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“Work-Life Balance” is a Myth!

Just the other day I went panting into a talk I was supposed to give on “Work-Life Balance.” The panting was the result of running three avenues to the talk after the train was held in the station for over 15 minutes. I thought, “this is the perfect entrance for a talk on work-life balance because there is NO SUCH THING.” Whoever coined the term was likely not someone experiencing the grueling daily struggle of working, running a household, caring for family members, being an active part of your community, and all the other demands of modern life. To say it is a balance implies that there is a way to make it all work. I am here to say, this is not true!

By the way, the only way I learned that there is no such thing as a balance is by desperately trying to find one for myself and falling on my face over and over. Personally, I think this is the way we all learn best; doing it wrong and trying new strategies when old ones fail.

But, why do we all think there should be a balance in the first place?

  • Pop culture images. What type of images did you see when you were growing up about how women/men could have it all? I recall recently watching the TV show Modern Family and being blown away by the ease at which one of the characters so easily baked cookies for a bake sale, helped a kid with a project, volunteered for a charity and kept her house and yard sparkling clean. While the plot did not revolve around these behaviors I was noticing her perfect way of balancing and feeling inside that I would NEVER compare.  TV shows and movies don’t show the moments of real choice and challenge, like when your kid/parent is sick and you have a meeting at work. These are the decisions you have to make quickly, and, in those cases, someone will lose.
  • How did the adults in your life demonstrate with their “work-life balance?” We base many of our assumptions about how we should act on what we saw others doing while we were growing up. So, before we challenge our ideas about work-life balance we need to ask ourselves what we saw in our own homes. Were our parents or caretakers satisfied or dissatisfied? What words were used to discuss work and fun. Did you hear the words “overwhelm, stress, tired, overworked” more than “joy, fun, excitement and pleasure?” What “stories” do you recall being told about balancing work and life balance? Did you hear about the trials of being a working parent or how easy it was for your Aunt Fran who was home all day with nothing to do? These stories influence the expectations you put on yourself.

What if we did something revolutionary and thought of work-life balance less as black and white and more as a process? What if, rather than thinking, “I have a good work-life balance,” which to me feels vague and general, we think about small, specific choices we make weekly, daily, and hourly. To help manage the unmanageable nature of the demands, the better question to ask is: “What are my values?”

At The Center for CBT in NYC, we often use a cognitive strategy called values assessment. We have clients think about their values and write them down in order of importance to them. Often it is hard to come up with values on the spot, so we give them a prompt: “Imagine you have the opportunity to be at your own funeral and you hear the eulogy. What are the things you hope people would say about you?” Often people list things, like ”good parent, partner, friend.” I typically ask people to write these values down in many places around their home and office. These values determine our actions.

Here are some of my examples:

  1. I have eight clients on Wednesday, so Thursday I need to start later so I can sleep in and take a yoga class
  2. For every five client hours I have, I need 30 minutes of movement
  3. I need nuts and water in my office to feel nourished throughout the day.
  4. I have to bring in a cake to my kid’s school, so I buy it from Whole Foods. (True story: I once hear my son say “you must try my mom’s chocolate cake, it is delicious.” It was from Whole Foods.
  5. Friends ask me to have brunch on Sunday and I have notes to write. I realize that connecting with friends is important to me, so I meet them out.

And here are some tips for how to handle the impossible requirements of being everything to everyone all the time—otherwise known as being a caretaker

  • Be prepared for the unexpected. I sat down to write my talk about work-life balance with a cup of tea and a candle burning. It was early in the morning so I anticipated having at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted writing time. But, just as I took my first sip of tea, my daughter woke up. This was a moment when I had a choice. I could have rigidly held tight to my expectations that I was going to have 30 minutes of my alone time. I could have expressed anger at my daughter for ruining my plans. Instead I remembered my favorite saying “expectations lead to resentment,” took a deep breath and considered Plan B. Having a Plan B is a great way to be prepared for the unexpected and to embrace your creativity. In this case I gave my daughter a piece of paper and asked her to snuggle up next to me and work on the story she’s writing.
  • Look for wisdom everywhere. My daughter snuggled up next to me and began to write her story. About three minutes into writing she ripped the paper out of her binder and said, “I’m not feeling this,” and started writing something else. When she said that, I realized that she was reminding me of an important lesson, that we have have to feel connected to something to want to do it and do it well. This relates directly to work-life balance because research has shown that when we enjoy what we are doing, we are more productive and satisfied with our lives. I would have forgotten to have included this if it wasn’t for my daughter’s reminder.
  • Get comfortable saying no. One of the reasons we are often trying to balance a lot of tasks is because we put too many on our plates. So, we need to get better at saying “no.” Christine Carter wrote one of my favorite articles about practicing saying no, which includes a list of 21 ways to say no graciously. My favorites are: “I can’t put anything else on my calendar this month, but I’d love to do that with you sometime. Will you call me right before you go again?”  and “I wish I could, but it’s just not going to work right now.”

Self-compassion is underneath ALL of this. We need to be able to be compassionate to ourselves, put our hand on our hearts and say “Babe, you are amazing and you accomplish so much, but you cannot do everything perfectly. You are doing enough.” This is a pep talk you need to give yourself daily!


What Should I Do Next?

When you’re ready to begin therapy, we hope you’ll consider contacting The Center for CBT in New York City. We offer a safe space where you are free to be who you really are and express yourself and your values authentically. We embrace, value, and welcome people of all sexual orientations, genders, and racial identities. The Center for CBT in New York City makes beginning your therapy journey simple. You can get started any time by completing our online consultation request form. One of our team members will be in touch within 24 business hours to answer your questions.

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