Coaching for Work/Life Balance

Mary arrived at my office and declared: “I've made it to the top, but I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.” 

She wasn’t sleeping well, had gained weight, and her relationship was suffering. 

She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck in workaholic tendencies, it still hadn’t propelled the change she desperately wanted.

1. Insights

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so “felt impossible.” And when I pressed her by asking, “Will taking a pay cut really put you in financial jeopardy?”

She responded, “I know, rationally speaking, that we would be fine if I took a pay cut.”

But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her. She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

I could see that for Mary to make profound, lasting change not only did she need to uncover the background stories that kept her stuck, she also needed to meet the bodily response to those original experiences. If all Mary and I had done was identify the various causes of her impasse—including the problems she experienced as an infant, child, adolescent, and young adult—our work would have gone nowhere for a long, long time.

2. Mind/Body Connection

When we began working together, we explored all of the ways she had avoided risk throughout her life. As she did, I taught her a simple, mindful approach to meeting the emotions that accompanied her fear and occasional overwhelm. I asked her to:

  1. Pause: To take a moment when she notices a strong reaction.
  2. Identify the emotion: Was it fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow, grief, etc.
  3. Locate it: Was it in her head, throat, chest, belly, groin? Was it over a broad area? Was it over just a small area?
  4. Observe the quality: Was it fluttering, queasiness, tightness, tingling, etc.?
  5. Remain non-reactive: Reminding yourself that it will pass. All feelings, painful and pleasurable, are just sensations that a) arise, b) stay for awhile, and then c) eventually pass away.

As Mary learned to meet these uncomfortable emotional states, her “fear of change” started loosening its hold on her. Up until that point, her mind could consider taking a pay cut and finding a less visible job, but her body experienced a paralyzing fear of destitution. Once she was able to work with this fear, Mary could see that she did not need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless and alone.” Instead, she had the option to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and empowered her.

When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she began seeing her burnout as a harbinger for change rather than an obstacle. She could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with her girlfriend.

Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads gave her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy


3. Change Plan

Once Mary committed to a change in her work, we began brainstorming how she might look for new opportunities. She liked the idea of meeting friends and colleagues within her network, so she committed to getting tea or coffee with at least one person a week who might help open a door for her. It took time and perseverance but after a month or two she stumbled upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she had been longing for.

She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her. Mary and I co-created a morning ritual that connected body, spirit and mind. Each morning she did some movement, whether it was the yoga I taught her or a walk with her girlfriend. I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5 to 15 minutes. Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry that I’d assign her each week.

4. Results

Over a year-long period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. The move enhanced the quality of her life immensely. She worked less, had more time to explore new ways of engaging with her girlfriend, and found time for herself. Essentially, this move allowed Mary to replenish the well inside of her.

Ready to make real, sustained change?