February 1, 2023
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How to balance work, mental health, friendships

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Thema Bryant’s list of professional accomplishments is undeniably impressive.

As of 2023 she is the president of the American Psychological Association. Bryant is also a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. 

Before that, she was the coordinator at Princeton’s University’s SHARE program which offered programming and support to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.

And before that she received her doctorate in clinical psychology at Duke University and did her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical Center. 

Her professional feats are not the only things that bring her joy, though.

She also loves dancing. She listens to and writes spoken word poetry. And at least every other week she makes time for a phone call with her best friend of 30 years who lives across the country from her. 

“It’s time to let go of the false dichotomy, or the false choice, which is we believe that in order to be successful I have to abandon myself,” she says. 

CNBC Make It talked to Bryant about the imporance of balancing productivity, your mental health, maintaining close friendships — and how to do it.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

‘Productivity is not always a marker of your wholeness or emotional wellness’

Aditi Shrikant, CNBC Make It: What is a common misconception people have about mental health upkeep? 

Bryant: A common misconception is people think “if I try not to think about it I’ll get over it.” Suppression doesn’t really work. It can work in the short run, which I think is why people choose it and say “I’m over it and I don’t want to talk about it.” But when we have challenging life experiences and we avoid them they end up showing up in other ways. 

It can show up and affect our sleep. It can show up in our parenting. Avoidance is not the same thing as healing. 

The second misconception is that “busy” or “productive” is the same thing as “healed” or “wellness” or “wholeness.” A lot of people get tricked by that because they associate not doing well with depression and not being able to get out of bed, which is the way it shows up for some people.

But for other people, they can throw themselves into their work. They may be a workaholic or perfectionist. They feel like they constantly have something to prove but never feel good enough. 

Your business or productivity is not always a marker of your wholeness or emotional wellness.

‘You want to be intentional. You want longevity in your success’

Shrikant: At the same time, it’s important and necessary to be productive at your job. How do you balance excelling at work with taking care of your mental health? 

Bryant: Thinking in terms of longevity and your own sustainability. Sometimes we are so driven to accumulate more, or get the promotion that we are not paying attention to our future self. 

It’s a setup for burnout. It’s a setup for our own bodies failing us. Sometimes we end up physically or emotionally not being able to maintain that pace.

You want to be intentional and not just want a temporary success where you are going to pull this all-nighter to turn in this amazing report tomorrow. You want longevity in your success. 

Sometimes we are so driven to accumulate more, or get the promotion that we are not paying attention to our future self.

Think: “How can I  create a pace I can maintain and not miss out on my life where I’ve given everything away, my time, my energy, my focus. Where I’ve neglected my health or relationship.”

I want to name that for some people this isn’t even a pursuit of luxury. For some people it’s trying to pay the rent while being in survival mode.

Even for those who are stretched thin, you are depending on you and you have family depending on you and when we run ourselves into a hole, it just doesn’t work in the long run. It’s import to find small ways or short ways to create rituals of care.

Shrikant: What’s an example of a short ritual anybody can do? 

Bryant: It can be as simple as when you wake up in the morning. Try to wake up before you have to get up.

If I set my alarm for the time I have to hop out of bed, I’ve already started my day anxious. Give yourself a few minutes in the morning and decide what your morning ritual is going to be.

It could be a podcast. Maybe it’s that I’m going to wake up and take a long shower. What are the things that feed you? 

Another thing that often gets overlooked is community care.

Having healthy friendships and healthy relationships and healthy connections in your family or even with co-workers, those are things that help us and remind us that we are alive, that we aren’t just robots or objects or laborers.

That can put some breath into our lives and love and compassion into our lives. 

‘When it comes to friendships, you can think of quality over quantity’

Shrikant: Friendships are often the relationships that fall by the wayside as people start having kids or need to take care of aging parents. How can you nurture your friendships when you’re really busy? 

Bryant: For very busy people or people with a lot of responsibility, when it comes to friendships, you can think of quality over quantity. 

I may be past the phase in my life where I can talk to you on the phone for hours while I watch TV. We might not be able to get together as frequently, but when we connect it is authentic, it is mutual, it is transparent.

It’s very healing to feel known by someone and accepted and cared for, for who you are. So much of your lives, you’re having to perform or fit into various roles. It is an exhale.

It’s a gift to our nervous system when we are with someone with whom we can feel at home.

I’d also say communicate with the person what your time limitations are. I think sometimes we make assumptions or don’t communicate. That’s when friendships can fail because the person thinks you’re done with them or you don’t actually care. But you do actually care. 

My best friends is across the country. She lives in Philadelphia and I live in Los Angeles. It’s not like every week we are going somewhere together but when we do speak it’s very nourishing. 

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