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Need more work-life balance? Compassion might be better than compartmentalization

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. While I’m grateful that it panned out, I’m so attached to my work identity that when anything isn’t going that well with my writing, it can feel really personal. I suppose that shows my investment in my job. But on a deeper level, when I die, I do want to be remembered for more than good reporting and a clever turn of phrase. It can be damn near impossible — if your career is your life’s work, especially — to separate your professional success from your personal worth. Is it worth it to even try? I reached out to some experts to help me better understand how to create some semblance of work-life balance.

First off, in my quest for self-preservation in a rather unsteady world, I asked about how fixating on your work and only your work can affect your mental health. “I see people with work-related depression or anxiety in my practice all the time,” Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychologist says, which feels reassuring but also troubling. “Folks often have their identities so wrapped up in work that they experience every professional problem as a direct reflection on themselves.” That’s about the size of it. No one read that article I penned about big pharma? I must be a bad writer and a bad person.

It can be exhausting, but is being wrapped up in your professional identity always a bad thing? Not exactly, says David Austern, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. “Work is often the first thing a person uses to describe themselves,” he notes. “Presumably, that person has many other roles. But it could be that work is most important. That’s okay, but we want to make sure that we are not becoming more fused with our professional identities if it’s unintentional.”

"No one read that article I penned about big pharma? I must be a bad writer and a bad person."

Austern uses the term “intention” here, evoking a certain awareness of what we're doing to ourselves. And if that awareness exists, we might not need to be judging ourselves or anyone else who is fused to their job. Ultimately, he theorizes, if you don’t want your career to be your central identity, but you find yourself most strongly identifying with that role, then it’s a problem. If you’re aware and accepting that your work is your life, then more power to you. You’ve probably figured out how to create balance within that lifestyle.

Basically what I’m saying, fellow creatives, your work obsession could be justified. “Especially if you’re doing work you love — the work might be close to who you are,” says Vera Lester, a career coach in New Orleans. But, she clarifies, it’s seldom your total identity. You play other roles in your family and community.

If your work isn’t going well or you don’t like your job, your mental health could suffer if you attach yourself to it too closely.

This is especially important to remember, Lester notes, if your job is more of a means to an end rather than your passion. “If you’re doing work that you don’t enjoy,” she says, “then you’re operating inside of a constant cognitive dissonance,” she says. Basically, if your work isn’t going well or you don’t like your job, your mental health could suffer if you attach yourself to it too closely. Either way, all the experts I spoke to agree that, in order to be your happiest, recognize that your identity is more than your career.

“Consider the totality of your life,” says Lisa Orbé-Austin, New York-based psychologist and career coach. “What are other aspects of your life that are not defined by your work? Interests and hobbies? Social connections? Passions?” She suggests talking to people you’re close with to take an inventory of these other aspects of your life, including hobbies and social connections. “How much time you are or are not investing in those other areas you will begin to be able to recognize why work may be taking over your sense of self,” he adds. So even if you love your job, you can benefit from doing other things.

There’s some fascinating psychology behind why we can become dependent on our job for personal validation. “Often times because you are spending so much time at work, you may feel a sense of mastery in that aspect of your life that you don’t feel in other areas, which is why you may be avoiding them," she says. This resonates with me; I like writing, I’m good at it, and therefore it builds my confidence. Orbe-Austin suggests fostering other parts of your life but not expecting the same level of gratification from them in the beginning.

How else can we build our self-esteem outside of work? David Austern hit me with a real curve ball on that one. “What if I offered you a hard sell?” he asked. “What if I say that it could be that self-esteem is less important than we think?” Okay, I’ll bite. But, what’s important, then?

Self-compassion, says Austern. Sounds cozy, but how do I get it? He has three steps: “First we must treat ourselves kindly if we notice that we’re having negative thoughts, then acknowledge negative self-talk and mindfully allow ourselves to have it, and then practice a diffusion skill that’s geared towards not trying to challenge or negate it.”

So, if you’re finding it difficult to deal when something at work is going awry, you might be thinking something like, “I’m bad at this job.” Austern says. “Even people who have a high self-esteem are going to doubt themselves. We want to work on accepting more of those thoughts, even when internally we’re not feeling good.”

I tell Austern that it feels very Buddhist to me. He laughs and says that his approach (called ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is mindfulness-based, so that makes sense, as the Buddhists are pioneering masters of mindfulness. But there’s also science behind it, he says. “Even people who have low self-esteem, if they have high self-compassion, it doesn’t lead to negative mental health outcomes.”