My Balance: Spokes on The Wheel of Identity

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Guest post by Sara DaSilva:

Fresh out of college, my 22-year-old self-wanted to conquer everything. I graduated as a chemical engineer and was ready to tackle corporate America, and make everything else work along the way. I had a boyfriend at the time who would later become my husband, but I was fiercely independent. I was going to have plenty of my own money for the first time. I lived far from my parents, convinced I could do anything. I knew I’d be in a male-dominated field, and I was pumped about that. Bring it on!

My whole life, I’d been told I was “resilient.” It was a badge of honor when first entering that unbalanced work force, that I could handle rough and tough-talking guys and get dirty at a manufacturing plant. I focused so much on showing that nothing and no one could break me: after all, I was resilient. It defined me.

The resiliency during tough situations at work became my sole focus, even though I had moved in with my boyfriend and we were headed toward marriage. Everything I had went into this job. I volunteered with an organization but sometimes didn’t give it my all. I didn’t care about working out or being healthy, either physically or emotionally. I absolutely neglected my relationships, even once I got married to that boyfriend who was sticking through it all with me.

At work, I slayed. I leaned in fully. I stayed late because my boss said if he was there, I needed to be there (which I now feel is an asinine thing to say). I endured a disappointing work culture that included ruling by fear and being told your best is never good enough. And I was successful despite not fitting in, not being “right” for that corporate culture, and for being rejected time and time again when I proposed ways the culture could change for the better. For this success, being recognized as “high potential,” I was proud of myself. I was resilient!

But work was by far the leading force in my life. When I got married, my husband made it clear that something had to give. He asked me repeatedly why work was so important, and why I let people walk all over me in my job. Why did I continue to volunteer on committees where my contributions were unacknowledged or stay at work late just because that manager threatened me with his archaic rules?

When I was in my late 20s, I started seeing a therapist who helped me talk through and acknowledge that I was putting so much emphasis on work and living up to this ideal of being “resilient” that I let everything else kind of drop off. In my mind, it was my job that allowed me control and freedom, through having money. I could support myself, which was a goal from day one of college and along my path to adulthood.

This therapist helped me develop a visual that has stayed with me for more than a decade. In this visual, I am the center of a wheel, and the tire of the wheel is what I would describe as me feeling “okay” with life - not necessarily happy, but stable. I like to think of the core/center of the wheel as my self-worth, which will always be there to remind me of my value on this earth.

There are many spokes on a wheel, and each represents a part of my identity. I have a meditation mantra I say occasionally that relates to my spokes, and it is as follows: “I’m a wife. I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. I’m a worker. I’m a volunteer. I’m a writer. I’m a friend.” Each of these spokes is part of my identity, but none of them are more important than the others. They’re all there. If one is less strong, another may be stronger, but they all exist every day for me. If one spoke is much stronger or longer than the others, the wheel just can’t function.

Letting go of the mega-importance of that one “worker” spoke made a world of difference for my overall happiness. Of course, down the road when I had kids, work took on a new significance as I want to do work that makes me happy and fulfilled if I’m going to be away from my family for 40+ hours a week, but I see so many friends who struggle with trying to balance wanting to “succeed” at work with being a “good mom.” I use a lot of quotes here because it’s just so relative what success means … no one is trying to be a bad worker or a bad mom. Sometimes you lean in more, and sometimes you lean out, and it’s okay, as long as you stay true to what your identity is - and it’s a lot of things, I guarantee you. Each needs to be nurtured.

My husband was right, I did need to evaluate the importance I placed on work, and I have the same conversation with young women occasionally. I didn’t suffer at all by leaning in less at work - I wasn’t going anywhere with that company anyway. I sought out a more balanced type of work that still engaged my brain. I gradually accepted that work is a two-way street, that you can absolutely get something out of your employment in exchange for giving them your all. Or in my case now, a little less than my all: my spokes are more balanced and I live life more fully overall. My kids see an example of someone who believes work is important, but so is being a wife and volunteer and daughter.

I’m still resilient, just not foolhardily so. My resilience is put to good use, for worthy causes - not to help myself stand up at the end of the day and bravely say I’m not gonna let the man get me down, but to bravely show my strength to my kids when I’m scared and to stick with marriage when it’s tough. And when I feel I need balance in my identity, the visual of a wheel with many supportive spokes brings me calm and hope.

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Sara DaSilva is a continuous improvement project manager at a chemical distributor. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, two young boys, and two dachshunds. One way she balances her identity is by writing the podcast review blog Audible Feast in her spare time.

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