I was on my way to the train station, bound for work, when this street art caught my eye. A tortured-looking soul, trapped in a shirt and tie, with an almost zombie-like face aflame.

It made for quite a statement, as people filed past it in the early morning light to fill the station, all of us wearing our various ‘uniforms’ for work: business suits and skirts, briefcases, blazers, the ‘right’ kind of shoes. All dressed-up, knowing exactly where we’d go…

And, in fact, some of us seemed to have gone there already – to have mentally arrived at work whilst still standing on the platform. Work-focused mindsets checking watches; efficient faces turned expectantly in the direction the train would soon come.

Does this sound familiar to you? 

I keep hearing about ‘work-life balance’. But how are we to find such a thing when, as philosopher Alain de Botton writes, our culture often wants to blend our work with our sense of identity?

Gradually, it seems, work has shifted from what we did to who we are: ‘I’m a ____________’ (fill-in the blank).

So how can we live with these labels, yet not be ‘bricked-in’ by them?

And who might actually be behind that wall of labels and of work?

Perhaps there’s another way of looking at this – maybe we can try a kind of therapeutic ‘re-frame’ here.

What if the idea of a work-life balance was simply a myth that we’re collectively chasing?

A few years ago, I heard Susan Murphy Roshi (author of Upside-Down Zen) speak about these things. She seemed to see right through that wall of work and identity that society would build for us. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically she said:

‘There is no such thing as work-life balance.

There’s only your life.’

So, according to that idea, while you’re mindlessly dressing for work in the morning, in your ‘uniform’ of choice – it’s your life.

While you’re waiting impatiently for the train that’s late – it’s your life.

While you’re wrestling with the computer or photocopier, or negotiating office politics – it’s your life.

What would it feel like for you if that were true?

Does your heart sink or soar at the prospect?

What could that feeling have to tell you?

And what if all these moments you spend toiling on the payroll are actually still yours to inhabit? To tangibly exist inside of…

Perhaps you don’t have to wait to get home to be ‘you’ after all – maybe you’re already there the whole time. (Maybe it’s unavoidable).

So what would it mean for you to bring yourself to work more consciously every now and then? To tuck yourself into your pocket or briefcase and deliberately come along for the ride? To take a moment or two to remember yourself, as well as your workload, throughout the day?

I wonder if that might change the feel of the ‘wall’ for you.

Are there ways you might begin to rise above it, perhaps?

To let yourself be more present wherever you are.

To let yourself be more than ‘just another brick’.

(And, if so, I wonder what the first step in that direction might look like).

Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Artwork: Sydney Street Artists

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy, the author of a private practice blog, and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.