Last week, I wrote about the UnBalancer.
As powerful as UnBalancer is, and as insidious as it can be, each of us has two powerful allies to help us counteract it. One of them is Balancer.
Like UnBalancer, Balancer has been difficult to define. I’m only beginning to understand its totality. It’s not only Awareness, though Awareness is certainly one of its components. It’s not just Mindfulness, either, though Mindfulness can be a powerful aid in maintaining balance. Nor is it fully defined by Logic, Intuition, Common Sense, Moderation, Resilience, or any of the other functions that help us maintain equilibrium most of the time.
Balancer is, I believe, much like the immune system, which automatically monitors our internal and external environments and correctly sorts out, most of the time, what’s us and what’s not, what’s good for us and what isn’t. Or like the pancreas, which in a healthy body automatically regulates, most of the time, the balance of sugar and insulin that is essential for survival.
For many of us, Balancer does a pretty good job handling routine stress levels. It deals with assaults such as minor illnesses, disappointments, bad weather, a too-short night or a too-long day. When these events occur, Balancer automatically compensates, much as a gyroscope can right itself when it’s nudged one way or another.
But if the stress is too much or too long, Balancer can be overpowered, and we start to tilt. That’s when the other ally, Balancer’s more deliberate partner, ReBalancer, fires its retro rockets.
Unlike Balancer, ReBalancer doesn’t automatically engage. It’s a consciously activated composite of the tools, techniques, actions, and supports we’ve acquired so we can restabilize when UnBalancer pushes us too hard, too suddenly, or for too long.
When Balancer fails to maintain equilibrium, ReBalancer can save the day. But ReBalancer can come to the rescue if, and only if, three factors are in place:
1. We let ReBalancer know we need its help
2. ReBalancer is ready to be called into action
3. ReBalancer has the skills needed to handle the situation
The stakes are high for maintaining balance. In my own life, I see numerous examples of UnBalancer getting the better of Balancer. Sometimes ReBalancer came to my aid, but when I was too slow in calling on it, or it wasn’t up to the task, things went south, sometimes permanently.
A couple of examples:
On a physical level, UnBalancer got the upper hand with Type II diabetes. I was diagnosed with the disease ten years ago, but it began as a reversible pre-diabetes a decade earlier, when I started to display the early warning signs: high cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, episodes of low blood sugar, and a bit of fat around the middle. My body was already out of balance. Calling on ReBalancer would have been a good move, but neither I nor my doctor took my symptoms seriously enough until I was past the point of no return.
Type II diabetes is typical of the Balancer/UnBalancer duel. Because of a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors, the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin, which normally transports glucose into fat and muscle cells. The pancreas compensates by creating enough insulin to overpower the resistance, but the high insulin levels make the body more insulin-resistant. In a self-destructive cycle that continues for years, the body grows increasingly insulin-resistant and the pancreas pushes itself harder to compensate. By the time pre-diabetes symptoms begin to show, the glucose/insulin metabolism is already close to a tipping point, but nothing clearly screams “Look out! Diabetes on the way!” until it is too late to prevent it. Score one for UnBalancer!
Had I or my doctors been more astute, we would have put ReBalancer into action, creating an exercise and diet program to reverse my symptoms. If I had then incorporated ReBalancer’s program into Balancer’s repertoire, I may have prevented the insulin-producing cells from wearing out.
Another, more recent example is, like diabetes, common in the United States: too much work, not enough downtime, leading to burnout.
As a psychotherapist in private practice, I try to maintain a consistent number of clients. When people leave therapy, I take on new clients until my case load is where I want it. Then I stop until I have more openings. Balancer monitors my schedule and makes sure I don’t see too few clients or add too many.
Sometimes, though, a major world or local event shakes people up and brings many former clients back into therapy. Balancer can usually accommodate a few extra clients, but if I continue to add more, the work/downtime balance tips too far in the work direction. I love my work; it has felt like a calling, and one I gladly answered. But too much of a good thing is still … too much.
The brutal 2014-2015 winter, which broke Boston’s all-time seasonal snowfall record, took its toll not only on the local economy, but also the local psyche. Every week for 14 weeks, former clients, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, called, emailed, and texted, asking to resume therapy. And because I had a policy of never turning away a former client, I accepted them. All of them.
Balancer’s scheduling arm tried to compensate. It filled gaps in my day normally devoted to paperwork with clients and pushed the paperwork off to the weekend. It added appointment hours first to the end and then to the beginning of one workday, and eventually added extra hours to all five.
While the scheduling arm handled those arrangements, another Balancer arm adjusted the rest of my life. First, it made more efficient use of non-work time. Then, as the clients kept coming, it cut out downtime, eliminating recreational activities, time with friends, and finally basic activities such as meal preparation, house cleaning, car maintenance, and sleep.
You can see where this is going, but I couldn’t. Balancer was too busy balancing, doing its valiant best to let me carry on.
Weeks turned into months, and clients I thought had come for a brief tune-up stayed for a new therapy run, while others continued to arrive. By the time the buds were on the trees I drove past on the way to my office, I was too tired and too wired on caffeine to notice.
UnBalancer was in charge and, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats, things fell apart, the center did not hold.
The slip toward burnout was gradual at first. I’d occasionally forget an appointment, or schedule two people for the same time slot. I procrastinated on billing and missed the payment window for several sessions. I put aside continuing education trainings until the last few months of the year, then had to cram them all in at once, further adding to my stress.
I slept poorly, drinking more coffee to stay alert and needing brief naps between sessions. Though I didn’t know it until my annual physical, my blood pressure had risen to dangerous levels. Only when a capillary in my retina leaked, causing a permanent blind spot, did Balancer pause from its frantic efforts and cry out, “Help!”
ReBalancer tried to come to the rescue, but it was sluggish, out of practice, and short on the skills needed to right the ship again. Over the next few months, I learned to take mini-breaks, add back short-term versions of restorative activities, practice new techniques for overcoming insomnia. I reduced my caffeine intake, shortened sessions, and – hardest of all – learned to say “Sorry, I can’t see you right now” to clients who wanted to return to therapy.
Eventually, clients completed their work and moved on. Slowly, I, too, returned to homeostasis, the skills developed by ReBalancer now incorporated into Balancer’s routines.
In my profession, I typically see people when UnBalancer has had its way for a long time. I’ve built a toolkit for supporting my clients’ ReBalancers and Balancers, equipping them to recover from the subtle mischief UnBalancer carries out.
I’ll cover some of those tools and techniques in future posts.
David J. Bookbinder
P.S. This is a first draft of what will eventually be a chapter in a book. Responses, corrections, and any other observations are welcome, either via email or, preferably, as comments on this post.
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