On Balance in Relationships.

This isn’t just about balance.  Or how to stay connected.  Though it serves all of that.

I touched on this just a little bit in my post about burnout, but I want to get into Balance in Relationships.

We’re asked to care.  We’re asked to do something.  We’re asked to invest time and energy.  This is usually about a person.  Sometimes it could be a project.

John was a military vet.  He didn’t have to be.  He could have been my childhood friend, or a guy I made friends with in a coffee shop.  In this case I met him where I was his doctor, and he was my patient.  I sit down with him in clinic, and I see a long list of “problems,” from medical issues to PTSD and many notes about “personality” issues.

Two seconds after I sit down, he pulls out his own list, but these are things he wants from me.  Medication refills?  Easy enough.  Help with disability?  Let’s investigate.  Call his landlord and advocate for him to keep his apartment after causing problems?  Maybe I’ll help.  Call his parole office?  Hmm.  Prescribe him medical marijuana?  Well…

It isn’t long in this interaction before I start disconnecting emotionally.  It’s natural to want him to leave, because he is putting all the burden on me to fix his life.  To a tiny degree I understand that, as it’s supposed to be my role to “help” him with many of his problems.

So let’s say I spend a couple extra hours trying to help him with everything he asks.  At the next visit he comes back with new issues, and this time he wants me to write a letter for court saying he has PTSD and that he shouldn’t be held accountable for some things he’s done.

Now let’s pretend that John has other issues.  Maybe he’s an alcoholic, and my repeated pleas to get sober haven’t helped.  Or he’s my brother (I don’t have a brother) and asks me to loan him money for the tenth time.

All of these situations feel emotionally taxing on me, and a common response is to disconnect.  I feel tired pouring more energy into a situation that isn’t changing, and I want to just stop. Maybe at best I keep going through the motions.  For those in a role where we’re supposed to stay emotionally connected to people (such as healthcare), it’s helpful to not get apathetic.

So I happened upon two simple philosophies that have helped me to stay balanced, particularly when stressed.

1.  Don’t work harder than the other person.

As sad as it sounds, this is their problem, not yours.  If they’re bringing the issue to you, they need to be willing to meet you halfway.  Now halfway might be different for each person, but the idea of effort is what’s important.  If you find yourself over-investing, doing more or all of the work, that is a recipe for burnout.  Once you’re pouring yourself into something, if it fails, you feel jaded.  You then want to withdraw and not try again.

There’s a much longer discussion that can be had about how to get someone to invest.  Another time.  Here, though, not working harder than the other person can often feel like pulling back.  And if we pull back too much emotionally we can end up apathetic, not caring at all.  So then comes the other side of the coin –

2.  Cultivate a feeling of Detached Compassion.

I want to hammer both words in there.  DETACHED.  Meaning disconnected from the outcome.  Aim high, but don’t set up your emotional payoff on the win.  COMPASSION.  Meaning you still care about the person.  Stay connected to the person, but disconnected from the outcome.

Especially since a lot of the time people don’t want things fixed, they want someone present for them.

As you pay more and more attention to this balance of effort, investment, and connection, you’re really cultivating mindfulness.  Mindfulness (which needs its own posts), which I’ll simply define here as awareness, without reacting.


How to Not Burn Out

“I just can’t do it anymore.”

People burnout everywhere, in every field. They burn out professionally. They burn out in taking care of others. I live in Los Angeles and I can understand how just driving a car can burn someone out in this level of traffic.

No one plans to burn out. Maybe they do have a little awareness that they’re going down that road, though.

We have a level of control over where we place our attention, as well as our effort. If you’re worried you’re burning out, consider preventing it.

There’s two parts, I believe, to preventing burnout.

For the first, I’d like to borrow from a simple model I first heard from Dr. Christine Moutier (a psychiatrist and former supervisor of mine at UCSD), modified a bit here. Imagine a gas tank. It’s feeding an engine. That engine is you. If the engine shuts down, you shut down.


This gas tank has a leak in it. It’s losing gas. Gas is pouring out. Eventually if we do nothing, the tank will be empty. When it’s empty, the engine stops. It doesn’t run anymore. The engine burns out.

We don’t want the engine to stop, so we need to fill the tank. It has to be filled faster than it’s losing gas. In life we each have our strategies to fill the tank. Sleep. Food. Socializing. Rest. Sex. Yoga. Watching TV. Meditation. Talking to people.  Exercise. Make a note of your ways to fill the tank, and note what others do, since one way might not be enough. One way might not be able to fill it fast enough.  It’s for your own well-being.

On the other side, look at the size of the hole that gas is leaking out of. This is the effort we put out into the world. We can try to narrow the hole, to hold back. That may be effective, to a degree. If done too much, it leads to apathy. The hole can’t ever be completely plugged up, in a normal life.

It’s not a particularly complex model, I’ll give you. Yet really smart people neglect themselves all the time. They think their tank will never run out, as if there’s a secret reservoir somewhere. Running on empty hurts the engine. So the first step is to keep the tank filled.

The second part of not burning out is to Not Overextend. We all have projects we’re asked to be involved in, whether that be something at work or even fixing up something in the house. Or maybe it’s arranging an event for family or friends. Presuming this is not a startup business that is your idea, ask yourself – how much am I putting into this? How much are the other people putting into it?

Here’s the key: If you’ve been asked to do this project by someone else, and you decide to invest a lot of time/energy in it, make sure the other person is as invested in it as you.  The plan, the approach, and if possible, the energy/time.  If you’re thinking up a lot of aspects of it, make sure the other person agrees along the way, or has as much skin in the game.

Let’s say I’m asked by my wife to plan a party for our friends. I put a lot of time into planning and arranging it, and then my wife tells me she doesn’t like what I did. I devoted hundreds of hours into the project, she devoted none. My response to any criticism she might have is anger and wanting to quit and disconnect. I would feel burned out. Such is the way when only one party in a group does most of the work, and the other critiques or doesn’t support it.

Now in many situations the division of labor is unavoidable. One side will do more work than the other. Chances have to be taken. When they are done with open eyes, though, the disappointment may be less.We can clarify the point, then, that the other party needs to buy into the plan at least. Don’t overdo it expecting the other party to be wowed by the amount of time you’ve put into it. What if they aren’t? You may end up apathetic and withdrawn. Check in with them frequently, to get their buy-in on the approach, so they won’t be surprised, and you won’t be surprised. And finally, try to discern endeavors that might not be worth the investment.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: