The Inside Out Solution

Illustration by Randy Mays for The Washington Post
Illustration by Randy Mays for The Washington Post
By Douglas LaBier
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Washington couple recently consulted me in my psychotherapy practice. He's an executive with a large trade association; she's a lawyer with a big firm. They told me how hectic it is trying to meet all their responsibilities at work and at home. They have two children of their own plus a child from her former marriage. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it hard just to come up for air, they said.

Similarly, a 43-year-old man from Bethesda came for help with his career. But he quickly acknowledged that he's worried about the "other side" of life. He's raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself. He's constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He tries to have some time for himself, but "it's hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a 'life,' " he said. He recently learned he has hypertension.

It's no surprise that these people, like many I see both in my psychotherapy practice and my workplace consulting, feel pummeled by stresses in their work and home lives. Most are aware, at least dimly, that this is unhealthy -- that stress damages the body, mind and spirit. Healthy People 2000, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states things starkly: 70 percent of all illness, physical and mental, is linked to stress of some kind.

A lot of the stress I hear about derives from struggling with the pressures of work and home. The problem seems nearly universal, whether in two-worker, single-parent or childless households.

The reason it's so common? My experience suggests that it's because people are framing the problem incorrectly. There is no way to balance work and home, because they exist on the same side of the scale -- what I consider the "outer" part. On the other side of the scale is their personal, private life -- the "inner" person. I encourage clients not to think about balancing work life and home life, but to balance outer life and inner life.

Let me explain. On the outer side of the scale you have the complex logistics and daily stresses of life at both work and home -- the errands, family obligations, phone calls, to-do lists, e-mails and responsibilities that fill your days. Outer life is what's on the daily planner, Palm or BlackBerry.

On the other side of the scale is the inner you: private thoughts and values, emotions, fantasies, spiritual or religious practices, the capacity to love, a sense of purpose. Our culture does little to acknowledge or nurture this aspect of our lives. You probably keep much of your inner life hidden from others, even those you are closest to. You may even keep it hidden from yourself.

The good news, as I see it, based on my observations: Reframing your challenge from trying to balance work and home to balancing your inner and outer lives will help you deal with all aspects of life -- and build overall health and well-being.

The Other Balancing Act

As I have often observed, when your inner and outer lives become unbalanced, daily functioning is affected in ways subtle and profound. When operating in the outer world -- at work, for example, or in dealings with your spouse or partner -- you may struggle with unjustified feelings of insecurity and fear. You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you don't understand. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional "default" positions, such as submissiveness or rebellion, forged during childhood.

Even if you are successful in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner can be hazardous. With no sense of your inner life, you lose the capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies. Typically, stress mounts, personal relationships suffer, your health deteriorates and you become vulnerable to looking for stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best -- maybe a new "win," a new lover, drugs or alcohol. I've seen this again and again in my work.

And that pulls you even more off-balance, possibly to the point of no return. The extreme examples are people who destroy their outward success with behavior that reflects a complete disengagement from their inner lives -- corporate executives led away in handcuffs for indulging in ill-gotten gains, self-destructive sports stars overcome by the trappings of their outer-life successes, political leaders whose flawed personal lives destroy their credibility, clerics who are staunch moralists at the pulpit but sexual predators or adulterers behind closed doors.

When your inner life is out of balance with your outer, you become more vulnerable to stress, and that's related to a wide range of physical and emotional damage. Heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, a weakened immune system, skin disorders, asthma, migraine, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal problems -- all are linked to stress. Together these things can shorten your life.

Servicing your inner life, on the other hand, can restore balance. It builds a state of self-awareness and wholeness. With a robust inner life you feel grounded and anchored, knowing who you are and what you're truly living for.

Finding the Gaps

I recently spoke with a man, relatively underdeveloped in his inner life, who was dealing with a classic inner-vs.-outer dilemma. He was debating whether to leave an out-of-town meeting early, which would be difficult, to be home for his daughter's 18th birthday. I asked him the simplest question: Which choice would he be more likely to feel good about at the end of his life? He immediately saw that it was being at his daughter's birthday. But he was troubled that he'd been trying to rationalize away what he knew he valued more deeply.

He was suddenly able to see the gap between his values (his inner self) and the choice he was about to make (in his outer world). A good initial step toward awakening your inner life is to identify the gaps between what you believe in and what you do. We all have those gaps.

"Building Your Inner Life," below, has suggestions for developing your personal side. Here is an exercise to help you learn about the relationship between your inner and outer lives.

· First, make a list of what you believe to be your core, internal values or ideals. Perhaps it's raising a strong, creative child. Maybe it's having close friends, or developing a talent that's important to you. It could be increasing your spiritual connections. You may want a healthy marriage or partnership, or to give back some of the fruits of your good fortune to others.

· Next, make a parallel list for each item on your list, describing your daily actions relative to those values : How much time and energy do you spend on them? What are your specific behaviors regarding each? Be detailed in your answers -- note the last time you took an action aimed at nurturing that creative child, building your marriage or giving some meaningful help to the less fortunate. Do not be surprised (or ashamed) if you find that very few of your daily activities support those key values.

· Assign a number from 1 to 5 measuring the gap between each value and your behavior -- 1 representing a minimal gap; 5, the maximum.

· Identify the largest gaps. Now think about how your inner values could redirect your outer-life choices in those areas. What would you have to do to bring the inner you in synch with the outer you? What can you commit yourself to doing?

· Write it all down and set a reasonable time frame for reducing your gaps.

Work vs. Life Revisited

Strengthening your inner life can change how you behave in both parts of that old work-life equation.

In the work realm, you might reexamine what you're doing -- whom you work for and with, and what your work contributes to the things you value. At the most radical end, you could change employers or careers, or go out on your own to pursue a dream. Or you can seek new assignments with your current employer that align with your personal values and goals.

In your home and personal life, a stronger inner life might lead you to give some time to help others, say through volunteer work. Or get involved with a social or political cause you believe in. You might decide to take that music appreciation course you've considered for years, or finally build that backyard garden you've seen in your imagination.

As you develop your inner life and balance it with your outer, you'll be likely to find that the old conflicts of work vs. life don't cause you stress or even dominate your thoughts anymore.

In fact, you may find they disappear. ·

Douglas LaBier, a psychotherapist and business psychologist, heads the Center for Adult Development in Washington ( Comments on this article: Join author Douglas LaBier for a Live Online discussion today on inner life/outer life balance at 2 p.m. at

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