Thema Bryant’s list of career accomplishments is certainly impressive.
As of 2023, she is president of the American Psychological Association. Bryant is also a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, where he directs the Culture and Trauma Research Lab.
Before that, she was the coordinator of Princeton’s SHARE program, which provided programming and support to combat sexual assault and harassment.
Prior to that, she earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Duke University and did her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical Center.
Her professional accomplishments aren’t the only thing that keeps her happy, though.
She also likes to dance. She listens to and writes spoken poetry. At least every other week, she finds time to speak on the phone with her best friend of 30 years who lives across the country.
“It’s time to let go of the false dichotomy or the wrong choices that we think, in order to be successful, I have to let go of myself,” she said.
CNBC Make It spoke with Bryant about balancing productivity, mental health, and the importance of maintaining close friendships — and how to do it.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Productivity isn’t always a sign of your integrity or emotional health”
Aditi Shrikant, CNBC Productions: What are the common misconceptions 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.” Repression really doesn’t work. It works in the short term, and I think that’s why people pick it up and say “I’m fed up with it, 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 being “busy” or “productive” is the same thing as being “recovery” or “healthy” or “whole.” A lot of people get fooled by this because they associate poor performance with depression and not being able to get out of bed, which is how some people behave.
But for others, they can devote themselves fully to their work. They may be workaholics or perfectionists. They feel like they always need to prove something, but it never feels good enough.
Your business or productivity aren’t always a sign of your integrity or emotional health.
‘You think it’s on purpose. you want to live long in success’
shrimp: At the same time, it is important and necessary to be efficient in your work. How do you balance a great job with taking care of your mental health?
Bryant: Consider longevity and your own sustainability. Sometimes we want to accumulate more, or get promoted, so much that we don’t focus on our future selves.
This is the setting for burnout. It’s our own body’s setup to let us down. Sometimes we end up physically or emotionally unable to keep up the pace.
You want awareness, not just temporary success, and you’re up all night to deliver this amazing report tomorrow. You want success for a long life.
Sometimes we want to accumulate more, or get promoted, so much that we don’t focus on our future selves.
Think about it: “How can I create a rhythm that I can maintain without missing out on a life that I’ve given everything to, my time, my energy, my focus. I’m neglecting my health or my relationships.”
I’d like to point out that for some, this isn’t even a quest for luxury. For some, it’s trying to pay the rent in survival mode.
Even for people who are exhausted, you are dependent on you, your family is dependent on you, and when we are in trouble, it doesn’t work in the long run. Finding small or short ways to create a nursing ritual is important.
shrimp: What is an example of a short ritual anyone can do?
Bryant: It can be as simple as waking up in the morning. Try to wake up before you have to.
If I set my alarm at a time when I have to get up, I’ve already started an anxious day. Give yourself a few minutes in the morning and decide what your morning ritual will be.
It could be a podcast. Maybe it’s because I’m waking up and taking a long shower. What is feeding you?
Another thing that is often overlooked is community care.
Having healthy friendships, healthy relationships, and healthy family relationships, even relationships with colleagues, can help us and remind us that we are alive and that we are more than robots, objects, or laborers.
This can breathe some breath into our lives, and it can inject love and compassion into our lives.
“When it comes to friendship, you can think about quality over quantity”
shrimp: Friendships often fall by the wayside when people start having children or need to care for aging parents. How can you cultivate your friendships when you’re really busy?
kobe: For someone who is very busy or someone with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, when it comes to friendship, you can think of quality rather than quantity.
I’m probably past the stage where I can talk to you on the phone for hours while watching TV. We may not be able to get together very often, but when we do, it’s real, mutual, and transparent.
Feeling known by someone and accepted and cared for for who you are is very healing. For most of your life, you have had to play or fit in various roles. This is exhalation.
When we’re with someone who makes us feel at home, it’s a gift to our nervous system.
I also want to communicate your time constraints with the other person. I think sometimes we make assumptions or don’t communicate. That’s when friendships fail because the person thinks you’re done with them or you don’t actually care. But you do care.
My best friends are all over the country. She lives in Philadelphia and I live in Los Angeles. It’s not like every week we go somewhere together, but when we talk, it’s very nourishing.
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