The Imbalance Deal
Creating healthy coping strategies for when there's a lot on your plate
I am a student for life. It’s incredibly nourishing to study and practice what I’m passionate about, but I also know that the life of a dedicated student can bring with it periods of serious imbalance in my life. This happens to all of us. Not just to those in school or on a career path, but to everyone pursuing their goals.
Imbalance is not always a wholly negative thing. It can bring about great achievements. But when overwhelming schedules and commitments are unsustainable, we give up too much of ourselves.
This kind of imbalance can become toxic and we can end up in social isolation, withdrawal, depression and a sense of failure. When that happens, often our first inclination is to wish we had done a better job of managing commitments and schedules so that it wouldn’t happen in the first place. Or, we wish we were better at saying ‘no’. Instead of blaming ourselves and looking back, however, there is a kinder way to meet such difficulty that arises in our lives.
I call it the Imbalance Deal.
It’s a pact to make with yourself when you first start to feel stress build up over a major commitment. The key is to make the pact before you are stressed and thrown off balance so that when it happens, you are able to recognize that you are in the thick of it and you know you have a healthy path to follow.
Choose an exact end-date to the commitment and do not compromise on it. It can make it easier to endure a period of imbalance if you know the day it will end. Is there a deadline, an event, an exam date? Set a reasonable amount of time to be fully committed to working up to that date. Circle it on your calendar and plan a celebration or treat at the end. Keep working until the day comes, and then you know you will have done your best and can relax. If you can, keep the commitment short, something you know you can handle and won’t exhaust your energy and attention stores so completely that you’ll crash at the end. Whether that’s a week of studying intensely for an exam, or a month of putting energy into planning something, know your limits from previous experiences of burnout and respect them.
Make an emotional promise that during this time of elevated stress you will not take your emotions and thoughts too seriously. If you know that when you are stressed you begin to feel afraid, doubtful or defeated, be aware of this before going into it so that you can weather the storm. When it comes up, see the fear and say to it, “I will address you at the end of this commitment, if you are even still around.” Make a date with each intense or upsetting emotion that you feel for when your commitment is over. For the time being, make an effort not to follow the thoughts to their end. If you know that stress makes you irritable or impatient with others, remind yourself of this during your commitment time daily. Say, “I will not react to this irritation until I am out of the woods with this deadline.” Often you’ll find that the difficult emotions you thought you desperately needed to deal with at the time dissipate along with the stress when the commitment is over. Or if the emotions don’t simply disappear, you will be much better equipped to address the situation when you’re not already over-taxed and exhausted.
Remember your deepest values and core beliefs that you will return to once the commitment is completed. Write them down so that when the end-date comes, you can refresh yourself on how to return to the temporarily neglected parts of you life: friends, healthy eating, proper sleep, exercise, meditation, writing, nature, being a good family member, that book you were reading, etc. Make appointments on your calendar for after your end-date.
When it’s over, make sure you evaluate the decisions that led you into imbalance. With immense patience and self-compassion, take a look at why you found yourself stressed. Remember it’s not always a negative thing, but too much can lead to burnout.
Imbalance will happen in our lives because we are living in a human world. Instead of fighting it, or getting angry with ourselves and others, this Imbalance Deal can help you compassionately weather the emotional and physical storm until you can re-equilibrate. Circle a date on your calendar and make a date to celebrate yourself once the clouds have cleared.