NOTE: This blog is an English translation of my January 2019 column that appeared in the Dutch magazine “de Psycholoog”.
It was somewhere in 2013 when a colleague and friend of mine sent me a link to a TED-talk by researcher and writer Brené Brown. The talk was about the power of vulnerability. I watched for like a minute and then turned off the video. It was a bit too much touchy-feely-woolly for my taste: being vulnerable, putting yourself out there. Ew. And above all: it was an absolute mystery to me why she would even send me that link.
That mystery was promptly solved when, about half a year later, I found myself at home with a massive burn-out. Not your garden-variety stressful moment but an utter breakdown that made making a grocery list seem like a monumental task. The cause? Among others: my inability to be vulnerable. For example, I did not think it was necessary to share with anyone at work that designing a new course proved extremely challenging and that I needed help. Also, I kept happily proclaiming how it was all perfectly doable – being a new assistant professor while moving, having a toddler, and writing my first big grant proposal that could either make or break my early career – while, inside, I was more often desperate than not.
During my recovery one term kept popping up: work-life balance. From the surface, it sounds great: you have work on the one hand, and the rest of your life on the other hand, and those two things need to be balanced somehow. That is, not too much work, and that is a pretty good idea that I took to heart. But there’s a big if, one major drawback, and that is, to me, the underlying idea that work and life are two separate aspects of the self. Not only is this nonsense, the idea is flat out dangerous.
It is nonsense because we all kind of know that it is undoable to leave “the rest of your life” at the front door when going to work. Yes, we certainly try – so we do not talk about the fact that we’re starting to feel exhausted because we are caring for our demented father – but it does come out anyway in the form of behavior: that one unjustified snappy e-mail to your colleague for example. And it is dangerous: not being vulnerable – and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you fearfully try to keep your life out of your work – makes you inauthentic and that is a well-known well from which springs many a psychological problem: hello, burn-out!
I’m not saying that, from now on, we should all share our innermost feelings with every colleague while waiting at the coffee machine; but let’s just try to show a little bit more of ourselves at work. I regard this column as my first attempt. Ask a colleague who looks tired if everything’s OK and/or if you can do anything to help. And: try to share something about yourself that does not sound successful, glamorous or cool. I will try and follow the example of my 6-year old daughter who said the following when I explained the concepts of vulnerability and “being you” to her: I’m not afraid to do that!