When The Atlantic published a controversial article by Anne-Marie Slaughter about how difficult it truly is for women to ‘have it all,’ it added more fuel to the raging fire of the work-life-balance debate, which has likely been going on in some form since humankind first realized that there are ways to make other people feel bad about their life choices. Apparently, the stereotype of the harried, working mom who has a high-level career and still tries her damnedest not to disappoint the other mothers at her daughter’s bake sale has become somewhat of a cultural icon — if you don’t believe me, just read the book I Don’t Know How She Does It (or watch the recent movie, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Greg Kinnear).
Whether people choose to view self-identification as a complicated juggling act or opt instead to focus on a limited number of areas is the important distinction underlying Patricia Linville’s self-complexity theory. Someone who is high in self-complexity would define herself in terms of many different possible domains (e.g. I’m a mother, a wife, a marathoner, a tenured professor, and a singer), while someone who is low in self-complexity would use fewer. And although self-complexity theory doesn’t necessarily stake any claims about particular sides in the work-life-balance-debate being “right” or “wrong,” research in this area has shown — perhaps surprisingly to some — that people who define themselves using multiple domains may actually, at least in some ways, be happier and healthier.
The logic behind this is simple. If you put all of your “self-esteem” eggs in one basket, then the first time a negative event inevitably occurs (as one always will, since life is never perfect), it essentially threatens the entirety of your self-esteem. For example, if you only view yourself as a mother, then an event that makes you feel like you’ve “failed” as a mom (such as getting into a fight with your child or missing an important ballet recital) dings your entire sense of self-worth. In the same vein, if you only view yourself as a tenure-track professor, then having an important paper rejected would do the same thing. However, if you define yourself in terms of multiple domains, then you can buffer yourself from the negative feelings that accompany failures in one area because those negative feelings are relatively contained to only one of your relevant “selves.” In other words, failure always hurts — but if you have another identity that you can “lean on” when times are tough, you can use it to buffer the negativity and help maintain your self-esteem.
But…if having a higher number of identity domains is associated with higher levels of self-esteem, then why do so many people feel like the more that gets piled on, the worse they feel? Why has the “work-life balance debate” raged on for so long, and why have so many women come forward over the past few decades to mourn the fact that “having it all” seems to come with so much difficulty? If self-complexity theory is to be believed, then why does it sometimes feel like the more we take on, the less happy we are?
The answer lies in the psychological logic underlying Linville’s claims. Identifying ourselves using multiple domains keeps us happier because it is assumed that we have fairly stable, high self-esteem across all of those domains. In that case, in the event of a “failure” in one domain, you can switch to another domain in which your high self-esteem has not been dinged, and you can buffer yourself from the failure by feeling good about your other abilities. However, if you are so overloaded with responsibilities that you feel like you are “failing at everything,” that doesn’t leave any domain for you to “switch over” into and buffer the negativity. Essentially, in this situation, you face failure in one domain, and all you have left to rely on are…other domains in which you feel like you’ve also failed.
Well, as far as I can see, there are at least three potentially helpful responses to this dilemma.
The first proposal is to eliminate some domains so you can find the optimal balance — identify yourself using as many domains as possible, but limit how many you tack on so you can maintain stable, high self-esteem across the domains that you retain. This is usually the tactic recommended as a result of these discussions — limit what you commit yourself to and what you participate in, so you have time to do whatever it is that you choose to do well.
The second proposal is to focus on what really makes the theory tick — self-esteem. If the reason why self-complexity theory functions as it does relies on self-esteem, maybe it’s not about being perfect at everything, but recognizing when something has been done “well enough” and learning to feel satisfied with your performance in important, identity-relevant domains, even if you have not done everything perfectly. That way, when you do face an objective failure in one domain (like that paper being rejected), you don’t try to “switch over” to your “mom” identity and still feel as if you’re coming up short. Rather, if you can learn to practice self-compassion and maintain a stable level of high self-esteem across all of your domains as a baseline without being too tough on yourself for every minor imperfection, it won’t matter so much that you burned the chocolate chip cookies for the bake sale or showed up to the soccer game 15 minutes late. Remember, self-esteem is not about being perfect at everything — it’s actually about having respect for yourself, feeling like a generally worthwhile person, and being satisfied overall with your life, even if every little part of it is not impeccable. Accepting that you can have high self-esteem without demanding perfection is an important step in being able to use multiple self-identities to your advantage.
Finally, to take a totally different point of view on the matter, psychologists Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park have argued that pursuing self-esteem is actually a dangerous mission entirely, leading people to focus on all the wrong things. Focusing too narrowly on self-esteem may lead people to be unreceptive to helpful feedback (because they don’t want to feel threatened), may heighten anxiety and stress (because people concerned with self-esteem are naturally scared of failure), or may threaten personal relationships (because self-esteem needs take precedence over relationships). Instead, Crocker and Park suggest that people should focus instead on other types of goals, such as those that involve other people (relationship-based goals) or those that involve something “larger than the self,” like feeling as if you are making a difference in the world. It’s a little trickier to directly apply this idea to our everyday lives, but if you can manage to valuate some of your self-identity domains without relying on self-esteem, it might be optimal. For example, instead of feeling negatively about your inability to cram 40 hours’ worth of activities into a 24 hour day, you can try to focus on what you have done, and how it has helped others or contributed to an important, higher-order cause.
In the end, the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in “limiting” what we do, or in bemoaning our natural inability to do everything that we want to do perfectly. After all, having multiple identities is not necessarily harmful; in fact, it should ideally be beneficial, at least according to decades of psychological research. The importance of acknowledging that “good enough” is an acceptable practice and learning how to be self-compassionate about our minor shortcomings might end up being the winning argument in the work-life debate
Linville, P.W. (1987). Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Crocker, J., & Park, L.E. (2004). The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.392