How to balance work, mental health, and friendships

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 Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory.

Prior to that, she was a coordinator for the SHARE program at Princeton University which provided programming and support to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Prior to that, she earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Duke University and completed her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical Center.

However, her professional exploits are not the only things that bring her happiness.

She also loves to dance. You listen to and write poetry with spoken words. And at least once every two weeks, she makes time to have 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, that we think in order to be successful I have to let go,” she says.

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

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

“Productivity is not always a sign of perfection or emotional wellness.”

Aditi Shrikant, CNBC make it: What is a common misconception people have about mental health maintenance?

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

They can appear and affect our sleep. It can show up in our parenting. Avoidance is not the cure.

The second misconception is that “busy” or “productive” is the same thing as “healed” or “wellness” or “perfect”. Many people are fooled by this because they associate not performing well with depression and the inability to get out of bed, which is how it appears for some people.

But for others, they can throw themselves into their work. They may be workaholics or perfectionists. They feel they always have something to prove but never feel good enough.

Your work or productivity is not always a sign of your perfection or emotional wellness.

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

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

Bryant: Think in terms of your longevity and sustainability. Sometimes we are so motivated to accumulate more, or to get a promotion that we don’t pay attention to ourselves in the future.

It’s a preparation for burnout. It is a preparation of our bodies that fails us. Sometimes we end up physically or emotionally unable to keep up this pace.

You want to be intentional and you don’t just want a temporary success where you’ll be working all night to deliver that amazing report tomorrow. You want longevity in your success.

Sometimes we are so motivated to accumulate more, or to get a promotion that we don’t pay attention to ourselves in the future.

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

I want to call it that for some people, this isn’t even the pursuit of luxury. For some people, it’s trying to pay rent while they’re in survival mode.

Even for those who are overworked, you depend on you and have a family that depends on you, and when we throw ourselves into a hole, it doesn’t work in the long run. It is important to find small ways or short ways to create caring rituals.

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

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

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

It could be a podcast. Maybe because I’m going to get up and take a shower for a long time. What are the things that feed you?

Another thing that is often overlooked is community care.

Having healthy friendships, healthy relationships, and healthy connections in your family or even with your co-workers, these are the things that help and remind us that we are alive, that we are not just robots, objects, or workers.

It can bring some breath into our lives and love and compassion into our lives.

“When it comes to friendships, you can think of quality over quantity.”

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

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

I may have passed a point in my life where I could talk to you on the phone for hours while watching TV. We may not be able to meet frequently, but when we do bond it is authentic, it is mutual and transparent.

It’s so healing to feel known, accepted, and cared for, for who you are. In many stages of your life, you have to perform or fit different roles. It’s an exhalation.

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

I would also say communicate with the person what your time constraints are. I think sometimes we make assumptions or just don’t communicate. This is when friendships can fail because the person thinks you’re over them or that you don’t actually care about them. But you really do care.

My best friends across the country. She lives in Philadelphia and I live in Los Angeles. It’s not like we go somewhere together every week, but when we talk, it’s very nourishing.

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