Sara, 35 and single, has never led a balanced life. Every New Year's, she resolves to spend less time tied to her job at a public relations firm—but her resolution never lasts. Warm, giving, and dynamic, she's notorious among friends and family for canceling plans at the last minute because of work conflicts. En route to a brunch at her sister's one Sunday, she stopped by the office to check e-mail and never got back out the door. She joined a supper club six months ago to meet people, and has attended only one event.
The advice friends gave her was too dramatic: "Quit your job; move out of New York!" The goal of our work together was to help her make smaller, more digestible changes.
Sara's honesty was striking, a sure sign she was ready for a breakthrough. In her e-mail asking me for help, she confessed, "I give the appearance of having an incredibly demanding job, but the truth is, I often use work as an excuse for getting out of social engagements."
It's not hard to understand why work can be a comfortable refuge. Work offers tangible results—you get the report done, land the contract, run a successful meeting. The payoffs of a personal life are harder to measure—a feeling of fulfillment, balance, energy, love.
Sara allowed that once she gets over the hump, she enjoys people's company, but getting there is a huge struggle. I asked her why. After careful thought, she said: "I get maxed out at work, taking care of my staff and clients. And many of my friends are very, very needy."
"Are all your relationships like that?" I asked. "Do you have any that give to you?"
She couldn't think of a single one. No wonder she avoided going out! Sara explained that her parents divorced when she was seven. Her mother worked constantly and her younger sister required attention, so as the oldest, Sara managed everyone's needs. She grew up with a strong work ethic, but the flip side was a deep-seated belief that it was bad to have any pleasure, relaxation, or fun.
We decided on a program of incremental, gentle changes and started by brainstorming three activities for her to try: one that would be easy, another that she felt passionately about, and a third that would be extra-challenging.
When Sara was younger, she loved taking long walks alone in nature, so her first assignment was to go on a hike. Her second was to volunteer with the elderly, a lifelong passion because her grandmother had lived with her while she was growing up.
Sara's most challenging assignment was to attend the next supper club event—with a brand-new focus. Changing patterns is always easier in new relationships than in old ones. So she wouldn't jump into the role of caretaker, we came up with a rule: If someone describes a problem, do not offer a solution. Instead say, "I know just what you mean." And then Sara would relate a similar problem of her own.
Finally, I suggested she get a journal and record her observations, asking herself questions like What do I enjoy? What brings me pleasure? What can people do for me?
I checked in with Sara a week later. Although she'd made some progress, it sounded like she was pretty uncomfortable. She'd made an appointment with the volunteer coordinator of a local senior citizen center and had gone on the hike. The walk gave her moments of contentment, but it also forced her to reflect on how long she'd been hiding behind work, and she was scared. She wrote in her journal: "I don't think I have anything to offer except my help. When I look at a situation and ask 'What's in it for me?' it feels selfish and bad. If I let go of this caretaker role, is there anything else?"
Tonight was the dinner, and I could hear that Sara was terrified of being around people without the comfort of her familiar identity, so I revised her assignment. She needn't leave the caretaker role behind completely, but she had to ask for help on a matter of her own. I gave her a question to pose to at least three people: "How do you find time for a social life?"
The dinner was a huge success. No one thought she was sucking them dry by asking advice; in fact, the entire group became captivated with the topic. Sara was stunned to discover that many people were as devoted to their personal lives as they were to their work lives. One woman explained that skipping her exercise classes was simply not an option—they make her happy, and more effective at work. Perhaps the biggest revelation of all was that these were nice, normal people—no one had horns or a tail!
Soon Sara got another lesson. Feeling the flu coming on, she took some medication and had an adverse reaction that put her in the hospital for two days. Flat on her back, unable to move, she had two shocking realizations. There were people who wanted to take care of her—but she had never let them. Despite her adamant insistence that she'd be fine, her father drove up from North Carolina, her best friend came in from D.C., and her sister came to the hospital every day. She also learned that her laissez-faire approach to making plans was hurtful to the people she loved. Sara had always thought it was easier to say yes now, to make the person feel good in the moment, and then cancel later. But her sister, her dad, and her friend confided that it made them feel unimportant every time she didn't show up. It had never dawned on Sara that her fierce independence, something she'd developed to be less of a burden, could be seen as a rejection. She ended her hospital stay determined to take her commitments more seriously.
Sara is starting her volunteer work next week, and has planned a one-week trip to Spain with her sister. She's getting together with a smaller group from the supper club on a more frequent basis. Even her coworkers have commented on how happy and productive she is. It seems, in taking care of herself, she's gotten even better at taking care of others.
Refocus, Reframe, and Reinvigorate Your Career