It’s almost a dirty word these days. It’s been sold to us as this perfect ideal that we should strive for, but can never quite reach because, well, real life gets in the way.
The way we usually talk about it is not attainable, realistic or even remotely useful.
I’d like to change that.
My husband Stuart is an Exercise Physiologist, and he specialises in helping older adults maintain their physical balance to prevent falls.
When he explains physical balance, he never refers to it as a static thing, a perfect state of equilibrium to be achieved once and for all.
Physical balance is a constantly shifting thing, where the body makes continuous tiny adjustments in response to the environment and our movements, first wobbling a bit to one side, then pulling us back in the other direction again.
If you’ve ever watched a toddler wobbling around on their newly-standing legs, you know what this looks like. It’s just that with years and years of practice, most of us do it far more smoothly and automatically than a baby learning to walk, and there are no longer any obvious wobbles.
As we age, our muscles slowly lose this ability unless we intentionally maintain it—and that can be a bit of an effort.
Like all important-but-not-urgent tasks, it doesn’t have to be done today, or even tomorrow or the day after that. But the longer we procrastinate, the harder and more time-consuming the task will likely be than if we just did a little each day.
Of course, in the case of physical balance, the effort required to intentionally maintain balance and mobility — setting aside time every day to do the assigned exercises, showing up to a class or individual session regularly, getting other health conditions in check — can seem like the hard path.
Admitting to the effects of age is hard. It means giving up the illusions of the ego about being fit and well forever. It means giving up some time each day to do the exercises, and maybe some money, if specialised support is needed. It means giving up the care-free younger years of eating, drinking, moving the body (or not moving the body, as the case may be!) without thought for consequences. It means giving up short-term thinking and the pleasures of immediate gratification. So although there is much to gain, there is much to give up, and that is painful.
But, in the case of physical balance, the loss of it—having a fall—can be far more painful than the effort required to maintain the body’s ability to balance. Indeed, falls in older people can even be fatal. So it seems giving up those things is worth it, if it means avoiding the pain of severe injury or death.
Yet, when thinking about work-life balance, we mostly don’t want to give up the things in the short term that would allow us to achieve just a little more balance now, and avoid the loss of balance later.
Because it’s hard, it’s painful and we don’t want to think about the worst case scenarios.
To achieve some semblance of work-life balance now, we have to give up so much:
- The short term pleasures of eating, drinking, moving (or not), sleeping (or not), thinking, breathing and working without thought for long-term consequences.
- The unhealthy coping mechanisms and numbing behaviours that we know are killing us slowly but that we enjoy so much: cigarettes, alcohol, junk food, drugs, late nights, 60-hour work weeks, being permanently attached to our electronic devices, gambling, or more extreme risk-taking behaviours.
- The ego boost of martyrdom and wearing busy/exhausted as a badge of honour
- The conflict avoidance of people pleasing
- The shaky (and misguided!) sense of self-worth we gain from perfectionism
- The carefree days of lack of discipline and intentionality about work and life
- The avoidance of the difficult decisions involved when we face our fears and our problems head on
- The avoidance of the difficult conversations we will have to have when we decide that we will no longer continue the patterns in our life that aren’t serving us, especially when that includes telling others ‘No.’ or ‘Stop.’
- The toxic but comfortable drama-filled friendships and relationships
- The excuses, the procrastination, the laziness masked as exhaustion
I know the pain of giving up these ego-boosting illusions about the self.
I know the pain of giving up the avoidance behaviours, the numbing behaviours, the misguided self-worth boosting behaviours.
I also know the pain of loss of work-life balance, and the loss of functional health.
As the thought for the week says, “The loss of balance is ultimately more painful than the giving up required to maintain balance.”
The worst case scenario in the case of a loss of work-life balance is a total inability to work or function at all.
Mostly we don’t want to think about this, or consider it a possibility. After all, human beings are excellent at deluding ourselves that ‘it’ll never happen to me’.
But in the case of an increasing number of teachers, a total loss of work-life balance is occurring in the form of burnout.
Burnout is complex and has a multitude of causes, so it’s too simplistic to say that improving your work-life balance will solve it.
That being said, giving up some of the patterns of thinking and behaving that are at the very least not helping to promote health is a good place to start.
It’s painful and important-but-not-urgent work, but it’s worth it.
What are you willing to give up?