By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
We live in such a fast-paced culture with such high expectations that it’s no wonder so many people are struggling to find balance. I often ask clients in my psychotherapy practice to take a realistic look at their schedules and see what can be deleted, shortened, or shifted, and we laugh at the irony of them having to find the time to even look! It’s an art, this “finding balance” thing… Not too busy, not too idle. Not too full, not too empty. The good news is: We don’t have to do it perfectly, and a little change can make a big difference.
I find myself more and more frequently working with people who are overworked, overstressed, overly unhappy, and overly medicated. When I dive into the reality of their day-to-day schedules and expectations, their distress makes perfect sense. Students who are overburdened by demanding class schedules, homework assignments, and after school commitments are very often struggling with substance abuse, chronic depression, and anxiety. And many of the adults I treat are overworked, overstressed, and overmedicated as well.
I have many young clients who are straight-A students, but who live such a stressed existence that their lives and bodies are out of balance. I have no problem with striving for As on a report card, but when did a B become unacceptable? And if achieving straight As is causing someone to pay the price of poor health and a lack of wellbeing, it might be worth a look.
On the other end of the spectrum are the clients I see who are chronically depressed and can’t seem to get motivated or passionate about anything. Often, this is a result of so much pressure and so much hopelessness about ever catching up or keeping up, it seems easier to not even try. Surrounded by screens to zone out on, it’s easier and way more seductive to spend their days with a remote control or a keyboard in hand than to face the pressures that kids (and adults) are faced with today.
We have been set up in our culture to race each other to the end. At the head of the line are those who are thin, young, attractive, educated, rich, and coupled. Most people are either striving to keep up or giving up. The key to good health is to step out of the race altogether and find a place of balance: some doing, some being. Some structure, some free time. Some accomplishing, some relaxing. Some indoor time, some outdoor time. Some work, some play. Some alone time, some connecting.
Take a good look at your schedule (if you have time!). How much down time do you have? Do you feel guilty for relaxing? Do your kids? Is it all about work, chores, errands, doing, trying, after-school commitments, homework, and prepping for the next day? Do you and your kids have time to relax? Is there time for sit-down dinners and relaxed conversations that have nothing to do with school or achievements? Do you ever play a game with your kids or your friends, or take a walk or a bike ride and just be present and pleasant with no talk about heavy topics? Do your kids have time to simply hang out? If your kids are addicted and depressed, do you focus more on the pain they are in underneath it all, rather than the symptoms they are showing you on the outside?
If overdoing and constant achieving are on one end of the spectrum and underdoing, escaping, and procrastination are on the other end, balance is that healthy range in the middle. When we achieve a balance on the outside with our schedules, we can make time and room to strive for an internal balance with kind self-talk and learning how to be more relaxed, accepting, content, and present.
Achieving balance is much like driving a car. If you veer a bit to the right, you simply self-correct to the left. You don’t have to roll the car over. For some people, a push to do one small thing is all they need to take a step toward balance. For someone else, their step might be to not do something. (For some people, doing nothing is doing something!)
So try starting out with a small, manageable change that will help bring you or your child into balance. The next time your depressed kid says he (or she) doesn’t want to do something (or anything), try asking him what is one thing that would help him feel loved and supported? Encourage him to guess or make something up if he says, “I don’t know.”
The next time your high-achieving, perfectionistic kid brings home a B, try celebrating it, and talk about what might be valuable about her experience in that particular class. Reframe for her that a B can also mean balance, not bad!
Try asking yourself:
- “Am I a human doing or a human being?” Would you say you are more often doing things and accomplishing things than simply being? Do you think that being yourself is valuable enough or do you tell yourself you have to earn the right to be valuable?
- “Is my life more full of ‘should’s than wants?” Are your days filled with “should”s, chores, and expectations, or do you often ask yourself what you want to do? Do you give yourself down time and relaxation time without guilt or self-harmful behaviors?
- “Am I treating myself and my body with respect and kindness?” What is your relationship with food, drugs, alcohol, screen surfing, sleep and exercise? Is it moderate and loving? Is it overdoing or underdoing? Are you checking out or checking in with yourself and your body’s needs? Are you speaking to yourself kindly?
- “Am I treating my kids with respect and kindness?” It’s hard to treat others with kindness and respect if we are out of balance and overly stressed or depressed ourselves. Are you speaking to and treating your kids the way you wish you had been treated and spoken to as a child?
- “What is one thing I can do to move in the direction of balance?” It does not have to be a huge change. Starting with one manageable change in the direction of health and balance is a great place to begin. Then try being proud of yourself for that rather than beating yourself up for not doing more. Self-criticism probably got you into this overdoing or underdoing imbalance in the first place — and it won’t be what gets you out. Consistent small steps in a healthy direction will!