• Dr Phoebe Lau

The Myth of Work-Life Balance

Yes - you read that right. Work-life balance is a myth. I’ve struggled with this myth before, reading almost everything I could about balancing demands and calendar-blocking my time until my calendar looked like an overwhelming 2500-piece jigsaw puzzle. Yet, the more I tried to achieve “balance”, the more stressed I became. I felt like a tug-of-war referee, standing in the middle of two competing ends trying to keep the rope “centred” so no one side dominated. I wasn’t alone in feeling like this. Some of my clients came into therapy with the same problem. Their life was full of demands, responsibilities and commitments - whether they were parents or not. They enjoyed some commitments like their weekly catch-up with friends or taking their kids to their sporting activities. Some commitments were more challenging like caring for a sick family member, or relentless work demands. On top of these demands, they were also worrying that they “should” have more “balance". So, their “should belief" was adding more stress on top the stress they already felt. A recipe for a stressed-sundae and eventual burnout. 


What if we dropped the belief that there “should" be work-life balance? At least one layer of that stress might disappear. 


Instead of looking at it as “balance”, we can view it as an “ebb and flow”. There will be times when one part of our lives dominate and we can consider this as our “ebb". The “ebb" may be that a loved-one becomes sick, you become a new parent, a crisis happens in our personal lives, or there’s an intensely demanding work period. Worrying and stressing about “balancing” multiple commitments (some less important than others at particular times) becomes counterproductive because our attention and care becomes stretched thin. We become more irritable with ourselves and others, and we tend to make rash decisions. By accepting that we’re in an "ebb-state" we can place more attention in the area that is dominating so we may get back to our “flow” as quickly as possible. When we accept that we’re in our “ebb-state”, there is less struggle and guilt around letting-go of other less important commitments for the present time. You can always pick up these commitments (if you want to) when you’re more in a state of flow. 


Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky

When there’s ebb, there’s also “flow”. Do you remember moments, days, weeks, maybe months, when things were easier? You may still be busy with commitments, but there wasn’t one particular area that was dominating? You may have even thought, “Hey, I’m actually handling this!” and “Life isn’t so bad at the moment". These periods, no matter how short or long, can be considered your periods of flow. When we accept the periods of ebb in our lives, we also become more aware and appreciate our “flow-state”. I’ve encouraged my clients during this time, to do the things on their list that they couldn’t do when they were in their ebb-state. That may include spending a little bit more time with their family, or finishing off a project they’ve been putting off. 


When we see life as a constant state of ebb and flow it’s kind of like floating on your back in water. You notice that you’re gently moving with the waves or motion. Some waves will be bigger than others (e.g. someone water bombing right next to you). We’re not fighting against it or believing that the motion “should be” something else - we accept it. When we're more accepting of this ebb and flow state we will be better at navigating these moments in our lives with more ease. 


Tip: Talk to your family and friends about “ebb and flow”. When you’re in an “ebb”, it helps for your friends and family to know. “Sorry I can’t spend more time with you at the moment. I’m in an ebb with [insert the dominate part of your life]. You’ll be the first to know when I resurface.”.


#mentalhealth #mentalhealthtreatment #womensmentalhealth #innercollective #stressmanagement #burnout #melbourneclinicalpsychologist

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