The psychology of work/life balance – Shil Sengupta, LMSW
*(the examples provided below are composite cases, synthesizing disguised information and not any patient in particular)
The ideal of work/life balance is often praised in popular culture. However, the praise is accompanied with contradictions. And those contradictions obscure the reality of that ideal. What would that ideal look like in a real setting? One answer is that extraordinary sacrifices are made by so many people in the pursuit of success.
We are bombarded in our personal lives by our commitments to our partners, our children; our colleagues, and our friends. The concept of the “Work/Life Balance” often falls short in its actual practice. Although there are many practices and devices that could help with the organization of time, I have found through my work as a clinician that this is a psychological issue that is best addressed therapeutically and psychodynamically.
Many of my clients grapple with the challenge of work/life balance. One client, Robert, was very proficient at his job, but he felt caught between giving time to his work but also to his relationships, his friends, and his hobbies. In our work together, he realized that he had grown up in a family where love and affection were not expressed between his parents or to him. As a child, he had interpreted this lack to mean that he was not worthy of love. He felt that he had to overcompensate by being successful in his endeavors and by accommodating the requests and demands made of him. He did not prioritize these demands according to his personal needs. He was critical about his desire to spend time outside the demands of work and family, feeling that he did not deserve it. Robert imagined that he could earn love and affection if he “only worked hard enough.”
As we examined his responses more closely, he recognized the anxiety and guilt that he experienced if he did not meet the requests of his family and the demands of his job. Eventually, he was able to connect his responses to the anxiety and guilt that he had felt growing up. He understood that throughout his childhood he felt as if he had been responsible for his parents’ coldness to him and their distance. This turned into his need to please everyone and be perfect.
As Robert and I made these connections, he recognized that his anxiety and guilt came from his past and did not have a necessary part of his present. When he came to this realization, his negative feelings were alleviated. The tasks that had previously depleted him could be achieved with less effort because they were no longer accompanied by emotional baggage. He started to take better care of himself and not hold himself responsible for the unhappiness of his family.
Robert had sought out psychotherapy in the belief that he would find better strategies to manage his work/life balance. But what he discovered was more profound than any tools or skills. He acknowledged that an incredible weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and he was able to experience a sense of well-being that he had not previously imagined.
Both Robert and I learned that the work/life balance sounds good on paper, but the challenge is in the application to one’s life. Something internal is getting in the way of making life more manageable. Psychotherapy is the way to uncover and address those internal barriers in order to overcome them. The therapist is the knowledgeable coach in achieving emotional well-being, and he/she is excited to help the client reach the finish line.