The Myth of Balance

• Business

The notion of balance makes me crazy. The Work/Life Balance Zealots have us all worrying that we’re supposed to feel great all the time. No one jumped on the balance bandwagon with the passion of the coaching community.

The notion of balance makes me crazy. The Work/Life Balance Zealots have us all worrying that we’re supposed to feel great all the time. No one jumped on the balance bandwagon with the passion of the coaching community.

Unable to achieve balance, many coaches ran screaming from the insanity of the corporate world, wanting to reform it from the outside. Indeed, some of the standards set by companies (1,500 e-mails a day anyone?) are ludicrous. I would argue that most people who are trying to maintain a good standard of living, raise children and “have a life,” might as well just get used to exhaustion and be grateful for it.

Let’s face it, if you are peaking professionally, you are pushing the envelope. What’s wrong with that? Great things require sacrifice. Where did we get the bone-headed idea that it was all supposed to be easy, relaxing and restful?

What we have today are hordes of high achieving women who, in addition to making a living, raising children, being dutiful friends, daughters, siblings, wives and community service providers, are now beating themselves up because they don’t have “balance.”

Let’s stop the balancing charade. It is an unworthy goal and unachievable to boot. We don’t want or need balance. What we need is a sense of autonomy and control over what we have promised to others and ourselves. What we need are some tools that will help us to decrease our fear that we aren’t doing the essential things we need to do to in the various areas of our lives.

What I offer you are two tools with which to build a long-term strategic approach. They will help you to change your perspective so that you can make more effective choices and deploy your most precious resource – YOU. I can confidently assert, as a perfectionist, driven, ambitious Working Mother, Wife, Daughter, Sister, Friend (affectionately known as a WMWDSF) devoted to sucking the last bit of yumminess out of life – these concepts have kept me from being completely certifiable.

Boundaries and Standards
Boundaries and standards are tools that coaches use to help clients get a grip on their personal reality so they can stop pinging around like pin balls reacting to everyone else’s expectations.

Don’t Be Afraid to Set Boundaries
A boundary is what people can and cannot do to and around you. I was coaching at a NY investment-banking house when Mary came to her session and said, “I don’t need to get coached because I am going to quit.” “Oh?” said I. “Do you have a wonderful new job to go to?” It turned out that Mary’s boss was so unreasonable and demanding that she wasn’t getting home to see her kids, was missing doctor’s appointments, was always on the run. You know the score. Obviously, she had done no job search, had no resume prepared, and was ready to walk out because she was desperate for some “balance.” In actuality, Mary was about to shoot herself in the foot. She didn’t need balance, she needed boundaries.

As Mary and I worked together, she was able to identify what was making her so frustrated and to practice handling some of the typical situations she encountered. As an encouragement, I shared some of my observations about boundaries:

If we don’t acknowledge our boundaries, we do not establish them.

Once we realize we can establish boundaries, we often feel we “shouldn’t,” because it makes us feel weak or demanding.

Often, we do not have the language to articulate our boundaries and therefore fail to say anything at all until we are furious and do not trust ourselves to be appropriate.
Mary saw that it was up to her to set boundaries with her boss and to make needed changes so she could manage her workload and leave for home at a reasonable hour. While she was working to improve her relationship with her boss, she would start a job search and write a resume. If she failed to improve her work situation, then she could leave on her own terms, prepared. Mary felt she had nothing to lose, so she began the process of learning to identify and articulate boundaries.

Mary learned new language, which she immediately started using:

” I have a commitment and must walk out the door today at 6:15 p.m.”
” I need to know in advance when you are going to need me to work late.”
” I am willing to work late for you no more than 3 days a week, and I want to be home at least 2 days each week to have dinner with my kids.”
Three months after this conversation, I ran into Mary in the cafeteria. She grabbed my arm and said, “Oh my gosh! Everything is changed. My boss is so much better. I am getting home when I want to. The whole department is running more smoothly – my boss has to plan more, because everyone started to do what I am doing.” The net result of setting boundaries – control.

Next time you feel that your life is running roughshod over you, and your priorities are way out of whack, look to see where boundaries are needed to prevent people from stepping all over you.

Adjust Your Standards
Standards are the behaviors and practices to which you hold yourself. Standards determine what you expect of yourself, even when those behaviors may have outlived their purpose. For example, think about your standard for returning phone calls. Is your standard to return calls within one hour? …24 hours? …three days? Does that fit your current work situation?

We often have our standards set in stone, or we have no standards at all where we should. Standards must be changed as our lives and our responsibilities change. I worked with an executive woman who insisted on designing and hand-making her own holiday cards even though she was literally crying with exhaustion by the 20th of December. I asked Kristen what was so important about making the cards herself and she said, “I’ve ALWAYS made them, and if I stop now, people will think I don’t care about them anymore.” We brainstormed other ways that she could communicate how much she cared and came up with a solution that suited her situation. Kristen would design a card and pay an artist to hand-make them. Instead of trying to catch up with the season, Kristen would send out the cards to celebrate the coming of spring. In this way, Kristen could still communicate that she cared, celebrate a new season in her life and encourage others to do the same.

Unknowingly, Kristen had been trapped in the rut of her standards. If you find yourself in the standards rut try this:

Define all of the roles that you play in your life (marketing expert, mom, sister, daughter, volunteer, friend)

Identify 3 roles in which you feel deficient (e.g., constantly guilty).
Write down the standards you have for a person playing that role and identify the ways in which you are not living up to them.

Talk with some friends or colleagues you respect for a reality check. Include in your research people who get enough rest and time doing what they love.

Adjust your standards to fit your current situation. Inform people in your life of the changes, especially those that affect them. (“Kids, it’s time for you to learn to do laundry.”)

Think about how your standards need to be adjusted. Are you over functioning in ways that are costing you energy, time, mental space? Do you need to give up some activities? Are you willing to take a good look at what you’re doing and why?

Ask yourself the question: “How am I a slave to my standards?” I recently caught a ride with an acquaintance, an extremely well regarded and successful playwright, professor and Mom. Her car was a disaster area. Instead of apologizing, she laughed and said, “Well, something had to give. If you really hate how dirty my car is, we can pull over and you can help me clean it out.” It was liberating to be with someone who didn’t care if I judged her by the interior of her car.

In what areas do you decide how you spend your time because of what someone else might think? Standards should be flexible; they need to change as your life changes. Stop and re-assess them often.

Forget balance. Put yourself first and everything else will fall into place.

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