The art of balance: compassion & self reflection
Kaitlin McManus discusses how compassionate self-reflection can help you to cultivate more balance in your life.

Ironically, while trying to write about how to cultivate balance in life, all that comes to mind are my recent experiences of a lack of balance. However, thanks to a few moments of curiosity about this irony, I’m now coming to believe that a lack of balance is actually where the practice of building balance begins. Throughout the incredibly tough year for many that was 2020, I had periods of difficulty with maintaining balance in my life. It would be easy for me to be self-critical about this, as living a balanced life is dearly important to me, but instead I’m choosing the path of compassionate self-reflection so that I can learn from the experience.

What helps me to take this approach is the awareness that I am not alone in this struggle; I have had many conversations with those in my personal and professional worlds that have also found maintaining balance challenging. This makes sense as expert self-compassion researcher Dr Kristin Neff encourages connecting with a sense of “common humanity” to allow you to feel less isolated and ashamed in the midst of suffering. With this in mind, I invite you to reflect on any of your experiences of imbalance through a lens
of understanding and kindness.

Too much or not enough

Although in 2020 some people had increased time and space to create more balance in their lives, not everyone shared this experience. This in part may have been due to circumstances beyond one’s control, such as navigating working from home, the loss of employment, too much time at home with housemates/family or not enough time leaving the house to connect with friends and loved ones. Imbalance to me, put simply then, is too much of one thing and not enough of something else.

You may have found yourself coping with the above dilemmas in ineffective ways, such as too much doing and not enough being, or too much being and not enough doing. If so, please remember that it is often during difficult times that us humans return to unhelpful habits of thinking and behaving. And it is these messy, imperfect struggles with a lack of balance that will allow you to rebuild balance in your life in a way that feels meaningful to you.

Opposing forces

Our minds have the tendency to engage in “either/or” extreme ways of thinking, which can often leave us feeling stuck and vulnerable to “all or nothing” forms of doing. It can be helpful to move away from this thinking and move towards “middle path thinking”. It’s a practice coined by clinical psychologist and developer of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Marsha Linehan, which refers to holding two opposing ideas as true at the same time. This is also known as “both/and thinking”. For example, being and doing can coexist. You can also engage in both work and rest as needed and experience both feelings of stress and relaxation at the same time. The word “sometimes” can be helpful here. For example, “sometimes I work too much and sometimes I don’t” or “sometimes I rest too much and sometimes I don’t”.

This balanced approach to thinking may also help you learn to let go of any judgements related to how you think you should be living or experiencing things. Balance, then, may be understood as imbalance and balance; the ability to move from a place of imbalance towards balance in areas of your life that are meaningful and important to you.

Awareness without action

Sometimes you may be aware of what you need to do in order to create balance in your life, but still struggle to put these steps into practice (and/or external barriers may make it difficult to change). If this is the case, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on your own barriers to change. Are you trying to motivate yourself with criticism rather than kindness? Are you getting hooked on self-defeating thoughts? Are you setting your expectations too high for yourself? It can be tricky to identify what is holding you back from taking action, but it is important to become aware of in order to understand your difficulties and what may be needed to overcome them.

Power in choice

As Austrian Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl poignantly reflects in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in an given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So while you can’t control what curveballs life throws you, you can choose how you respond to your circumstances — although this can be incredibly difficult and may require some problem solving.

What it means to be human

When we are aware that things are out of balance, it can feel really hard. It can be challenging to accept when life is not how we would like it to be, or when we are not acting in a way that is congruent with our values. However, I encourage you to gently remind yourself that feeling out of balance is a universal human experience. Life is indeed a balancing act; the wobbles are inevitable, but you can choose to plant your feet back on the ground before attempting to regain your balance once again.

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