When Neither A Life Of Balance Nor Imbalance Is Sufficient

Last year on my birthday, I declared that this would be my year of imbalance. After spending the prior year scrounging for balance as I recovered from injury, I was influenced by Brad Stulberg’s New York Times op-ed Maybe We All Need A Little Less Balance,” to strive for, and value, imbalance. Almost six months in, I’m not only discovering the bounds of my resolution, but also questioning its virtue.

Over the course of the year, I experimented with healthy imbalances like having a bias for walking to and from work over taking the train and eliminating solo coffee purchases in favor of homemade lattes. These had positive outcomes on my mind and wallet. 

But it’s one of my more profound choices that is causing me to call imbalance into question.

One of my most intentional imbalances over the last six months has been to give more of “me” to others than I do to myself, as a way of investing in my friends, family, new relationships, and career. This has come to life in the form of time-boxing my writing rather than my engagements with friends, leaving my computer and books behind when visiting my family, transforming Saturday morning solo runs into running dates, and adapting my desired style of working to better suit the needs of my team. These weren’t “sacrifices” I planned to cross off a list or publicize to others. I simply feel in my gut that it is important for me to disproportionately focus my time and energy in this way. And I feel good doing it.

These imbalances were ones I ignored in my earlier twenties. Looking back on these years, two specific experiences drag my stomach to my feet: one was the year-long process of publishing my novela and the second was a years-long process patching up the repercussions of a family incident. While their outcomes live on opposite ends of the spectrum of desirability, both are similar in that they consumed — and I allowed them to consume — all my energy. Despite losing sleep, losing weight, and losing deep interpersonal bonds, I let myself believe that all could and would be regained at the end of these episodes. I felt I couldn’t make space in my life for anything else. But I also didn’t try. In hindsight, there was only a short period of time during which either of these episodes required my undivided attention. After a certain point, imbalance was no longer necessary. Productivity was incremental, and no longer correlated with time and energy spent. I allowed the imbalance to persist longer than it was beneficial.

So for the first several months of twenty-nine, I was excited to swing the pendulum the other way — to focus on personal relationships rather than personal projects. In spaces I would have typically filled with solo experiences, I filled with social ones. I enjoyed the imbalance.

Five months in, it was the second week of January that the imbalance started to throw me off. In the weeks leading up to it, I hadn’t given much time to myself to plan, reflect, or just “be.” My emotions, actions, and state of being had been fully reliant on others. I couldn’t find my grounding, and it wasn’t just because I had spent more days on a plane than off of one. And suddenly, with the weight of the imbalance finally unmanageable, I broke. I welcomed tears, anger, and silence, but none helped. I was lost. Not in a deep, existential way, but in a more shallow, head-in-the-fog sort of way.

I wondered if I needed to come back to center. The only way I knew how was to pursue an equal but opposite imbalance.

On impulse, thinking only of what I needed and not of my obligations, I booked a weekend trip to Santa Fe, with no plan but to reset. Once there, I went wherever the locals sent me. The following weekend, I fully dedicated myself to writing and designing (to the detriment of my daily “Stand” goals).

Somewhere around then, as if on cue, a well-timed email from a friend included a link to Alexandra Schwartz’s New Yorker piece, “Improving Ourselves To Death.” It delves into the plight of the modern human: The never-ending feeling that he or she can be a better version of his or her Self. The author’s main criticism is that in continually pursuing these updated versions of ourselves, we actually lose ourselves and the relationships that make us who we are. She warns of the dangers of imbalance as an excuse for self-improvement.

This article provided necessary balance to the one on imbalance that had won me over just six months prior. On one hand, imbalance allows us to fully focus on one aspect of our lives—another person, a passion, personal growth—to achieve what we can’t otherwise achieve when we divide our time haphazardly. But when imbalance becomes an obsessive habit, especially in the realm of self-improvement, it starts to shift our understanding of center, pulling us further away from a healthy life.

Some imbalance in our lives is necessary and beneficial. But too much becomes a problem.

Reading the article took me back to that dark place of wanting to edit my book just a little more before I could reenter the other chapters of my life; of wanting to glue just one more broken piece back on before focusing on the other pieces of my life that made it whole. That kind of linearity is no longer for me. I’ve seen how most of the time, life doesn’t wait for us to balance out our imbalances. We need to make space for balance along the way. 

In thinking about the extent to which I desire imbalance, I am recognizing that at any given moment in life, I prefer neither extreme imbalance nor extreme balance. I need to make space for both. For now, I’ve decided that an ideal imbalance is one in which I gain more than I lose, in the short- and long-term. Achieving it will undoubtedly require trial, error, and practice. But I am optimistic I will get there.

In a most poetic way, halfway through my year of “imbalance,” it is here that I’ve found its most important ingredient: balance.


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