How to balance work, mental health, friendship

Thema Bryant’s list of career 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 Trauma and Culture Research Laboratory.

Prior to that, she was a coordinator at Princeton University’s SHARE program, which provides programs and support to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.

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

However, her professional feats are not the only thing that brings her joy.

She also loves to dance. She listened and wrote spoken poetry. And at least every two weeks, she makes time to call her best friend of 30 years who lives in the same country as her.

“It’s time to let go of the false dichotomy, or wrong choice, that we believe to be successful, I have to give up on myself,” she said.

CNBC Make It spoke with Bryant about the importance of balancing your productivity, your mental health, maintaining close friendships — and how.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

‘Productivity isn’t always an indicator of your completeness or emotional health’

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

Bryant: A common misconception is that people think “if I try not to think about it, I’ll get over it.” Inhibition is not really effective. It can work in the short term, I think that’s why people pick it up and say “I got over it and I don’t want to talk about it.” But when we have challenging experiences in life and we avoid them, they end up manifesting in other ways.

It can appear and affect our sleep. It can show up in our parenting style. Evasion is not the same as healing.

The second misconception is that “busy” or “productive” is the same as “healed” or “healthy” or “complete”. Many people are fooled by it because they associate bad work with depression and not being able to get out of bed, which is how it manifests in some people.

But for others, they can throw themselves into their work. They can be a workaholic or a 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 integrity or emotional health.

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

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

Bryant: Think about your own longevity and sustainability. Sometimes we are pushed to accumulate more, or get promoted without paying attention to our future selves.

It’s a setting for burnout. It’s a setting for our own bodies to fail us. Sometimes we can’t maintain that speed either physically or mentally.

You want purpose, not just a temporary success, where you’ll stay up all night submitting this amazing report tomorrow. You want to perpetuate your success.

Sometimes we are pushed to accumulate more, or get promoted without paying attention to our future selves.

Think: “How can I create a pace that I can sustain and not miss my life where I gave everything, my time, my energy, my focus. Where I neglected my health or relationships.”

I’d like to name it that for some, this isn’t even a luxury pursuit. For some, it’s trying to pay rent while in survival mode.

Even for skinny people, you depend on you and you have your family dependent on you and when we plunge ourselves into the pit, it won’t work for long. It is important to find small ways or short ways to create rituals of care.

Shrikant: What is an example of a short ritual that anyone can do?

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

If I set my alarm for a time when I have to jump out of bed, I’ve started the day with anxiety. Give yourself a few minutes in the morning and decide what your morning ritual will be.

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

Another thing that is often overlooked is community care.

Having healthy friendships and healthy relationships and healthy connections in the family or even with colleagues, those are the things that help us and remind us that we are alive, that we are not only is a robot, an object, or a worker.

That can breathe a little breath into our lives, bring love and compassion into our lives.

‘When it comes to friendship, you probably think of quality over quantity’

Shrikant: Friendships are often relationships that go away when people start to have children 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 those with a lot of responsibilities, when it comes to friendship, you probably think of quality over quantity.

I may have passed the stage in my life where I could talk to you on the phone for hours while watching TV. We may not see each other often, but when we connect it’s authentic, it’s mutual, it’s transparent.

Feeling known, accepted, and cared for by someone, whoever you are, is good for you. For most of your life, you have to perform or fit into many different roles. It is an exhalation.

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

I also want to tell the person about your time limit. I think sometimes we make assumptions or don’t communicate. That’s when a friendship can fail because the person thinks you’re done with them or you don’t really care. But you really care.

My best friends are all over the country. She lives in Philadelphia and I live in Los Angeles. We don’t go somewhere together every week but when we do talk it’s very rewarding.

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