The pursuit of balance

By Jeevan Farthing

Jeevan reflects on the importance (or unimportance) of obsessing over having the perfect balance in everyday life.

CW: eating disorders

“A balanced diet for women”; “a balanced diet for men”; “a balanced diet for toddlers”. All readily available on BBC Good Food, and well-intentioned, no doubt. Reference intakes and perfect portions to boot, these precise and calculated recipes purportedly manifest balance as dictated by the distinguished kcal, gram, or clenched fist.

How about a work-life balance? The printed grid, hour-by-hour, week-by-week, distributed to my 12-year old self before every set of exams was the supposed answer. This was Lenny’s revision schedule, an organisational masterpiece in which every ounce of enjoyment – attending church, playing rugby, practising piano – was seamlessly incorporated into 30-minute time slots. These could be found between an equal number of hours devoted daily to studying, themselves peppered with a randomly generated range of quantifiable topics.

Maybe my school was overly ambitious, quasi-preppy, even. But in an era of Studytubers and recipe TikTok, striving for success (healthy eating, academia or other endeavours) seems increasingly equated with the rigid imposition of balance by a distant third party. Alas the problem with balance in rows and columns, or any other carefully crafted concoction, is their necessary foundation of control. I’ve struggled with control, and if you’re scouring the internet for your twelfth new weekday routine – because it’ll be different this time – you probably do, too. 

Control isn’t nice to think about. The immediate connotation is a control freak – a loathsome boss with a micromanagement kink. For myself, control became a toxic coping mechanism: my hangover-related consumption of B1, B2 and B3 was not, in fact, the vitamins in Berocca, but the columns of an Excel spreadsheet. This was only made worse by my fundamental inability to control my relationship with control, and starting university was the perfect catalyst for this to manifest in unhealthy ways.

Take my diet. In the first semester, with an actual social life thrust upon me, the combination of constantly going out and embarrassingly frequent mirror selfies meant I barely ate a thing. Here was the noxious medium of body dysmorphia, slowly withering away what I considered an acceptable amount to eat. Then fast forward a few weeks, when I’m in my post-valentine’s government mandated slob era. With no outfits to put on, and no immaculately dressed Finnieston hipsters to compare myself to, I could not stop eating. It was a cathartic release, weeks and weeks of stress and control were let go just like that, only to result in self-loathing. This vicious cycle arose from a social media landscape which fosters a completely toxic mindset to your diet. A self-care industrial complex encourages you to impose balance on yourself, while the comparative nature of Instagram shifts the goalposts of acceptability to unrealistic ends.

Sometimes balance becomes an obsession. I was preparing for my Grade 8 piano, age 14, and the scales were freaking me out, because the examiner can ask you any variation of any scale in any key starting from any note. My flawed solution was to write down all of these possibilities onto scraps of paper (needlessly low-tech) and get through a certain number a day. If I messed up, it went back in the pile, otherwise I wouldn’t have had an equal number of first time successes across all scales. To say I worked myself sick is an understatement: the discipline underpinning such a regime was unhealthily intense. Then a couple of years later I was preparing for my performance diploma, still exhausted from my prior control mechanisms, so I just had to let go completely. I hadn’t even looked at the last piece in my repertoire four days before the exam. My endeavour to impose balance through control was, ultimately, balanced out by a complete lack of control.

Balance completely pervades the way I think, and the last few years have felt like a seesaw because of it. A single glass of wine one night, a whole bottle of bacardi the next. Timing one first date to the minute, then not even looking at the menu of the place a different time. Five politics podcasts while cooking one day, pure silence the day after. Get through ten lecture recordings in a library mega session, then no uni work for three weeks. 

Chaotically capitulating from one extreme to another, swapping overindulgence for underperformance, does, overall, produce balance. But it is an exhausting way to live. Balance alone is meaningless, even actively harmful, if it is not controlled. But the relationship between balance and control is complex, and something that I still don’t fully understand even after writing this article. My experience has shown that by obsessing over control, and turning it into a disciplinary mechanism, the balance produced is chaos. All of my forays into feral tendencies have arisen from a desire to impose a perception of balance requiring unhealthy levels of control, which inevitably crumbles into complete lack of control afterwards. This is because balance isn’t something which obtrudes, but manifests.

So perhaps the best way to achieve a balance is to omit its imposition entirely. Stop caring, and just allow things to fall into place. Eat what you crave, memorise an exam topic when you feel like it, and listen to a podcast when you want. Maybe the key to finding a balance is to just not think about it at all.


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