the working mother was simply not attainable. “What I realized immediately was that no woman is achieving this glorified state of ‘doing it all’ — every woman makes sacrifices,” she said. “There are so many personal factors that seem to most interfere with attaining work-life balance, and I think they mirror the personality traits that restrict someone from making any changes in his/her life: unrealistic expectations, the need to be perfect, the need to compete with others, etc.”

While there are no doubt various competing factors that contribute to perfectionism in working mothers, Schnall identifies media influences as being a particularly insidious contributing factor. Research shows that media can have a negative influence on women’s body image. But Schnall feels that the influence extends beyond body esteem to more generally perfectionistic ideals. “Unfortunately, the media perpetuates this concept of ‘having it all’ that depicts a woman (usually, it’s a woman) who is killing it in all realms of her life 100 percent of the time: ‘leaning in’ fully to her career, being the main caregiver to her children, enjoying a thriving marriage, having a vibrant personal life, and looking fantastic, well-rested, well-dressed, and well-coiffed through it all.”

The consequences of perfectionism can be severe. Perfectionism can be defined as having high, rigid and often unattainable standards. This is often associated with the need to appear perfect to others. Perfectionism has been identified as a possible contributing factor to a range of mental health issues, including depression and eating disorders.

Through hearing testimonials from working mothers, Schnall has learned quite a bit about how different people have tried to achieve “balance,” and is beginning to understand how others might be helped in this process. Often, the first step is validation of the issue. Validation, or helping people understand that their thoughts and feelings are understandable in a given social context, is a key therapeutic ingredient to dialectical behavioral therapy, which has shown efficacy in managing emotional disorders. Further, universality, or the concept that others struggle with similar issues, is considered one of the key curative factors in group therapy. Schnall hopes that the multiple testimonials presented by the Balance Project will provide that feeling of universality and validation.

“By doing the interviews, I became more aware of the universal struggle with work-life balance. My goal is to show followers of the interviews that no matter how ‘perfect’ someone you admire seems to you, she is facing the same challenges. She has the same struggles,” she explained. “My goal is to make women feel better by steering the national conversation toward that reality and away from this sense that we should all strive to be superwomen.

“As for the Balance Project interviews, I plan to keep publishing interviews on a regular basis and to feature a wide range of voices from women with all different life experiences. I hope the interviews continue to find a readership of women who feel motivated, validated and inspired by reading the authentic voices of women who are honest about their struggles.”

Part of that validation is acknowledging that some people have more resources than others, and that those with greater resources may find it easier to achieve work-life balance. Although Schnall also advises that not only is having more resources a guarantee to finding balance, but also having limited resources does not prohibit a more balanced life.

“People with resources (time, money, help) are in an infinitely better position to create more well-balanced lives than people without resources. But that doesn’t guarantee that the former group will, and the latter group will not,” she explained. “Undoubtedly, there are people who are scraping by every day doing the best they can with no extra time to stop and think about creating balance. Balance is a luxury in that regard. But there are a lot of people who don’t think they have the ability to better architect their lives who are just stuck in old behaviors, who could reassign pockets of time, take better care of themselves and make different choices. I’m not for one second saying it’s easy, but it’s absolutely possible. They just have to want to make it happen.”

Schnall has found that another important part of finding work-life balance is challenging perfectionistic, negative thinking, and reappraising what it means to achieve balance. Research suggests that cognitive reappraisal is a useful coping mechanism in preventing stress from causing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This starts with challenging media images as unrealistic. “I think women have to stop internalizing the images of the ‘perfect employee’ and the ‘perfect mother’ that we’ve been socialized with. It is unrealistic for women to think they can achieve both of those states of perfection at the same time,” she said. “The media has elevated the images of women to such high — almost laughable — standards that women feel inadequate when they can’t meet those ideals. When women realize those are stereotypes developed to sell products and tell stories, they are much better poised to be realistic about what is possible as a woman in our busy, busy 24/7 culture, and then they’re in much better positions to succeed and feel good about their choices and themselves, which ultimately allows them to feel balanced.”

And this often involves an acceptance that the ideal is not necessarily “ideal” or attainable, or at least is not attainable all at once. “The ability to have it all depends entirely on realistically defining ‘it.’ Trying to do ‘it all’ in that scenario is entirely unsustainable,” Schnall said. “My recommendation is for people to be thoughtful and realistic about what their priorities are. For instance, if you are the main caregiver of your children, you can’t ‘lean in’ fully to your career, and the opposite is true as well. You can be a fantastic working mom, but you have to have the support system and realistic expectations in place to do so.”

“The point is to realize that you can’t do it all perfectly all the time. And that’s OK. Not every day has to be perfectly balanced. It’s more helpful to look at your life in terms of months (or whatever time period works for you): Did you achieve what you wanted this month with your career? As a parent? For your marriage, your friendships, your own health? That’s a more important and realistic way to measure success and balance. Manage your expectations about what you can accomplish in any given day.”

Once one has evaluated one’s priorities, goal-setting can be a useful approach to achieving work-life balance. Goal-setting has long been considered a useful tool in achieving one’s objectives, and it’s a crucial part of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has shown to be efficacious for a range of mental health disorders. For Schnall, prioritizing goals is critical. She explains: “Be thoughtful about your priorities and values, and then make commitments with your time based upon those priorities. Be aware that everyone makes sacrifices. Not one person is doing ‘it all’ perfectly all the time. Be the architect of your schedule. Make appointments in your planner for exercise, date night, etc.”

This may mean having to be assertive and set boundaries with people. Assertiveness training, which means stating your goals without being either passive or aggressive, is a critical social skill. Often people have difficulty. Schnall encourages people to say “no” when needed. “Say no to people and commitments that don’t serve you well. You don’t have to, nor can you, do everything,” she said.

One of the things that Schnall has discovered is that whatever your priority, sacrificing health and wellness is a problem. “It’s vitally important to prioritize your own health and wellness. You can burn the candle on both ends for only so long. Your health will catch up with you eventually, so it’s critical to be proactive about making time for sleep, exercise, eating well, and pursuing personal interests,” she said. “It’s easiest to neglect yourself and your marriage, but not a good idea long-term to do either regularly.”

For Schnall, founding the Balance Project has brought her some of the answers, but the journey is far from over. And she looks forward to continuing her journey in her new book. “But what I’m most excited about currently is the launch of my novel The Balance Project: A Novel. There are a lot of wonderful nonfiction books that address this issue, but I wanted to explore the issue through fiction. The Balance Project: A Novel follows two women: a 25-year-old single woman and her boss, a 45-year-old, highly successful, married, mother of two. The story is about their personal journeys as they attempt to achieve work-life balance, with lots of twists and turns along the way. It’s great book-club fiction as it provides many topics to discuss.”

And as such, her original motivation for starting the Balance Project is only partially completed. “I have very high expectations of myself professionally and as a mother. And there’s so much I want to accomplish in my life. So, I wouldn’t say that I’ve achieved complete work-life balance, but I’ve adopted strategies to make my life work better for me,” Schnall said. “For instance, I’m getting much better at making choices with my time that serve me well. I’m fortunate that my work is very flexible. And I’m also much more realistic about what I should expect from myself in any given day and in any given month. I also have become very protective of my own wellness (exercise, sleep, healthy food). Because when I abandon healthy living, I’m terrible at everything else.”

“You can do it all, just not at the same time.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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