Work-Life Balance Is Impossible — Here’s Why
It’s increasingly visible that our workplace culture and conventional views of success damage people emotionally and physically, and harm productivity and innovation as well. In a recent post, I emphasized the overlooked role of unhealthy management practices because they reflect and reinforce a narrow, self-interested view of success that’s equated with the pursuit of “more” — more money, power and recognition. New efforts to redefine success in healthier directions are encouraging. But most of them focus on ways to achieve better work-life balance. And that’s a problem.
In my view, you can never “balance” work and life. It’s impossible. But knowing why this is the case can lead to redefining success in ways that can really take root in one’s life and career.
To explain, look at the visible conflicts and how they’re typically understood: Research shows that people at all career levels suffer from the emotional and physical damage of workaholic expectations; destructive, stifling management practices; and a lack of sufficient vacation and leisure time — all in the pursuit of “success.” Typically, we frame such damage as products of an imbalanced “work” and “life.” But the two can’t be balanced because both work and life are on the same side of the scale — your outer life.
That is, the true scale is between your outer life and your inner life. On one side is your acquired self-definition, comprised of all you’ve learned to go after and acquire in the external world. Much of that definition is a constricted version of yourself. In that sense, it’s a false self. On the other side is your inner life, your more complete, true self. In everyday living, much of that is suppressed, unconscious or dormant.
Conflicts occur when your outer life is in the driver’s seat. Then, your false self and your true self are imbalanced. In our culture, imbalance occurs easily. Your outer self grows over time, from what you learn to think is desirable and worth pursuing in life — money, power, career recognition, the “right” relationship. Those are ever-enticing pursuits. Moreover, you’re pulled into daily life conflicts and decisions about career issues, finances, parenting, relationships conflicts, aging parents and more. It’s everyday life. Your outer life shapes the self you create in order to function effectively in the world as you experience it.
Your Inner life And Your True Self
Everything on the outer side of the scale shapes and defines your self-definition, including what you think is possible or acceptable in life — your “needs” and your self-worth. But that conscious, ego self, is largely a false self, because it’s socially conditioned from your adaptation to the world you’re in. It becomes the narrowest part of your full self. It excludes or limits your broader capacities, emotional awareness and deepest values. It dims your awareness of what’s true and authentic for you, including knowing what’s worth aiming for in your outer life, rather than being pulled towards whatever dangles in front of your eyes.
Your inner life is the other side of the true scale. It’s the realm of your more authentic self, your core values, reason for being and truth about your motives and desires — including those that are rationalized for short-term self-interest. It’s interesting to note that the noted Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought his teachings to Europe and the U.S. in the early 1900s, indicated that Eastern perspectives would eventually be coming to the West. They included awakening to the difference between one’s outer and inner life.
He wrote that one typically “…gives great importance to the outer life, being absorbed in it from morning till evening… and one has hardly a moment to think of the inner life.” He also observed that “When one thinks that from morning till evening one’s life is nothing but action, one naturally cannot keep balance. But by devoting a few minutes to meditation, to silence, one can touch that complete balance… and then in one’s active life a balance is maintained in a natural way.
Both men and women suffer the consequences of a diminished inner life. Ann relocated from the Midwest to the East Coast for a significant career opportunity. Her husband couldn’t relocate, and they chose a long-distance marriage for Ann’s career advancement. Their son came with her, and she feels fortunate having her brother’s family nearby for help. But she tells me she’s on a constant treadmill, “leaning in,” all right, but with major league stress. She says it’s the price for “what I need to do for my family.”
Paul has achieved a successful corporate career and is pretty financially secure. But he’s afraid to embark on an entirely different path in life that he’s always wanted and is capable of. He worries how it might look to his peers and to his aging parents, who inculcated in him a singular view of success and self-worth defined by wealth and social standing. Paul is chronically depressed and seeks affairs as solace.
For decades, I’ve heard men and women confide to me a sense of entrapment within the choices they “had” to make and their consequent feelings of self-betrayal or anger. That’s intensified in recent years, especially since the economic collapse and the rise of worldwide dangers, crises, rapid change and unpredictability. In today’s context, it’s even more dangerous when your external, false self is in command. You’ll hold on tighter to external criteria of “success” to define your worth or value. The negative consequences rise up in family conflict, addictions or diminished well-being, as Ann and Paul illustrate.
I think inner-outer life imbalance underlies much of the depression and anxiety so prevalent in our society. It’s no surprise that so many embrace psychopharmacology to numb and nullify the conflicts from buying into an outer life identity at the expense of their inner life.
Overall, depression affect women more visibly than men, though both suffer. Women are prescribed the majority of antidepressants; they’re 40% more likely than men to be diagnosed with an emotional problem. Men are conditioned to disguise or hide their conflicts, but they nevertheless suffer depression, anxiety, anger and dysfunctional relationships.
Beyond medication, most conventional solutions are focused on mitigating the impact of wrongly-construed work-life imbalance, especially stress. For example, self-help guides for better stress management; or strategies for making room for more relaxing, pleasurable activities. All are good and useful, but they don’t address the need to awaken and activate the inner life to achieve true balance.
And my colleagues in the mental health professions are too mired in a useful but limited focus on healing attachment conflicts and traumas from childhood or adulthood, which impede outer life success. This is valuable, but it’s limited for two reasons: One is the absence of understanding that emotional conflicts can also be generated, paradoxically, by adaptation to the very norms and values that define outer life success. Moreover, traditional mental health practice ignores the need to identify how to arouse your inner life, your true self, which is the beacon towards healthy “work and “life” choices.
There are encouraging signs of awakening. Overall, the growing diversity and dispersion of power in the workplace, where status is increasingly related to contributing to a larger purpose or mission, is an indicator of awakening. Among women, pressures to “lean in” while feeling the pull towards a more enriched, integrated life is awakening the need for inner-outer life balance, as a recent New York Times article indicated. We also see gradual disintegration of the old white male power/control/social status/materialistic definition of success, long equated with “manhood” — and the backlash it’s producing.
Although the younger generation is pulled towards imbalance, it’s also moving towards greater consciousness about what’s worth working for; what values and way of life truly matter. That shift is visible in younger workers, who voice the attitude of “let’s work together to create something ‘insanely great,’” rather than “I’m working for that next promotion, pay raise and a more expensive car.” And it’s not just the young: New research finds that older workers are just as likely as Millennials to take a job they enjoy over one that pays them more, if given a choice.
Also encouraging are examples of men and women who experience the consequences of neglecting their inner self and awaken to its message. It triggers desire to expand and activate their more authentic self, and can stimulate the courage and desire to change.
Remember Ann, who relocated? She had complained that she couldn’t afford a bevy of drivers, housekeepers or cooks, so she had to go “nonstop” in order to maintain her success, be a responsible mother and keep her marriage afloat. “I’m totally drained,” she said. I asked her to explain why that way of life held such value — what the end game was, given what it was doing to her, inside. She was stymied. She stared at me for a while, then said, “If I let myself examine that, I might quit or take a position that would be more fun, less stress, but less prestige and less money.” A few months later, I heard from her. She contacted me to say that bit of reflection had awakened something in her. She had since returned to her Midwestern city and transitioned to a “lesser” job, but a more integrated life: Her version of success.
Tom, a senior vice president, was up for a C-level position in his company. He told he had always lunged automatically for the next brass ring in his career, at the expense of his marriage and family. The reasons were complex, rooted in a rejecting father, but also fueled by enjoyment of his work and career perks. Exploring that began to awaken his neglected inner life. Looking at the degree of politics, intrigue, deceit and manipulation rampant at the C-level of his company from his enlarging perspective, he paused. He knew he could handle it, but decided to withdraw his name from consideration. Tom’s awakening also reconnected him with a religious tradition he’d let fade. That helped him reclaim values and dimensions of his life he’d locked away — friendships, creative pleasures, his children. He realized he’d feel more fully alive remaining in his present position. With inner life realization of what he wanted to live for, he achieved true balance… and redefined success.
Awaken Your True Self
Some steps that help:
Commit to self-awareness. Honest self-examination illuminates ego-driven motives, socially conditioned desires, feelings of greed, of wanting “more” and fears of change and impermanence. Both therapy and meditation aid self-awareness.
Enlarge your view of yourself. Expand by looking inward to identify and start affirming neglected, dormant capacities of your personality, your talents and predilections you’ve always felt drawn to. That also helps you explore what your life purpose is; how it resonates with your true self.
Grow compassion, empathy and altruism. Recent research shows you can consciously grow these capacities, all aspects of your true self. That awakens your recognition that we’re all one; interconnected, beneath the surface differences visible in our external selves.
A conscious inner life is the source of good choices in your external life. It activates courage to go against the grain of beliefs and values that contradict your true self. Your inner life illuminates what to go after — or let pass by — in your outer life. It pulls you to expand your sense of who you are, beyond the narrow, constricted identity conditioned by family life and cultural norms. When grounded in your inner life you automatically narrow the gap between who you are inside, and how you behave on the outside. And that can truly redefine success.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.