Scrolling through social media, I see a friend of mine just received a new professional certification and another friend is about to start a doctoral program. I’m happy for them and also heavy inside. I’m reminded of the division I feel internally, wanting to pursue the things I’m passionate about vocationally while also feeling pressure to start a family. No matter how I work the numbers, it’s impossible to pursue all the things I long to cultivate in my career and personal life.
Even as I invest in continued training and education, there’s always another degree, conference, or certification to pursue. Opportunities to develop professionally can feel like an ever-flowing garden faucet. Bucket after bucket, you can try to catch as much as possible, inevitably watching the water pass into the ground. It can feel discouraging to bump up against limitations that make it impossible to devote ourselves to every single degree, teaching opportunity, or certification we long to pursue. Add in the desire to invest in a family, and discouragement can slip into defeat.
For the last several years, I have felt an internal tension surrounding these limitations. It’s easy to wish there were more hours in the day, more energy in my body, and more money in the bank. If I had more of these things, I wouldn’t be limited in what I could pursue in my professional and personal lives, right? In theory, this might ring true. In reality, these limitations are outside of my control. I’m left with a longing to invest in both my career and my family, feeling like I’m playing a zero-sum game, stringing together a series of life decisions where each gain is countered by a loss.
The most helpful tool I’ve encountered to navigate internal tension like this is something called “parts-work.” Most simply, this is a way to understand the multifaceted nature of people, composed of “parts,” or perspectives, that altogether make up the holistic person.
Various Perspectives, One Person
I like to think about “parts” as the perspectives through which we see the world. Our perspectives are shaped by so many things – positive and hurtful past experiences, implicit and explicit messages we’ve received throughout life, and the developmental stages we’ve walked through. Rather than one cohesive viewpoint with all of these things harmoniously woven together, the complexities of life often shape various perspectives within one being.
The Psalms provide relatable examples of more than one perspective stirring inside. In one breath, many psalms express a distressed disconnect from God. In the next breath, there’s often praise of God’s faithfulness (e.g., Psa. 42; 55; 102). We naturally express different perspectives inside of us as we speak. Someone might say, “Part of me is excited to start a new job, and another part of me is worried it won’t be a good fit.” Similarly, we notice different parts of people as “sides” of a person, saying something like, “I’ve never seen that side of her before!”
For some people, it’s easiest to think of these “parts” or perspectives in the different modes we operate in. This might include a “work-mode” version of a person, along with a “family-mode” or “community-mode” and others like a “vacation-mode” or “spiritual-mode.” When in each of these modes, a person typically holds unique perspectives that will differ from the perspective held in the other modes.
Personal & Professional Perspectives
For a woman who is trying to weave together the complex tapestry of work-life balance, there can be clashing perspectives from these different facets of herself, often in a standoff against each other.
One part of her might think, If I slow down now and take a gap before my next degree, I’ll lose momentum and might not be able to get back on track. It’s already hard enough to be a woman in this field, the last thing I need to do is stack the deck against me even more.
Another part of her might think, I’m running out of time to start a family, or, I’m missing precious years of my kids’ lives. I don’t want to give myself to my career alone, or I want to make sure that I’m spending time investing in my church and community.
Taking time to understand the perspectives that different parts of us hold internally can help us mitigate internal conflict with less turmoil. Slowing down with curiosity can especially help us parse through the jumbled web of criticism and shame of these perspectives, helping us instead see vulnerability beneath the surface.
An Invitation to a Reflection Exercise
Imagine these perspectives in the form of people, sitting together at a table. Some people like to imagine a conference table, others prefer a more informal setting like a kitchen table. Slowly notice what these different people are doing and saying. If any judgmental criticisms pop into your mind, you can gently ask those thoughts to step back for this exercise. If it feels difficult to have patience or compassion with any of the perspectives you explore, consider asking God to loan his unending reservoir of compassion and kindness.
Starting with your perspective as a professional, imagine the professional you as a person sitting at the table. With curiosity, you can notice how this version of yourself is sitting. What is her demeanor? What is her facial expression like? What is she wearing? Is she saying anything? What is her tone like? How old does she seem to be?
Next, we’ll consider your perspective as a woman connected with family and community. Imagining this perspective as a person, consider how you might envision her sitting at the same table. How is she sitting? What is her demeanor? What is her facial expression like? What is she wearing? Is she saying anything? What is her tone like? How old does she seem to be?
You can also consider how these different viewpoints see each other. Do they see each other as being in conflict or in each other’s way? Is either hostile? Sad? Hurting? Weary?
As you explore the mindset for each of these perspectives that you are envisioning as people, you can consider the following questions to see if they provide additional clarity about their viewpoints:
- What does each perspective fear losing if her personal or professional plan isn’t prioritized?
- What feels like the worst-case scenario in the mind of each perspective?
- Are there models to follow (or avoid!) that each perspective thinks about as they consider their futures?
This kind of reflection exercise can help us find a starting point for a dialogue between internal perspectives that are in conflict with each other. If we move through an exercise like this slowly, we can create space to understand and empathize with the conflicting viewpoints that generally want the same thing — what’s best for us — even though they envision the outcome differently.
Whether on a walk, through journaling, or in conversation with a trusted friend or therapist, I invite you to create space to explore how internal perspectives view the work and personal decisions in front of you. Continuing to chew on these reflections can give us greater clarity on what is happening inside of us and how to work toward a holistic resolve. You can use the following prayer as an anchor in continued reflection:
Lord God, you know the depths of my soul. Help me see the various perspectives of pain, fear, passion, and loss that stir inside of me. Would you compassionately engage with every facet of my soul, guiding me toward unified decisions with peace? Thank you for knowing and embracing me in all of my perspectives. Amen.
Photo by Tricia Gray on StockSnap