Self-sabotage and the work-rest-play balance

Mars a dayWhen I was a kid the TV ad for Mars went: A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Although I haven’t touched a Mars Bar in about 15 years, the catchphrase is unforgettable. It’s every ad-man’s wet dream to come up with a slogan as memorable as that. The reason it works is simple: work, rest and play are the three most important areas in our lives; pretty much everything we do falls into one of these broad categories.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work, rest and play in the last month. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about balance and self-sabotage. I’ve noticed that I am at my happiest when the balance between work, rest and play is just right for me. In my case this means quite a lot of work and a fair bit of play; when I throw in a small but healthy dose of rest, I feel terrific. Take one of those out of whack and I start feeling bad pretty quickly.

Yesterday I was chatting to my good friend and fellow blogger J about this, and we agreed that the balance of work, rest and play is a complex thing. Firstly, it’s something that’s particular to each person: my ideal balance is (by his own confession) waaaaaay too much work for my buddy R_____, who generally likes to work not more than 20 hours a week. But he plays hard at fetish clubs most weekends, which is waaaaay too much for me. We are both happy, but our balance is quite different.

Another thing that makes balance complex is that it changes over time. We know this automatically when we think about the difference between a 3-year-old, a 33-year-old and a 73-year-old. But it’s not always so easy to recognise, or accept, the changes when they happen to us, as another friend B_____ taught me recently. Being ‘party girl’ has been a big part of her identity for many years, and it came as a shock to her to discover recently that she’s changing. From the outside what I see is that her ideal balance is shifting; but because she has identified with her balance at a certain level (“This is who I am” rather than “This is what I like right now”), it is proving difficult for her to accept it changing.

A third aspect, which J is well versed in, is our ability to go out of balance from time to time when needed – for example, when we have a particularly intense patch at work, or on holiday when all we want to do is rest and play. It is quite possible for us to accept – and even be happy in – an out-of-balance period, as long as we know when it’s going to end. But we also know those people who get out of balance and stay there – the stereotypical “20-hour-a-day-lawyer” being a classic example. Most people’s ideal balance involves a pre-dominance of one, but few can sustain that area being so dominant that it leaves no room for the others.

Now let’s see what happens when we weave self-sabotage into the mix. ‘Too much rest’ is a good place to start, as it’s generally the form of self-sabotage we recognise the most easily. As with all forms of self-sabotage it exists on a scale: at one end, an indolent ‘I can’t be bothered to do much’ kind of laziness that’s very common in teenagers; at the the other end, a depression so bad you can’t get out of bed.

Most of us recognise this immediately as self-sabotage and don’t question it – but Mr Lennon is a notable exception:

Everybody seems to think I’m lazy
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Til they find, there’s no need (there’s no need)

The man certainly has a point – his lyrics highlight how much we prize work and how little we prize rest. Nonetheless rest can easily become apathy, and this is the point at which it becomes self-sabotaging.

‘Too much work’ is a less immediately obvious form of self-sabotage. I am a recovering workaholic, and one of the ways in which I self-sabotage is by overworking. This is a subtle one, because we live in a culture that prizes hard workers and has vaguely romantic notions of workaholics as noble and self-sacrificing. Let me put this one straight right now: bullshit. Our culture prizes hard workers because of our unconscious desire to stay under control. Working ourselves ragged is one way of doing this. (So, as it is happens, is playing us ragged – more on that in a moment.)

The founders of 37 Signals make short shrift of this nonsense in their excellent book Rework:

Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We hear about people burning the midnight oil. They pull all-nighters and sleep at the office. It’s considered a badge of honor to kill yourself over a project. No amount of work is too much work.

Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more. It leads to an ass-in-seat mentality—people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren’t really being productive.

Working too hard is a particularly pernicious form of self-sabotage for freelancers. Freed from the shackles of working for The Man, the story goes that we love our work so much we never want to stop doing it. A slightly less healthy version of this is that we are so keen to please our clients, we never say no to anything. Either way, we are really just self-sabotaging. To put it crudely: we are not saying ‘I love my work’, we are saying ‘I hate myself.’

‘Too much play’, like ‘too much work’, is subtle. How much is too much? I remember being utterly horrified a few years ago to see the state of 19- and 20-year-olds on holiday in Ibiza Uncovered. They looked terrible, stumbling about like pratts, shouting, fucking anything that moved and missing out the gorgeous Spanish sunshine by sleeping all day. This was a great example of what I’m talking about – the poor fuckers were playing so hard they looked miserable and tired the whole time. Like the other two, play can easily go out of balance and become a burden of its own.

And just like workaholism, over-playing is one of the ways in which we keep ourselves ‘in our place’. The media is chock-full of stories of drunken shenanigans – Ibiza Uncovered is the sharp end, but there’s plenty more where that came from. And behind the mock-outrage there’s an implied invitation for us to continue doing it, even to think it’s a bit cool. (Tania Glyde‘s excellent book Cleaning Up talks about the underlying reasons for this with tremendous clarity.)

The ‘system’ – by which I mean the complex, interconnected web of structures created by our collective unconscious desires and fears – has a vested interest in keeping us unhappy. Fear and misery are its raisons d’etre: the capitalist machine we have created is a material expression of our fear of being in balance. As soon as we stop moving, it threatens to collapse. How can that possibly be right?

For those of us who seek another way, it’s important to consider the question of balance deeply. When we start to look at how much (or how little) balance we have in our lives, our self-sabotage quickly comes to light. And what is self-sabotage, if not an expression of low self-esteem?

It doesn’t take much to figure out that we are happiest when we achieve the work-life-play balance that’s right for us. So it follows that failing to honour our need for balance is a form of self-abuse. That might sound strong but I really believe it. Underneath the story there is invariably a desire to make ourselves unhappy.

So ask yourself these questions:

What is the ideal balance for me?
What does it feel like when I achieve it?
How can I tell when it’s out of whack?
What do I do to redress it?

These aren’t difficult questions but they may well trigger you – as they did me – because they bring your self-sabotage to light. Work with them for a while and you’ll learn a lot about yourself. In particular, you’ll start discovering when you’ve been at your happiest, and why.

Would you like to explore these questions more with Faerie? A Personal Growth coaching session is an ideal place to do that.

<< Find out more about Personal Growth sessions >>

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