Juggling Work and Parenthood without the Guilt with guest Dr. Yael Schonbrun
About this Episode
Are you a working parent who constantly feels overwhelmed, frustrated and/or riddled with guilt? Welcome to the club! For most of us, it’s hard to feel like we’ve got the time, energy, or temperament to balance our lives in a way that feels connected, creative, and inspired. On this episode of the Brainy Moms podcast, Dr. Amy and Sandy talked to clinical psychologist Dr. Yael Schonbrun who shared her insights and tips to help us get perspective, apply strategies, and find camaraderie in this modern challenge of juggling it all.
About Dr. Schonbrun
Dr. Yael Schonbrun is licensed clinical psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University, and co-host of the podcast, “Psychologists Off the Clock.” Yael wears many professional hats. In all areas of her work, she draws on scientific research, her clinical experience, ancient wisdom (with an emphasis on Taoism), and real-life experiences with her three boys. She’s the author of the book, Work, Parent, Thrive: 12 Science-backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much).
Connect with Dr. Schonbrun
Buy Dr. Schonbrun’s book: https://www.shambhala.com/work-parent-thrive.html
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Read the transcript for this episode:
Dr. Amy Moore: Hi and welcome to this episode of Brainy Moms brought to you today by LearningRx brain training centers. I am your host, Dr. Amy Moore, coming to you today from a snowy but sunny Colorado Springs, Colorado. And I am being co-hosted today with my friend Sandy Zamalis and she is coming to us from Stanton, Virginia, where it is snowing or not snowing?
Sandy Zamalis: No snow, just cold.
Dr. Amy Moore: Just cold. All right. So we are excited to have a conversation with our guest today, Dr. Yael Schonbrun. Yael is a clinical psychologist, faculty member at Brown University, co-host of the podcast, “Psychologists Off the Clock,” and author of the book, Work, Parent, Thrive; 12, Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Else Feels Like Too Much).
Sandy Zamalis: Welcome, Yael. We can’t wait to discuss the important messages in your book about work, family conflict and the tension our multiple roles can create. But first, would you please share more about yourself and your background and how you came to focus on the challenges of work versus family roles so that our listeners can get to know you a bit before we do a deep dive.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Absolutely. I just want to first thank you guys for having me on. Your podcast is wonderful and so in line with my mission, so I just really appreciate you spreading science-backed ideas for parents. This is awesome. Such a great resource.
Dr. Amy Moore: Well, we appreciate you being with us.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah. I’m a clinical, I’m a clinical psychologist by training and sort of hail from the halls of academia and became a parent— a working parent—when I was on my postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University, where I still sit on faculty and I actually entered into working parenthood thinking I totally had this in the bag. I was going to ace the whole thing because I had a job that I loved. I was very excited to become a parent. I had a supportive partner and so I thought, you know, I imagined it would be hard, but I thought I could figure it out with all the resources I had and the colleagues’ support that I had and the models that I had around me. And lo and behold, it was really, really hard. And so, I did what many nerdy people like me do: I started reading everything that I could get my hands on. You know, starting in the bookstore. And what I found there was helpful on the one hand, but sort of didn’t point to the things that really resonated with me because I’m a clinical psychologist. So, most of the books were about time management or systems issues that, you know, are infrastructure in terms of parental leave policies and our workplaces and flexibility and the inequality in marriages were really problematic.
And I didn’t disagree with any of that. But for me as a clinical psychologist, it felt like a lot of the books weren’t speaking to part of what I was experiencing and sort of how I think about the world, which is, you know, part of what our experiences comes from the outside. And then a huge part of it comes from how we think about things and how we approach things and how we engage in life, and how we relate to our thoughts and our internal emotional experiences and so on.
And so, what I started to do, I guess the other part that I should mention is I’m not a natural optimist, but I’m a very dedicated optimist, so I’m very into positive psychology, and so a lot of what I was reading from the bookstore was very disheartening, kind of bleak. So, what I did was I started turning towards academic literature, and I found when I, you know, first took a deep dive, this concept called “work family enrichment,” which kind of sits alongside work family conflict.
But most of us have never heard of it, right? Outside of the people who actually do this research. This isn’t a construct that most people have even heard of, and it’s a very interesting topic. And it’s basically the idea that our two roles can help each other, which is pretty cool. And I was kind of like, this is awesome.
Like, I want to learn more about this. And I started getting really deep into the science of creativity and the science of rest and stress and happiness. And in all of these ways, role tension actually turns out to help us. And I was like, this is pretty cool. Because from a psychological perspective, shifting how we think about it, shifting how we approach it, shifting how we understand how these roles exist in tension actually helps us manage the conflict better and extract more of the good stuff that actually exists, but most of us are just not noticing it because we’re so consumed with this conversation and the experience. I mean the legitimate experience of work, family conflict. So that was, you know, how I got into this topic and I started, you know, I started my career in academia. Um, and one day as I was sort of starting to think about all this stuff, I just randomly thought to myself, oh, I have something to say here.
And I sat down during my kids’ nap and wrote an op-ed piece and googled “how to submit op-ed piece.” And at the top was New York Times that, you know, instructions. So, I submitted it and lo and I, you know, lightning strike it. It got published and it sort of went viral and it kind of opened me up into this new career, which I love, which is more involved in translating academic science for non-academic audiences. And that’s kind of where the book lies. It translates a lot of different pockets of academic science, positive psychology, neuroscience, stress research, creativity, research, for working parents so that we can manage the whole rigmarole with better skills and ideas and more success and more happiness in hand. So that’s, that’s where this book came from.
Dr. Amy Moore: Oh, I love that. So when, as you were talking about that idea of it being enrichment, like, it kind of reminded me of not post-traumatic stress, but post-traumatic growth. Right? And so, but like, I want to hear more about that, but before we do that, talk a little bit, about this idea of work, family conflict. You say that it’s a systems level problem, but also fundamentally a human experience. Normalize that a little bit for working moms, before we talk about how to move that into, from conflict to enrichment.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: I love the way that you frame that question, and this is like such my, you know, soapbox platform. I do think it is a systems problem. Like there are problems in the way that, you know, our workplaces are structured and the fact that we, you know, in America have so little guaranteed, really none in many states, family leave when we have children. It’s, you know, really tough. The problem is when we assume that it’s all a systems level problem, then every time we make progress and we’re still uncomfortable with this whole tension that exists between rules, we feel like then there must be something wrong with us.
And what we know from psychological research, and this is like research that goes back, you know, centuries like Freud first said, “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” And when you really think about it, this is fundamentally a human problem because human lives, we want to extract a lot of richness. We want to be involved in lots of different roles. In fact, happiness is predicated on being involved in lots of different roles. But when you’re involved in lots of different roles, what’s going to happen? You are going to experience tension between them. They go hand in hand. So, you can’t have a full, rich, meaningful life if you have—if you have no roles.
But if you have lots of roles, you are going to experience tension. So, if you have—if you parent, if you work, if you’re a partner, if you’re a pet owner, if you’re the child of aging parents, if you’re a sibling, like those demands, those role demands, which actually are good for us—it’s good to be needed and to extract purpose from being needed and from making contributions. But if you have those multiple pockets, they’re going to tug on each other. They’re going to pull in different directions at times and will sometimes cause tremendous internal discomfort. And like, you know, the struggle is real. It’s legitimate. It is true, but the goal isn’t to undo it. Because we then we wouldn’t have a rich and meaningful life. The goal instead, and this is what I talk about in the book, is to learn how to reframe it and get the most out of it while still managing what’s hard, more skillfully.
Sandy Zamalis: I really like that idea. And you guys use a lot of technical talk, so I’m going to have you define for me the other side of that coin, so we have that work family conflict side. What do you mean when you say “work family enrichment” because I’d like to hear sort of like a definition of what those look like for you so that even our listeners can, we can all have that same playing field of, what does it mean to be able to balance those two.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, so the definition of “work family enrichment” is actually quite simple.
It’s when work and family roles benefit each other. And the way that I think about it and the way that it’s talked about in the literature is that there’s kind of three distinct pathways that they can help each other out. So the first pathway is what I call the skill transfer effect. And that’s the idea that we have this tension where we have to step into one role and therefore step out of another. But whatever role you’ve stepped into, you’re probably developing skills. So when you guys are podcasting, you’re asking curious questions, you’re thinking deeply, you’re dealing with technology issues and actually that enriches your parenting because then you can ask your kids thoughtful questions. You can teach them to use technology, which is so important. Or they can teach you and you won’t be totally in the dark. And the same thing goes for parenting. When we’re pressed to step into our parenting role, and away from our work role, we’re developing all sorts of skills: being patient, seeing things from somebody else’s perspective, you know, learning to connect or practicing connecting. And lo and behold, those kinds of skills are really important in the workplace. And so this skill transfer effect is one of the ways that, you know, the pressure exists, but it’s something that we can capitalize on. The second pathway is the stress buffering effect, and that’s the idea that when we experience stress in one of our roles, we can actively counterbalance it with positive experiences in the other.
So if your kid is going through a super tough developmental age—you know, toddlerhood or teenagehood or anything in between—you can counterbalance that with positive experiences at work. You know, connecting with colleagues. If you’re feeling socially isolated at work, you can go home and like hug your kids and snuggle on the couch.
So we can counterbalance these stressful experiences with positive experiences and that’s easier to do when you have multiple roles to draw upon. And then the final path is what I call the additive effect, and that’s this idea that I kind of talked about already, which is, researchers talk about and define happiness in lots of different ways, but one of the ways is defined as like meaning and purpose in life.
And the more roles that we have to cultivate meaning and purpose, the better chance we have to feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose. And in fact, you know, good parenting often results in our kids like launching and, and sort of living independent lives and that can feel like it leaves a hole for you.
So if you can have other roles where you have reliable meaning, then you’re not sort of like putting all your meaning eggs in one basket. So having lots of roles is one way to safeguard meaning, but it’s also a way to like have an a more meaning that you can access on a day-to-day basis and certainly over your lifetime.
And so I think your original question is, “Can I compare them?” So like that’s work family enrichment. It’s this idea that like there’s tension, but there are lots of possibilities. And some of the possibilities exist exactly because there’s tension. It’s like this pressure to step between roles offers really fabulous gifts. Work-family conflict is this idea that like, when, you know, the two roles sort of compete against each other, it’s this scarcity hypothesis. So when I’m in my work role, I’ve stepped away from my parenting role and that’s a loss to my parenting and vice versa. And that’s, um, you know, it’s sort of like this idea that there’s like a finite pie.
And in some ways that is true. Like I’m, I’m actually not arguing that that’s untrue. That is true too, right? There’s only a certain amount of time in the day. If I’m talking with you guys, I’m not volunteering at the library for my kids or chaperoning their trip. If I’m chaperoning for a trip, then I’m not making progress on my next book.
Right? That is, you know, true. And yet there’s this, it’s sort of like both, and there’s also this truth that there’s kind of an expanding pie, which is where the work-family enrichment comes in. So it’s, it’s both and like the conflict exists. It is sometimes tragically uncomfortable and very painful, and we can also be very strategic in accessing more of the enrichment.
And again, knowing the social science can help us do that more effectively. That was a really long-winded answer. I’m sorry.
Sandy Zamalis: No, no, that was great.
Dr. Amy Moore: Fantastic. I was making a ton of notes.
Sandy Zamalis: Me too.
Dr. Amy Moore: So, when I think about tension and this work-life balance, I notice a lot of tension between the stay-at-home mom community and the working mom community.
And I’ve always said—so you gave a long answer. Now this is gonna be a long question—I’ve always said that I’m a better mom because I work, that the benefits that working has given me has then made me go home, appreciate my time that I do have with my kids. And being in the education and psychology field, I mean, it’s all family oriented anyway, right? So those skills translate back and forth.
But what I have seen is, the working mom justification, for why this is great for me as a woman and a mom, looks like just trying to justify going to work to a stay-at-home mom who says that is the best thing to do for your child. What I’m hearing you say is that there’s research supporting those benefits that you just walked us through. The skill building, the stress busting, and the additive effects of having to balance work-family conflict, like there’s research that shows those benefits are real, that it’s not just us justifying going to work just to get a break from our kids.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: I think that’s true and I think that you can access many of those benefits as a stay-at-home parent as well.
So it’s not like you need to work in order to access these kinds of benefits of work-family enrichment. You could access, I mean, you can switch out the word “work” with like hobby or craft or, you know, passion project or community or spirituality. It’s really about having multiple roles where you can fuel the feeding of your psychological needs and the enrichment benefits that come from occupying different places where you’re accessing different parts of your interpersonal self, your different parts of your cognitive self.
So I don’t mean to say that working parenthood is better than stay-at-home parenthood. What I mean to say is that this idea that role tension is bad is … it lacks nuance. That there’s actually a lot of good that comes from role tension regardless of what the roles are.
Dr. Amy Moore: Okay. That’s a fantastic clarification.
Sandy Zamalis: Go ahead. You finish your thought, Yale. Cause I might send us on a rabbit trail.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Okay. Well, I was gonna say, in this one chapter where I talk about tending to your happiness needs, I actually interviewed my own mom who was a stay-at-home mom. And she talks about it, and I certainly observed that she was a pretty unhappy stay-at-home mom.
And so I did worry when I was writing that chapter that it would look as if I was saying stay-at-home parenthood was like a bad choice. But that isn’t the case at all. She was an immigrant, she didn’t speak English very well. She’s a very shy person. And so for her it was really hard to access other roles than parenting.
And so she ended up feeling very narrow and restricted in the years where we were young kids and that was really hard for her. And so I think working parenthood offers like a very natural way to like expand your world and occupy more roles. But again, there are lots of other ways and you know, if she hadn’t been an immigrant and a very shy person, it might not have been an issue anyway.
So, you know, I think I already made my point. I won’t try to repeat it too many times.
Sandy Zamalis: So I was just listening to a podcast just this week, and it’s kind of the flip side of what you’re explaining and talking about, but from the … They were, they were talking about research that’s showing that, you know, our younger generations are waiting longer and longer to get married.
And they were talking about it from the aspect of that there are young adults not gaining the skills and the benefits that come from having a family and that there are skills to be developed there because they’re focusing more on the work. So it’s interesting to me that —because what I hear you saying is that you need both.
Both are valuable and there are people, there will be people that decide, you know, whether they choose to have a family or not. But if you do choose, there’s value whether you choose to work and be a parent, but there’s also value if you choose to stay at home and be a parent. You’re still learning skills. You’re learning governance skills; how to manage a home, how to get all these people moving in the same direction.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: That requires a lot skills.
Sandy Zamalis: And goals, right? So it really made me think of that other podcast, but from that different perspective. Because I was a stay-at-home mom. I became a working mom later. So I see both sides.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah. And you could imagine too, that somebody who works might say, oh, you’re saying I need to be a parent to access these connection or perspective taking or governance skills and, and actually know you could access those by developing community or finding ways to connect with other people that are not in line with the traditional family structure. So I think it’s really about just making like … It kind of does go back to that Freud quote. “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” So work doesn’t need to be professional work and love doesn’t need to be parenting, but it’s sort of accessing those two sides of what really drives a meaningful rich life. It’s one. Right? And there’s other things to drive a rich and meaningful life, but that’s a one simple way to look at it.
Dr. Amy Moore: So diversify your role.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Amy Moore: So having more than one thing and one role gives these benefits.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah. And as Sandy just said, like I talk a lot about the yin and the yang and you know, in part my book was really inspired by, at the start of this journey, I got really into Daoist philosophy, which is really powerful stuff, and one of the central ideas is that forces that we often see as competing forces are actually often more complementary. Like they balance each other, they create harmony, they keep each other in healthy, sustainable, in a healthy, sustainable form. And you can think about that with all sorts of examples from nature, right?
Like the seasons kind of press on each other, but it’s the equilibrium over time. Or you know, predator and prey kind of keep the population in check and you know, what would femininity be without masculinity? Light, without dark, you know, quick without slow. Like these are kind of competing forces, but actually they exist in complementary harmony with one another.
And we can start to think about our work and our parenting roles, or our craft and our love roles in similar ways.
Dr. Amy Moore: So I can hear some listeners right now saying, great. I believe you when you say that there are benefits to having multiple roles. However, I’m overwhelmed by my multiple roles, right? That conflict and that stress is still impacting me and my ability to perform my multiple roles. And so calling on, you know, the CBT aspect of your practice or however it is that you choose to help people reframe that negative thinking about trying to, you know, balance these multiple roles, what can we do? What is your advice there?
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Well, my first thing that I want to say is that is fair and it is hard, and the struggle is real. And I’m right there with you. Like I do this, I wrote this book. I teach this in the therapy room. I teach this in podcasts and lecture halls and I struggle a lot, right? Some days are really hard and there’s no avoiding that. And I think sort of accepting that is part of it, but accepting it with a lot of self-compassion is really important.
So I teach a lot of self-compassion. And what self-compassion is, is like a different way to understand our internal struggle. So rather than blaming the system or blaming ourselves, we sort of make space for it. So self-compassion, researchers have defined it as having three components.
So one is mindfulness. So just getting in contact non-judgmentally with the present moment of, oh my God, this is really hard. I’m doing a terrible job, and it feels bad, right? Like, I dropped the ball, I yelled at my kid, I missed my deadline. I feel terrible. And doing that without judgment is so different than, I’m doing terrible, I’m a bad parent. I am gonna be incapable of doing this. Right? Like launching into ourselves with a lot of self-blame and criticism instead just like noticing with gentleness.
And so the second component is kindness, self-kindness. So talking to yourself as you would talk to a dear friend who you really feel a lot of compassion for. And we have been in our society—we’re not well trained to talk to ourselves kindly, right? We’re trained to say, oh, you’ve gotta beat yourself into being motivated. And actually that doesn’t work. That is not the right choice in terms of sustainable growth. It is much more effective to say to ourselves, as we would say to a friend, ” This is hard. Anybody in your position would be struggling. You are not bad. This is just a tough day. You made a mistake. You are human.” So talking to yourself with self-kindness.
And then the third component is common humanity. Listen to this podcast and you’ll hear probably all three of us have had really rotten days where we were not our best and we felt pretty crummy about it.
You’re in good company. If you’re having a bad day, if you’re feeling like things aren’t going your way, if you’re feeling like things are out of control, there’s a whole lot of us out there that feel very similarly.
And so connecting to those three components of mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity can help you endure what’s hard and in a way kind of reset.
And as you reset, you can connect to your values. And, and I talk a lot about values in the book, but it’s sort of identifying like moment to moment what you wanna stand for. So for example, over the weekend I dropped the ball and got super grumpy with my kids and I took a moment and I said, “You know, I’m having a hard day. I’m really stressed out. There’s so much going on. This book launch has been stressful.”
Like my kid had a party that he needed to attend. My 12-year-old, and he didn’t have— I bought him a blazer and pants, but I forgot the button-down shirt. And so I’m driving around with my two younger kids, there’s so much traffic, I can’t find parking at the mall. It was like everything was going wrong and I lost it with my kids who weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just trying to be along for the ride. And I paused and I regrouped, and I offered myself self-compassion and then I apologized to them because what I wanted to stand for was taking responsibility for the fact that it had been a hard day and I hadn’t handled it particularly well. And because I teach them self-compassion, my youngest, who’s six, said to me, “You’re human too, Mom.” Right? Which was so nice to hear him having absorbed that message and feeding it back to me in a compassionate way. So these are right— when things go terribly awry, that is okay. The trick is not to get down on yourself. The trick is to regroup and figure out where to go from here. Does that make sense?
Sandy Zamalis: Absolutely. Very much so. There’s a great line in your book that says, “fish discover water last” in which you’re talking about how your thoughts are always there. Would you talk more about this and share the steps that you encourage working parents to try in order to build that awareness about their thoughts, including labels they’ve heard or assign themselves? Because that mindfulness you talk about, it’s hard if there’s a hardwiring of negative thought processes that are happening.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s so interesting because I think that as parents, one of the ways that we connect with each other is like, “Oh, I’m a terrible mom. Oh, I dropped the ball too.” And it feels like this way of building community.
The problem is that the more we practice saying like how terrible we are, the more like it becomes habit and as you’re saying, Sandy, we don’t even notice that we’re having the thoughts. They just feel what … So I practice a treatment that’s called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is related to cognitive behavioral therapy, but it has this mindfulness component that’s a little bit more prominent.
And what we talk a lot about in this kind of therapy is how we get fused with thoughts. It’s almost like we don’t notice that we’re having them. They just feel like the air that we breathe, we don’t even notice it. And it’s hard to unhook and adopt a different line of thinking—one that feels more workable, that helps us to live more in line with the kind of person that we wanna be, if we don’t even notice that we’re having the thoughts in the first place. And let me even take a step back because what thinking I’m a terrible mom, does is, it makes you feel kind of crummy. And when we feel kind of crummy, we don’t usually perform our best. Like if I’m walking around with my kids and I’m feeling like a bad person, I’m not gonna be my most open, loving and curious self, and that is what I really wanna be when I’m with them.
Right? I want to be paying attention to them in like a warmhearted way. And if I’m feeling kind of crummy on the inside, I’m gonna retract and be more grumpy, right? Which is the opposite of how I wanna be. So it, so that’s sort of the function of those thoughts and why we wanna work with them. But in order to work with them again, we have to begin to identify them.
And so part of the practice in acceptance and commitment therapy, and other mindfulness-based approaches is to learn to identify your thoughts. So this is a process in acceptance and commitment therapy that’s called “selfish context.” So it’s like recognizing like, oh, my mind is chattering away. My mind is telling me all these things and the next step is to unhook from them, right? It’s to have these practices. And some of them are really simple. It could be as simple as I’m having the thought that I’m a terrible mom. I’m having the thought that this is impossible, and as soon as you insert that, I’m having the thought that you get just like a tiny bit of distance, you begin to be the fish who understands that it’s sitting in water. The mind that understands that it’s chattering to itself. And then lots of options are available to you, right? You can choose to develop a different kind of thought, a kinder thought, or you can choose to just send your attention in a different direction that feels more workable, more productive, and easier to help you stay in line with the kind of working parent that you wanna be.
Sandy Zamalis: Well, it sounds like you’re taking the label off, right? You’re taking that label off by inserting. Okay.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, you’re well, and I will say that one of the differences between, I don’t know if you want me to get super technical, but one of the differences between acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy is that in ACT—which is the way we call acceptance and commitment therapy—we don’t expect to get rid of a thought or even replace it. We just are trying to change our relationship with it because we can’t actually delete paths that have been built in the brain. And so that can be really frustrating if you have the expectation, like, “I should never think that I’m a terrible mom. Like, oh my God, I’m thinking that. So what does that mean?”
So we wanna sort of shift that expectation too. Rather than not having that thought, we’re just gonna learn to relate to it a little bit differently. We’re gonna learn to understand that that thought is gonna come up like when we make a mistake and that we can practice noticing it sort of loosening its grip on us and developing other thoughts that we can turn towards instead and which are more workable. Does that make sense?
Dr. Amy Moore: Yeah, absolutely. So like, you know, I practice narrative therapy and we externalize. So it’s … the person is not the problem. The problem is the problem, right? And so, you know, for you to be able to say, I’m not a bad mom, I’m just having a thought that I’m a bad mom, and you know, what can we do with this now? Or how can we restore that?
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Absolutely. And in the book, I share this story of a comedian who shared with me that like every time she goes off to do her comedy show and her son would say to her, you know, there you go, choosing the seedy bars over your kids. Like, she would be terribly guilty and it would interfere with like how funny she felt and like her creativity.
And then she would come back and kind of with their tail between her legs. So we started. I was telling her about this project and I was interviewing her and I was saying this piece about the labels and how they interfere with showing up as our, you know, better selves. And she started really thinking about it.
And so the next time she went to a comedy show, she, instead of just dropping it, she noticed, I’m having that thought and she asked her son, you know, what do you really think of me going off to do comedy shows? And he was like, I think it’s so cool. And she was like this huge weight just lifted, right?
It’s not that her son never said anything snarky to her. He’s the son of the comedian. Of course he did. But that shift in her own relationship with that label opened her up to get curious and to like, enter in more information that was more nuanced and more workable for her that she could then pay better attention to.
And that helped her in her parenting role and in her work role. So, I mean, I’m not saying that like it’s so easy and like you do this shift in like boom, you’re done. But there, there’s power in shifting our labels and in changing the way that we relate to them.
Dr. Amy Moore: So we need to take a break and let Sandy read a word from our sponsor and when we come. I wanna talk about getting caught up in the “should” that you talk about in your book when we come back.
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Dr. Amy Moore: Okay. So, in your chapter about where you talk about spinning your own story, you talk about kind of that default, you know, working parent stories and getting caught up in the word “should” and how we need to reframe those “shoulds.” Talk a little bit about that.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, so “shoulds” tend to be internalized ideals either for ourselves or for it’s often—I do a lot of couples therapy. We have a lot of “shoulds” about partners, but we also have a lot of “shoulds” about our kids and about the world. And the problem with “shoulds” is that they’re not very useful.
Like if something isn’t the way you want it to be, getting hung up on that is often not terribly productive. And so there are more useful ways to think about what you’d like than should. And what I focus a lot on is values. So one thing that I’ll also point out about “shoulds” is they often come from social comparisons. Like we see somebody else’s Instagram reel and we say, oh, we should have a house that looks like that, or our family should look that photogenic. Or, you know, we should be, have that many followers. Right? And, and we feel like less than, right? And so rather than getting caught up in the “shoulds,” it’s helpful to clarify your values and I mentioned values already, but they’re so important. They have to do with how we wanna show up moment to moment, like sort of, you know, what we wanna stand for. And you can think about values as different than goals, right? Because it’s, it’s not something, it’s not a destination that we get to. It’s sort of how we take the journey. So you could think about it as like, if you’re stepping into a super chilly pool, like the end goal is to get into the pool, but like, how do you wanna tolerate the discomfort?
Do you wanna do it quickly or do you wanna do it slowly? Do you wanna notice how your body feels? Or do you wanna numb out? Do you wanna be, you know, laughing and joking with your kids, you know, as they laugh at you for being a scaredy cat to be cold? Or do you wanna be pretending to be brave, showing your courage on the outside? And there’s no wrong value really. It’s really about what matters most to us. And I think being aware that the “should” can walk us away from what matters to us is especially important for parents because we’re so inundated with messages of things that we should buy, should do with our kids, should sign our kids up for, and it can be really hard to stay in touch with what it is that we as parents wanna stand for, that we as family members wanna stand for, that we as workers wanna stand for. And so really taking some time and like unhooking from the “shoulds,” like, okay, I’m having a “should” thought, right? Let me notice that and let me come back and ask myself what’s important to me?
And values clarification can be anything, any question that sort of helps you to get in touch with the kind of person that you wanna be. But one of my favorite exercises is to think forward 30 years from now and imagine yourself looking back on this phase of life. So what—and when you look back, imagining like, “What would I have been proud to have stood for?”
Right? Is it that I really, you know, that “should”, is indicating to me that I really do wanna keep up with the Joneses, like those kinds of things really are important to me? Or is it indicating to me that, you know, I wanna fit in, but I have enough discomfort that it’s really important for me to recognize that maybe doing all those activities isn’t that important?
Right? Spending time together and having downtime as a family is more important. And I’ll say, you know, I, this was something that I really struggled with early on as a parent, and because of these kinds of practices, I’ve been really clear with myself about the things that matter less to me, even if they’re important to all of my friends.
So, for example, like I hate hosting birthday parties. Hate it. And so I … And my kids do like it, but not enough that I’m willing to sort of tolerate the discomfort. And as a value, like I do wanna honor their birthdays. I do want them to feel special. I do wanna do fun things that are connecting and even social, but I don’t like the sort of traditional birthday parties. They feel like a lot of pressure. And I hate party favors because they just gum up the landfill. So I’m like opposed to it, and my kids understand. And so we do other fun things. So like once you identify like, is this “should” pointing to something that really matters? And then how can I do that in a value aligned way? Or is this “should” pointing to something that doesn’t really matter to me, but like I care about fitting in? And can I find a way to embody that value without getting caught up in the social comparison piece of it?
Sandy Zamalis: You also talk about basic happiness needs. And you mentioned three core psychological needs: competence, connectedness, and autonomy. And I, we talked with another clinical as is Dr. Sam Goldstein. I can’t even think of the title I wanna give him. But anyway, he talked about purpose being included in that sect as well. But you focus on that competence, connectedness, and autonomy. Would you explain those a bit more for our listeners and give examples of how we can acknowledge or cultivate these experiences along with that, you know, the values that you just talked about.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, so competence, connectedness, and autonomy are known to be some of the core like psychological ingredients for happiness and people who are able to access experiences that fall into each of those categories on a daily basis tend to be happier over time. And by the way, they also tend to be better, happier as parents and more connected to their kids. And their kids tend to also be able to embody more of those experiences too. So like when we’re supporting, we need to have experiences of our own autonomy. We also need to support our kids’ experiences of their autonomy and their competence and their connectedness. And they help each other out.
So the idea that I talk about in the book is that having multiple roles gives us a better chance to fill those needs on a daily basis. I kind of mentioned this earlier, but like if you haven’t had an experience of mastery because your kid is like not sleeping through the night and you’re feeling like as a first-time parent, you don’t really know what you’re doing and it feels kind of crummy, it can be really satisfying to go to work and do something that is a work assignment that you know how to do in a competent way. It sort of can fill that need. So I feel incompetent as a parent, but at least I’ve had an experience of competency at work.
And the same thing goes for the other too. You know, like often we feel like we don’t have agency in one or the other. Like our kid is, you know, dictating our sleep schedule, for example, or our boss is micromanaging us. But if we can look for a role that can fill that need of agency, of like making an autonomous choice, we can get that need filled in one place, even if it’s not filled in the other. And so this is another way that having multiple roles can help us feel happier and more satisfied in our lives.
And one thing that’s so useful about knowing this research is that we can do it really deliberately, with intention. We can say like, “Oh, I’ve been feeling kind of rotten today. What have I been missing? Like if, if I know that happiness is predicated on experiences of mastery, autonomy, and connectedness, which need has been missing and which role is best suited to fill it, given where I’m at right now? Like if my kids are, you know, not available to help me connect in a way, then can I ask a colleague out for coffee? If you know my work is—if I’m feeling kind of out of sorts at work because it’s a new job, can I do something with my kids where I feel a sense of competence or agency?
Sandy Zamalis: I love that.
Dr. Amy Moore: I do too. All right, so we have time for one more question. And so you talk about the value of subtracting in your book. And so you mentioned, “throughout human history, stress signaled deficit, whether those deficits were in calories, peer connections, or shelter, a stress response that activated adding oriented action was a good survival strategy in pre-modern times.”
But you point out that it can be incredibly beneficial to strategically subtract things from our busy lives. So talk a little bit about that and why and how we should do that.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, that’s probably one of my favorite chapters just because I think it’s kind of counterintuitive and I think it sets this book apart from other books which, you know, most books are like, “Do this and also do this.” And if you’re a working parent, it can feel kind of overwhelming. The other—so you’re mentioning this research that shows that we’re highly likely to add, and there’s an evolutionary adaptiveness to it, as you’re mentioning. So you know, if you were in pre-modern times lacking—you know, stressed out—it probably meant that you were lacking in calories or social connection or shelter. So like more was better. And that’s no longer true in our modern society for the most part. The other—let me sort of pause for a sec, because I think most working parents, most busy people can see like less is a good outcome. Like if, if you look at your closet like less, seems like a good outcome. If you look at your schedule less, seems like a good outcome.
So I don’t think there’s any quibbling there. The problem is how do we get there? How do we get from where we’re at, overwhelmed to more sane? The reason that we struggle is because of this brain wiring, and I think knowing that, again, I’m sounding like a broken record, but understanding our brain wiring and how it causes us to default to adding when we have a problem to solve, can help us be more deliberate in making choices that actually work better and get us closer to an outcome that feels more desirable.
And one thing that I’ll add too is that the research shows that the more overwhelmed we are, the more likely we are to neglect the subtracting option, which is unfortunate because if you’re really stressed out, what you really need to do is take something off your plate, and in fact, you’re less likely to do it.
And so it’s important to build in these kind of practices where you deliberately take things off your plate. And recognizing that it’s not gonna happen automatically is really important to doing that because otherwise you’re expecting something to happen that is simply not built in and you’re gonna be waiting a long time and have a very full house and a very full schedule.
And so, you know, there’s lots of ways to do this, but you know, you can—the researcher who’s conducted this research, Leidy Klotz, has a terrific book called “Subtract” and he recommends next to your to-do list, have a stop doing list. I think it’s really useful on a weekly basis to just kind of check in when you’re doing any planning and take the temperature of what is my week being dedicated to? Is it value aligned and are there areas where I’m spending a lot of time that are not value aligned and can I consider taking some of those away? I mean, for me it was birthday parties, right? I’ve already talked about that example. But there’s lots of examples like meetings that feel redundant where you don’t actually need to be there and you feel like the FaceTime is important, rethink that because FaceTime is not, you know, all it’s cracked up to be in.
If you could be doing something more productive, like consider subtracting. Signing your kids up for activities that they’re not interested in? Consider subtracting. You know, vacations with people that feel like they’re more depleting than enriching, consider subtracting. I think there’s lots of ways to build in subtracting, and the more you can make it a habit, the easier it is to overcome that systematic neglect of subtraction that is so heavily wired into our brains.
Sandy Zamalis: I tend to purge, like when I get that overwhelmed feeling like I go through a closet or a pantry.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: That’s great. That’s awesome.
Sandy Zamalis: But I also have been known to just hole up at the house and delete schedules too. A self-care.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: That’s great though. I mean, and you know, maybe you like wait to a certain point and like, wouldn’t it be nice if you sort of could do it more habitually. So I have historically been more like you, Sandy, and what I try to do now is like, you know, use the closet as an example. Like every time I buy something new, I sort of pause and say, “Is there something that I could remove?” so that I don’t end up with this accruing massive stuff that I’ll wait two years and then do a big purge. But like it’s so nice week to week to have a cleaner, sort of more Zen environment.
Sandy Zamalis: Yeah. That’s my goal.
Dr. Amy Moore: I tell people I was 50 before I could say “no.” Like I could not say no to a request until I was 50 years old. I finally learned it’s okay to say no. I don’t have the capacity to take on that ask.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Yeah, well, and I think practicing saying “no” really fits into this general idea and it is such a—like people pleasers and especially women—because we’re taught to be, you know, people pleasing in our relationships—need the practice and it is a good practice. So I’m 43 and it probably took until I was 40 before this became a deliberate practice. But I literally, like when I get an email request, I force myself to pause. Like I’m a reflexive “yes” response and I force myself to like, “Hold on. Do I really wanna do that?” Right? And I think that’s really important for people who are reflexive “yes”-ers to practice.
Sandy Zamalis: Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Amy Moore: This has been a great conversation. I know you have to go because you’re gonna be on another show. So we’re gonna let you go and then we’ll close the show out, without you unfortunately. But thank you so much for being with us today.
Sandy Zamalis: Yeah, thank you.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: So thank you so much for having me. You guys are, you guys are awesome. And your podcast is so terrific and hopefully we’ll stay in touch.
Sandy Zamalis: Absolutely.
Dr. Amy Moore: Absolutely. Thanks for being with us today.
Dr. Yael Schonbrun: Thank you. Bye.
Dr. Amy Moore: So that was an amazing conversation. I so wish that we could have kept going with that.
Sandy Zamalis: Especially notes. I wrote a whole page.
Dr. Amy Moore: I know! I was like writing the whole time. And listeners, I hope that you got some amazing tidbits from Dr. Yael Schonbrun today as well. So we were so excited that she shared her wisdom and encouragement. If you would like more information about Dr. Schonbrun’s work, you can visit YaelSchonbrun.com. That’s Y A e l s c h o n b r u n.com.
Her podcast website is offtheclockpsych.com. You can connect with her on Twitter at DrYaelSchonbrun and we’ll put all those links and handles in the show notes, including how to get her book, Work, Parent, Thrive; 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much).
So thank you so much for listening today. If you liked our show, we would love it if you would leave us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcasts. You can find us on YouTube if you would rather watch us, and we are on every single social media platform @TheBrainyMoms. If you’re a TikTok fan, head over there to find Sandy at The_Brain_Trainer_Lady. And then we’re also on TikTok as well at @TheBrainyMoms. So look, until next time, we know that you’re busy moms. And we’re busy moms, so we’re out.
Sandy Zamalis: Have a great week.