Courageous Conversations: Dismantling the “Work-Life Balance” Myth for Women Psychologists

For professionals in the field of mental health, “self-care” has become a popular buzzword that gets thrown around like butter at an all you can eat pancake breakfast. Feeling overworked? Practice better self-care! Is your physical health declining due to lack of exercise? There’s probably a self-care strategy you haven’t tried yet. Coming down with a case of empathy fatigue? You probably should have practiced better self-care. These messages culminate into one, overarching ideal that in order to be successful as a psychologist, you should be ever striving toward yet another buzzword notion: the “work-life balance.” It doesn’t take long for graduate students hearing these messages to conjure up ideas of regular exercise routines, protected sleep time and dutiful hours spent with textbooks in the corners of the library. But this picture in our minds, as wonderful as it may seem, is not always reality. Even students who feel that they’ve established positive “self-care” practices may still feel that their lives are severely imbalanced during more stressful times, such as finals week or while applying for internship.

We all but preach to our clients and our cohort mates the importance of self-care and quieting the demanding inner voice that self-deprecatingly tells us we’re not trying hard enough. But with ourselves, this message is often much more difficult to internalize. And the repercussions for this message become increasingly severe, in my opinion, for female psychologists that are balancing multiple roles in life. I would posit that as women psychologists (and doctoral students in psychology), we are especially hard on ourselves when it comes to the topic of navigating our personal and professional lives. As a second year doctoral student with two practicum placements, a full load of coursework, a new marriage and my attempts to prioritize my own physical fitness, I have found myself searching for other women in my field that can serve as beacons of hope that someday my roles as a therapist, a wife, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a student and a citizen will all become easier to hold in perfect harmony. Then I will know exactly what it feels like to have struck this mythical “work-life balance.”  However, the more I’ve sought the wisdom of my professors, supervisors, mentors and friends on this topic, the more I have heard one resounding theme: There is no such thing as “work-life balance.”

I am going to assume that after reading that last sentence, you are feeling some of what I experienced when I first heard an early career, licensed female psychologist and professor in my department say those words in a panel that I recently held on this very topic. To say that her words were met with some pushback is an understatement. In fact, I felt myself become quite hostile toward the notion that she might disparage my dreams of one day uncovering the elusive secret that I assumed all female psychologists have been let in on- as though an underground society exists for these women, who have somehow arrived at a place of existential superiority that I can only hope to somehow fall into on my way toward licensure.

As she continued to share her thoughts during the panel, this same psychologist polished off her sentiment with: “I’ve learned to bury the word ‘balance’ right next to ‘perfection’.” I sat there stunned and dismayed. If there is no such thing as ‘balance’, just as there is no such thing as ‘perfection,’ then what is my goal as I seek to keep all these balls in the air? The implication seemed too daunting: If I am not robbing myself of a full night’s sleep by waking up at 5 am to squeeze in a work out before a 9 hour day of classes; if I’m not texting my husband recipes for dinner in between the back to back appointments I have at my practicum site; if I’m not coming home and cleaning the entire apartment before reading endless chapters of psychoanalytic texts before collapsing into bed, then what does it look like to be doing this phase of my training well?

As a perfectionist, I don’t need help putting pressure on myself to keep my life in “balance.” I can easily find ways to guilt myself into thinking that I haven’t (fill in the blank) well enough as I attempt to tackle the many roles and tasks an average day entails for me. Through the panel presentation that I held this semester called “Courageous Conversations: Exploring the Work-Life Balance as a Woman Clinical Psychologist”, one truth was reiterated again and again by the various early to later career psychologists that spoke: There is no right way to balance it all, and that’s okay.

I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly encouraging. What if there isn’t such thing as perfectly balancing one’s roles as psychologist, partner, friend, and advocate? What if it were okay that sometimes our lives will require us to focus more exclusively on one role than another? What if we’re all just figuring it out as we go along? Beginning to think this way requires a major cognitive overhaul. If you’re into cognitive behavioral therapy, I believe this is what we would call looking for the alternative. For me, my alternative belief started when I took my professor’s advice and I buried the word “balance” right next to “perfection.”

- Written by Mae Adams Shirley, M.S., M.A.

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