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Karen Maleck-Whiteley: Balance in real life — put yourself first

Live Well Stress Less

Posted: February 18, 2010 9:48 p.m.
Updated: February 19, 2010 4:55 a.m.
I often have clients who tell me they need help with creating balance in their lives. Many of us have frequent feelings of being out of balance. We may be talented and accomplish many worthwhile things in life, and at the same time spend a good portion of our time feeling overworked, overwhelmed, stretched to the max, and like we get lots done for everyone else, while putting ourselves last.

This seems to be more typical in women, but many men feel it too. Even teens and some younger children experience these stressful feelings at times.

During a commencement address at Georgia Tech in 1996, Coca-Cola President and CEO Brian G. Dyson said:

"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

I'm sure Mr. Dyson didn't mean that we shouldn't take what we do seriously. Someone who reaches the position of CEO of a major company like Coca-Cola certainly takes his work seriously. But I think his message is clear - it makes sense to look at the things that we are juggling, and determine which truly are the priorities. I am sure you can easily make a list of what all of your "balls" are, and I bet when you do, you'll find you have way more than five of them in the air right now.

When you think about what you are juggling, where are you among those "balls"? When I work with my clients and talk to my friends, I find that we often think that it is selfish to make ourselves a priority. We prioritize our own self-care pretty far down on the "to do" list or we don't have it on the list at all.

This is the truth - taking care of yourself is the single most important thing you can do. In fact, it is the only way to ensure you will be equipped to contribute and handle all the other things that are so important in your life.

How do you know when you are in or out of balance? The only valid measure of this is to listen to your own feelings. Not what anyone else says, not comparing yourself to others, not even how you felt last time you were in the same set of circumstances. The only way to tell if you have got yourself and the things in life prioritized correctly for you is to listen to how you feel. If you feel happy, content, joyous, productive and fine with things they way they are, great! If, however you feel guilty, deprived, worried, behind, overwhelmed, last in line, tired, or sick - those feelings are telling you something you should be responding to.

What is balance and how do you get it? There is no set formula for this, and it varies widely by person. In fact, what is balanced for you this month, might not be at all balanced next month. This is because balance is an active process, not a steady state.

Do this experiment to get a feel for this. Stand up and balance on one foot. Concentrate on what is happening in your foot and ankle area.

Notice how your muscles have to constantly adjust? Balance on any level of life is like what is going on between your foot, ankle and brain: it is a complex feedback loop involving the constant sensing of movement and the creation of compensating adjustments.

So, how do you start putting yourself first? There is a paradox that we experience here. When you feel you have the least ability and time to stop and make a change, is exactly the time you most need to do it. That feeling should be your sign to stop and pick something to do to create more balance - let go of something, say no to something, or schedule something to take care of yourself. You just have to do it.

Here are five tools to help you create more balance in your life.

Check in assessment
Use these questions to train yourself to do a regular check-in on how you are doing and make an action plan.

1. Check in on how you are feeling. How out of balance or stressed do you feel?

2. What are you juggling? (List everything!)

3. What balls are most essential?

4. What can you let go of or set down (temporarily or permanently)? What have you been thinking of as necessary or required, that may not really be so important?

5. What balls are dropped or missing that you need to pick up? What can you do that is just for you?

6. Are you still overcommitted? If so, answer these additional questions:

What do you get out of the things you are overcommitting to? It helps to look at why you are so reluctant to stop doing something that is causing you undue stress.

What is this overcommitment costing you? Sometimes we find we are doing some activities for reasons that are not really supporting us.

Put yourself first
Pick one thing you can do this week for yourself. Repeat each week until you have ingrained a new habit of doing at least one thing for yourself each week. Even a small thing can make a big difference.

Say no
Saying "yes" when you would rather say "no" is a very common habit. Make sure your "yes" means "yes" and your "no" means "no". Be honest, calm and polite. It is always better to give an honest "no" than a dishonest "yes," and people are much happier when they do not have to be faced with indecision, a delayed refusal, or have someone in a group or on a project who really doesn't want to be there. You don't need to feel guilty. Focus on how much better you will feel not taking on something you did not want to do, or could not really fit in your schedule. Pick something to say no to today - when you do it more, you'll find it becomes easier.

Talk to your friends
An interesting study at UCLA recently found that for women, getting together and talking reduces stress. While most of us may have suspected this, the study found that women actually secret hormones when they are talking which help them bond and relax. Men, on the other hand, may respond better to escape (zoning out in front of the TV or reading a book) or to vigorous exercise. My caveat to this tool is to be aware of who you choose to talk with. It's always best to surround yourself with positive, supportive people.

Relax and reset
It doesn't take much time to use your imagination and breathe to reduce stress and feel more balanced daily. Here's how: close your eyes and imagine you are in a place that makes you feel relaxed, calm, peaceful and safe. It can be a place you have visited before, like a vacation spot, or a place you invent in your mind. Visit this place in your mind and take a few moments to fill in as many details as you can.

Focus on colors, sounds, feelings and sensations, scents and even tastes. As you enjoy this place, breathe in slowly through your nose, hold your breath for a few moments, and breathe out slowly through your mouth. Take several of these deep breaths, and notice how much better you feel.

Use this breathing vacation daily, or even several times a day if you notice any of the feelings that tell you you are out of balance. It doesn't take long to feel better by using this technique - a few minutes at most. You can use it even when you are not in a position to change your list of commitments. You have to breathe anyway, so you might as well use some of your breaths to improve your day.

Working on putting yourself first may feel uncomfortable, especially if you are very used to operating under stress and in a state of imbalance. I encourage you to pick at least one of the techniques in this article to start with this week. Don't put too much pressure on yourself; just try one for a while.

It also helps to pick a friend with whom to make a "balance pact," where you support each other in assessing your state and priorities, and in taking action steps to put yourselves first.

As with anything, the more you do it, the easier it will get, and you will start to see that you can feel more peaceful, happy and productive in your life.

Karen Maleck-Whiteley is a certified hypnotherapist, coach, speaker and author. She is the co-owner of Balance Point Spa in Canyon Country. If you would like more information or assistance with creating balance, reducing stress, or putting yourself first, (661) 252-0650. Find out more at,, or


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