How do you reply when this question is posed? It is a familiar enough question that often supposes an answer related to one’s state of employment. This highlights the ubiquitous nature of us seeing ourselves through what we do. Typical answers relate to one’s job title, employing organisation or profession. Other answers relate to past employment: ‘Oh I’m an unemployed electrician’, ‘I’m not working right now whilst I raise my children’. All these answers relate to some external criteria against which the answer is framed – it is as if ‘I am ok if I am employed, have some quality bestowed on me by some employing organisation and have been recognised as valuable enough to have my services used by someone else ’. We also collectively attribute value to the jobs we hold, apparent in answers like ‘I am only waitressing whilst I finish my degree’ as if we want others to know we are destined for better things. However, what happens when you decide to change career, direction or simply how you spend your time?
I have recently moved out of the city after twenty six years. The purpose as been to seek what I believe is a better quality of life with more time to reflect on how I am living life. I had an established psychological practice in the city but was so preoccupied with ‘chasing my tail’ that I chose to remove myself from it for a while and see what happened. The journey is proving to be eye-opening.
How difficult it appeared for friends and colleagues to understand why I should make such a move. Comments like ‘You will back in the city within 3 months’; ‘What will you do with yourself’ and ‘But what exactly are you going to do?’ were familiar responses. Try as I might to explain the desire to attain a more integrated life rather than the juggling act associated with work/life balance, people were baffled as to what I was doing. However, this all changed when I replied ‘I am taking a sabbatical’. Sighs of relief were heard from all quarters as people said ‘Ah, that’s what you are doing!’ Suddenly I could be compartmentalised and therefore understood and related to more easily by others.
I now struggle with answering the question when new people I meet ask me what I am do. I flounder, wondering how one label could possibly explain the enormity of internal changes that are taking place as I explore a more integrated life. ‘Am I a psychologist, author, management consultant – all areas in which I have worked – or someone on sabbatical?’
What does this example reveal? I believe it reveals something fundamental about the anxiety that arises when we are unable to pigeon-hole ourselves and other people. Over time we acquire labels that define for ourselves and others who we are. Many of these are work-related and often we find that we are expending too much energy in this sphere. So in looking to gain greater fulfilment, we often look for greater work/life balance. However, this forces us into greater separation and fragmentation since its starting point is ‘work’ on one side and ‘life’ on the other. However, whilst solutions to achieving harmony are offered through greater time management and goal-setting strategies, these are red herrings in the work/life balance debate.
Greater fulfilment in our lives begins with us getting in touch with what is really important to us and then assessing the activities we do in line with our core values and beliefs. By swapping the concept of ‘work/life balance’ for work/life integration we begin to see our one life, comprising the many activities, roles and relationships we have rather than separate lives i.e. work life, social life, family life. This fundamental shift in perspective puts us at the centre of our lives with a more qualitative criteria of satisfaction than time split between the disparate compartments of our lives.