Self-kindness for Life Balance
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
I often work with clients who want better life balance – better balance between work, personal, and family priorities. Difficulty with this issue could perhaps best be titled the “Syndrome of Too Many Priorities,” and I try to help clients resolve the dilemma by teaching them to practice regular questioning, self-honesty and self-kindness. How do these practices help restore life balance?
Centuries of cultural evolution have led those of us in Western culture to largely base our concept of self, as well as our sense of success, on the idea that we live in a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a thought system which believes that we merit what we have (or what we accomplish). Conversely, this also means that if we don’t have, we also merit our not having (or not accomplishing). Put in other terms: the successful deserve to be successful, and the unsuccessful deserve to be unsuccessful.
In current culture, this translates roughly into the commonly held idea that “if I just work hard enough, I can have it all.” And this ideology is tempting since, admittedly, having it all sounds much better than having less or, yet worse, having nothing.
But in practice, the meritocratic ideal has a shadow side, and in fact, for those who bother to shine a light under its shiny surface, the realization is often quite painful: “If I don’t have it all, it means that I’m just not working hard enough.” All too often restated: “I don’t have it all, which is proof that I’m not working enough.” And worse: “that I am not enough.”
I believe that this underlying mental framework, and the way it pushes us around, is one of the major contributing factors to “The Syndrome of Too Many Priorities”. It is like the voice of an unforgiving inner bully who is never satisfied, and it generally elicits one of two reflexive, conditioned responses:
1) conscious or unconscious panic and/or shock and additional, if generally unconscious, self-bullying:
“You’re not working hard enough. Work harder! Giving up is not an option!”;
2) giving up is an option, and it’s the option that’s chosen. Self-bullying ensues in a vicious circle akin to: “See? You must not deserve success, since you’ve not proven yourself successful. It’s useless to even try.”
But both reactions are based on blind acceptance of a hypothetical ideal, that we should and can have it all – something I vehemently question with clients. I propose an alternative response to the ideal – one that takes more time and patience, but that has proven to be much more sane and enriching: self-honesty, questioning the hypothesis, and self-kindness in the waiting.
We must admit that in our reality, we are not all equal. The fact is: we do not live in a real-life meritocracy. Rather, as it stands, some people have lots of resources, and some people have few; some people have great intelligence and curiosity, others possess these qualities in more modest amounts; some people have the support they need to realize their dreams, others do not. It cannot be realistic to apply a universal ideal to ourselves, neither as a requirement nor as a realistic goal. How we define success must be personalized to us, based on our particular personal qualities and limitations, and of equal importance, what really matters to us. If we cannot have it all, it follows that we must choose among our options.
How can we do this? By regularly questioning the conscious or unconscious standards we are holding for ourselves; being honest with ourselves about what we care about the most, and having the humility to let the rest go; being kind to ourselves as we realize that we’ve been duped, as we face our limitations, and as we give up the things that matter less to us for those that matter the most.
Among those with particularly interesting thoughts on the matter is philosopher Alain de Botton, in particular in his TedTalk.