Discover how the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can revolutionize the way you manage the complexities of everyday life.
Joining me to help busy parents learn science-backed strategies to ditch guilt, manage overwhelm, and grow meaningful connections is Dr. Yael Schonbrun.
In this episode, Dr. Schonbrun shares actionable insights and strategies to help you thrive in your many roles. Whether you’re a parent seeking to raise well-adjusted and healthy kids, a partner yearning for a solid and loving relationship, or a working parent striving for balance in your career, this discussion is tailored just for you.
Dr. Yael (00:00:00):
The main objective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to build something called psychological flexibility, which basically just means showing up in a moment, in a role, in a context, in a way that matters most to you.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:18):
We all have values we stride to abide by, but what happens when those values seem to contradict one another in the moment? For example, I may value my child knowing that all emotions are safe to feel and also value family harmony, and while when my kid is having an epic meltdown, those two things seem pretty directly at odds with one another. That’s why it’s so helpful to be able to be flexible in what we prioritize and when using the principles of a therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT is a really great way to do that. Joining me today is Dr. Yael Schonbrun. Yael is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University and she’s the author of the book Work Parent Thrive, and today we’re going to be talking about strategies for managing our many roles, whether it’s a parent trying to raise well-adjusted and healthy kids, a partner striving for a solid and loving relationship in our career, trying to find balance as a working parent and all of the many other rules we find ourselves filling day in and day out.
Do you ever feel like you are a broken record repeating yourself over and over and over again wishing your child would just cooperate and things didn’t devolve into a battle all the time. A few months ago, I hosted a masterclass to help parents overcome power struggles, and since then I have received so many follow-up questions and requests from parents wanting more. So I am bringing it back along with an interactive live Q&A to help you tailor these strategies to your unique child and your unique situation.
In this masterclass, you’re going to learn why the strategies that you’re using to either avoid or win a power struggle just aren’t working and why they likely never will. You’ll learn the real problem that leads to power struggles in the first place and how to break out of this trap my exact framework for mapping out your child’s challenging behaviors and how to create a personalized toolbox for your own child and the specific power struggles that you guys find yourself in over and over again. There are going to be two chances to attend so that busy parents can find a time that works best for them. Join me either on Tuesday, January 30th at 3:00 PM Eastern time, or Thursday, February 1st at 1:00 PM Eastern Time or come to both. The masterclass will be the same, but the q and a will be chockfull of new tips and real world applications each time. So to enroll and register, go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to grab your free seat. In my masterclass, it’s called From Battles to Bonding: Overcoming Power Struggles. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. I cannot wait to see you there.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello, welcome to the show. I’m so excited Dr. Yael Schonbrun is here. Thank you for coming on.
Dr. Yael (00:03:56):
Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to chat with you today.
Dr. Sarah (00:03:59):
Yeah, me too. It’s so funny, we were just talking before we hit record about when you’re a psychologist in the parenting space. It’s such a small world and it’s such a bunch of tight-knit circles that it’s so nice to connect with you because we have all these people who we know in common and it’s such a cool thing to have this excuse to get to talk to people that I respect their work so much.
Dr. Yael (00:04:22):
Yeah, actually I podcasted for six years. I just left the podcast in September to devote more time to writing, but it was the best. It was such a nice social networking opportunity.
Dr. Sarah (00:04:35):
I know it’s nice to just talk to people who share your views on parenthood and psychology.
Dr. Yael (00:04:42):
I’m very passionate about the topics that you’re interested in and who love to read about them and yeah, it’s very fun. My recommendation, we had this one episode on friendship building and I said, if you want to build more friendships with people who are into the same thing that you’re into, start a podcast about that topic.
Dr. Sarah (00:04:58):
It’s true now it’s the new way to make friends. Totally. In this tech heavy world we live in. So actually I would love to talk to you, I know we have all kinds of fun things planned for our conversation, but I would love to talk to you a little bit about that podcast that you had been on for so many years and what that experience was like because familiar with it, you guys put out some really amazing content and so what was it like podcasting about all that stuff?
Dr. Yael (00:05:28):
Yeah, so the podcast is called Psychologists Off the Clock and they still are running. We’ve gone through a few iterations of co-hosts right now there’s four co-hosts, so when I left they took on two awesome new humans who I was good friends with, and the topics that we cover are pretty far ranging, so they still do a lot of parenting topics, but also just general topics in psychology, looking at various ideas that are evidence-backed ideas that are intended to help people flourish in their work, parenting relationships and health. And I loved it. I think it’s so much fun to chat with people as we just said, that have the same interests and it was really fun to get exposed to areas that are not exactly my specialty areas but that are sort of adjacent. It was fun to talk to evolutionary psychologists and journalists and people that do work that I wouldn’t otherwise get to ask them my questions, which is so fun as a podcaster and the technology is pretty fun to learn. I mean, you learn how to edit audio and how to share messages in ways that are accessible. So I think my history is as an academic, so doing this kind of work and then writing for non-academic audiences has been so fun to figure out how do you translate these ideas that are from the world of science and academia into digestible but helpful practices for people who actually can benefit from what science is uncovered is helpful.
Dr. Sarah (00:06:59):
Yes, I feel so in alignment with that. I always am like, how do we translate all this stuff that’s jargony and dense and a little bit boring sometimes if you’re not super into it, I like it, I nerd out on it, but how do you translate it in a way that gets people like, oh wait, hold on, that’s kind of interesting. I could use that. It’s been so fun and it also, I don’t know, it feels like it challenges me to stay on top of current trends and research and have something to say or be willing to go answer one of my own questions. I want to know what I’m talking about when I’m putting it on the air for people.
Dr. Yael (00:07:39):
Yeah, totally. Well, we always would joke that you could tell what any one of us co-hosts was going through by the kinds of topics that we’d cover in a given episode. So there was a period of time where we were doing a lot of younger kids stuff and then there was a period of time where I was working on a book about working parenthood, so there was a lot of working parent episodes and one of my friends was working on a book about imposter, so there was a lot of imposter oriented episodes. So yeah, it’s like the things that you’re most interested in. The podcast space is really flexible so you can kind of pursue that thing. It’s super fun.
Dr. Sarah (00:08:15):
And I love too, this podcast is we have such a really active community of listeners and they send in questions and they have lots of really good questions, so much so that we created a whole new segment called Beyond the Sessions where we just answered listener questions and it’s so fun to see what they take from other episodes. A lot of times they’ll send in a question, you did this, you talked about this, but can I apply it in this way? And it’s so fun to just expand on ideas and get a glimpse into what parents are like, what things are they, what are they hearing and what are they taking away and what is confusing. Then it helps me also clarify the messaging too.
Dr. Yael (00:09:01):
A hundred percent. And I mean as a practicing psychologist, you probably also take ideas that come up a lot in the therapy room and explore those in the podcast because you know that those are the kinds of things that people are struggling with.
Dr. Sarah (00:09:13):
Yeah, no, it is. It’s a unique lens to be able to sit with people in therapy and then sort of take those themes and share obviously nothing of any detail, personal details, but share themes and common questions and common struggles with people who might, I mean, I know a lot of people in this audience go to therapy or familiar with therapy, but a lot of people don’t go to therapy and they get to have the benefit of in a podcast format getting some of that info, which is one of the things I really wanted to talk to you about today because you are very, very well-versed and experienced with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and we haven’t really talked about ACT as the acronym for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We haven’t talked about that modality that much on the podcast, and I feel like it’s so interesting and I feel like there’s so many practical applications of it in therapy settings, but also just to take pieces of it and just use it in life. So could you talk a little bit about what act is and what about it you enjoy and how maybe we can dive into a little bit of that.
Dr. Yael (00:10:29):
So Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, most people who listen to your podcast have probably heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it kind of sits adjacent to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in that it’s a science-backed treatment that has some overlap, but what’s different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy from something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that it’s under this umbrella of what we call third wave therapies that are more acceptance and mindfulness based. And so it has this heavier emphasis on eastern philosophy and practices from eastern philosophy. And the main impetus objective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is to build something called psychological flexibility, which basically just means showing up in a moment, in a role, in a context, in a way that matters most to you regardless of if uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are coming up. So it’s that ability to kind of show up in ways that reflect your core values even if you feel anxious or even if you feel sad.
And it has these six core processes that we teach that help us to do that. And actually let me just back up and say one more thing about psychological flexibility because what it can mean is keeping on doing something that because it really matters to you or stopping doing something that really matters to you and in the parenting sphere, that’s really an important thing. Sometimes we need to be super firm with our kids and sometimes we need to recognize this is not the hill to die on. So that ability to be psychologically flexible and to make that choice moment to moment given what we know is going on, given what’s most important is really an important skill in parenthood and really all of the other areas of our life too. But I think it’s very poignant in parenthood. And so I’ll just run through the six core processes that we teach that really converge in helping us to build this psychological flexibility.
And a lot of them are words that most people have heard of because the first one is mindfulness, which means getting in contact with the present moment. So what’s happening in the here and now, acceptance, which we define that as allowing with equanimity, whatever thoughts, emotions and experiences that you struggle with to be you don’t fight them, you kind of allow for them. You don’t hold onto them, you don’t push them away. You just kind of allow self as context is the next one. And what that means is the awareness that our thoughts, our interpretations, even our emotional experiences, our memories and our behavioral impulses, these are all products of the mind and the body and we can get fused with them and feel like that’s all there is and that’s truth with a capital T or we can, and that would be self as content.
We feel like that is truth or we can unhook from them, which we can realize that we live in a body that produces these things and we can sort of get a little bit of distance from it. The fourth process is called diffusion, and that’s the way that we get some distance from it. It’s that skill of unhooking from the thoughts and the stories, and these are techniques that we teach in sessions. The fifth is values, and that’s clarifying how you want to show up moment to moment. And this is for me, the most important one we can come back to talking about it. I think it’s super duper important in the parenting sphere is this idea of knowing what you want to stand for in a moment. Again, having really good clarity on it and using that as your compass rather than the fear-based thoughts or the feelings that come up. And then finally is committed action, which means moving your life in directions that matter most to you. So it’s this idea of putting your values into action. How do you manifest your values? Moment to moment is through action. So those are the six processes and when we’re really well practiced at them, we tend to have a better ability to kind of persist or desist based on what matters most to us and in a way that’s really flexible given the fact that the context of our lives shifts all the time, especially as parents.
Dr. Sarah (00:14:27):
Yeah, that’s such a good point. Thinking in as a mom, my values may be ever maybe static and static isn’t the right word, but they’re consistent, right? My value is my value no matter whether I’m showing up as mom or as a boss or as a therapist or as a sister, whatever my values are my values, but the goal in the moment and how I choose to try to solve that goal or how flexible I am in pivoting that changes based on what my objective is and different roles probably have different objectives. So that flexibility I feel like is really important. And also recognizing the difference between my values and my goals.
Dr. Yael (00:15:17):
And let me actually offer a metaphor that I love to distinguish between goals and values, that this is something I always go over with clients in the therapy room. I think it’s really easy for those two to get tangled up, but goals are something that you can achieve. It’s like you put it on a list and you can eventually check it off. So a goal, the metaphor is climbing up a mountain. So the goal is to get to the top of the mountain and the values describe how you do it. So values are a quality of action. That’s another way to define it. So you could do it mindfully really slowly and take in the sights and breathe the fresh mountain air and pause and look at the scenic overviews. Or you could do it with a value of trying to get a workout so you could really urge your body up the mountain, get your heart rate up, allow yourself to breathe heavy and feel some of that discomfort in your muscles.
But now if you remember, values are context dependent, what your value might be, for example, when you’re the parent of a six month old might be really different than if you’re the parent of a 16-year-old. So if you’re going up the mountain, your value let’s say might be mindfulness, but now say a hailstorm starts and it feels really dangerous, there could be an avalanche. So your value may not be to slowly take it all in. Now your value might be to protect yourself to find safety. And so based on the context shifting, we can switch which value is in the driver’s seat of how we’re taking that journey and we might ultimately not get to the top of the mountain, but moment to moment we can decide what value is going to guide how we take that journey. And so values are not something we ever finish, it’s more of a description of how we want to show up as we journey through whatever process we’re journeying through.
Dr. Sarah (00:17:02):
I love that and I think that when I meant our values are consistent, I think your point is they’re context dependent in what values prioritized, but the value of I value mindful awareness, I value safety, both those values can be true and I might prioritize one over the other in a given context. I think sometimes that’s hard for, it’s helpful to remember because it gives us permission to act in conflict with a particular value because we might be prioritizing a different one. In the moment, I’m thinking in a power struggle, my value is to teach my kids to cooperate and to have this sort of ownership over taking responsibilities in the family, doing the thing that I’m asking them to do or helping out with this task, that’s a value of teaching them cooperation. But I also value relational safety and harmony, and sometimes I’m going to prioritize one of those values over another and my ability to, yes, I prioritize cooperation, and yes, I might initially be like, I’m holding firm on this ask.
I know you can do it. It’s an appropriate thing for me to ask in this moment and I need you to cooperate. I’m going to expect this from you. And then if I recognize God, I’m getting in an icky power struggle that I don’t want to get into, this is harder for them in this moment than I anticipated, I might still be genuinely frustrated that they’re not cooperating, but getting more and more angry, getting rigidly fixed to this goal of getting them to listen, which is related to my value of teaching cooperation. If I get stuck there, no one’s going to learn anything and nothing good is going to come out of that. Being able to recognize I have this other value that’s kind of coming into the forefront right now, which is relational safety and emotional regulation. I’m going to pivot. I’m willing to pivot. Like you were saying, what hill do I want to die on and what am I able to say? But sometimes we get stuck because we’re like, but I’m supposed to, I value cooperation and I’ve set this boundary so now I have to hold it. This is where I feel like the concepts of ACT really help parents disengage without feeling like they’ve failed at holding something.
Dr. Yael (00:19:37):
Yeah, I love that example. And a hundred percent, I think that a lot of the time our values are consistent through life, but they may look different in different contexts or we might have to combine them with different values depending on what phase our kids are in or what’s important to us in that moment. But I love what you’re saying because it points to this funny paradox that we know comes up in all sorts of places in psychology, which is the harder we push sometimes the more resistance that we get. And interestingly, so if your value is to teach cooperation and you’re pushing so hard that now you’re getting resistance on cooperation, the thing that makes sense is actually to kind of almost let go of that because paradoxically, as you let go of it, you’re a lot more likely to get the cooperation if you return to this other value of creating more relational safety and connection.
And so I mean therein lies the paradox and the necessity of that flexibility is like when we hold onto anything too tightly, we actually make it a lot harder to access the thing that we most want. This comes up all the time in relational therapy, relationship therapy and with parents and kids, and I think it’s really hard. The impulse is to double down on the thing that you feel really is important. And that’s again why the flexibility is so important. There’s the metaphor that we often use of the tug of war, and it actually turns out that the harder you tug, the harder the other person’s going to tug and that the best thing to do is drop the rope.
Dr. Sarah (00:21:01):
So how do in your work with patients or as you are using ACT in all these ways to help parents, what are some practical strategies for building that flexibility, building that ability to say, I’m going to drop the rope here and I know that I’m still in alignment with my values and I have that confidence to pivot without feeling as though I’m failing at something?
Dr. Yael (00:21:31):
Yeah, I mean I think it’s a great question and there’s probably a lot of different ways to answer it just depending on what it is that you’re going through with your kids. But I do think the thing that it most depends on is what is your value or what is your set of values? But I’ll just give a recent example because last night one of my kids was really, really tired and when he’s tired he gets super grumpy. I have three kids and they each have their thing, but this one tiredness does not lead to him being his best self. And he is a super sweet kid, but he was clearly not feeling good and he was stomping around and throwing things and I said, you can’t do that. You either need to find a different way to express yourself through your words. You can go to bed or we can find another way.
Give me an idea, but you treating everybody around you in a way that feels really disrespectful isn’t on the menu list. And he was like, I have no other choice. And so I said, you do have a choice, but you can’t see it right now, so maybe I’m going to give you the choice to go to your room or find another way to turn it around. And so he went to his room. So I do think it’s multiple choice options, being firm on the fundamental thing that you’re trying to teach, but having a lot of flexibility within that and how to achieve it. For me, it’s about teaching and love, that combination in love and limits. It’s that combination of the two and figuring out in that moment how you can reach the kid. And sometimes the best way to reach the kid is to kind of let go a little bit.
And I do think as a parent, just finding the ways that you can give your kid freedom to make choices along with you as opposed to commanding them because then you’re teaching them flexibility. And then interestingly, when we met up again this morning after he’d had a good night’s sleep, I was like, okay, we need to talk about what happened last night and let’s plan for how to do that more flexibly the next time because you do get tired and it’s understandable, but in those moments we need to figure out a way for you to communicate or get what you need in a way that I can understand. Because if you’re just kind of throwing things around and yelling at people, then I can’t even figure out how to support you. So it’s in joining with your kids to do the problem solving, you make them an active participant and they are the experts on themselves.
They don’t have perfect awareness or emotional maturity, but they know they have better contact with what they feel and what they think and what they want and you can interpret it. But I think really honoring that they are their own little people, even from a very, very young age and inviting them to be a part of it in whatever developmentally appropriate way is possible is what helps us to be flexible because we’re sort of allowing for different possibilities but not a global set of possibilities. I know for me that being respectful is really important and I am happy for him to help to articulate what that could look like in the various situations that we get into when he’s tired or hungry or whatever.
Dr. Sarah (00:24:48):
I think that’s so helpful to remember. There’s some type of container, there’s some type of containing framework. There’s a lot of different ways to communicate respect. It doesn’t have to be super prescriptive the way I say you must do it, but we still are going to stay within that container of respect. And so as the parent being flexible about how your child’s going to navigate, showing their respect and sometimes it might be clunkier than other ways and having that sort of growth mindset of it might not be exactly where I want it to be, but we’ll work towards it. But it staying inside that those bumpers is so different. It just expands the possibilities, but it’s also containing because it can feel really overwhelming for a parent to be like, okay, so I just don’t stop aggressive behavior because I’m trying to be flexible and not get into a power. I think sometimes we get too literal when we are hearing this feedback.
Dr. Yael (00:25:54):
Yeah, I was just going to something about what you said brought another example, because I think sometimes there are things that we really want and sometimes it’s respect, but often we’re trying to do it for the kid, but sometimes there’s things we want for ourselves from our kids. I am a very affectionate mom and I love hugging and kissing my little boys, and my youngest is like he’s not into that. And so I have to be flexible because he is his own person who has a right to establish some preferential boundaries, and I’ve never done anything that’s excessively inappropriate or anything. I just like to hug them. But he likes his personal space, and so it’s something we talk about. So my value is expressing love through physical affection and it becomes this necessity of being really flexible in how I manifest that value because he is different in his preferences. And so he developed this quota of, I’m allowed a couple of hugs throughout the day, but the kisses are just one in the morning and one at night. And that is it.
Dr. Sarah (00:26:58):
But’s so beautiful because you guys have created this shorthand for how to, again, it stays inside this container of everyone’s needs and wishes are acknowledged and valued. And when they’re in contrast, when they’re in conflict one another inherently, if he doesn’t like physical affection and you crave it, that’s a bit mutually exclusive. It’s a tough combo. And if you have two people who are at odds with each other in that way and no one is willing to acknowledge like, okay, we can find a different way to show our love and show our affection for one another. I’m flexible in how we show it. What sometimes happens is you have a parent who, and I think again with the best of intentions, wanting to show their love, kind of steamrolling the other partner, the child in this situation, their needs and intentions and how they want to show their love, I am thinking of a situation where someone will be like, give me a hug.
Don’t hurt my feelings. This is so, oh, I’m so hurt. Why aren’t you hugging me? That’s so mean, which is even if it’s playful, what you’re kind of saying there is your need is not as important as my need here. And so I think what your description is, it’s so relatable. I think there’s a lot of times where there’s a bit of a mismatch in the love language in a pair, whether it’s to adult partners or I’m a parent and a child, put this idea, I’m going to attune to you, I’m going to attune to me too. I know what my love language is, I’m curious what yours is. I’m attuned to what yours is. I’m picking up on cues. If I’m not speaking that language that you, there’s this interest in the other person’s experience, which is so great.
Dr. Yael (00:28:46):
Yeah. I love that you brought up love languages. This is something that I specialize in marital therapy. So in the clinical room this comes up a lot where somebody says, well, I need to be able to express my love in this way, or I need to be able to receive it in this way. And I’ll just point out in acceptance and commitment therapy, the word need is a very extreme term, right? Because there’s no wiggle room and when we get fused with it, there’s only one way to win and that’s to get that thing exactly in that way and that inflexibility and that over, we call it fusion. The fusion with the word creates resistance in the other person if it doesn’t work for them and doesn’t allow for movement and wiggle room and negotiation and flexibility, which is what we’re going for.
And so what we would do in the clinical room is note that word and try to unhook from it and find a different word and say for example, I don’t know how to meet this drive, but I really enjoy making physical contact with you and it’s very painful for me when I can’t. Can we talk about what that would look like? And exactly as you said in a way that honors what is really important for each of us because maybe we both want to be connected, but the pathway to getting there looks different and feels more satisfying in different ways for each of us. So can we figure out how it would look for you, how it would look for me, and what might be the compromise between us that could feel satisfying enough? And so unhooking from that, I need this instead saying, this is really important to me, this is how I feel most satisfied. How about you? You create a lot more flexibility.
Dr. Sarah (00:30:28):
And I imagine especially with two adults, it brings the other person to the table. Just like you say, the tighter you squeeze, the more or push, the more resistance you get. This is letting go of the urgency of it and the pressure on it actually allows the other person to feel a lot safer leaning in. If I’m really intense about something and holding on really tightly, the person who I’m engaging with is not likely to lean in, they’re likely to lean back.
Dr. Yael (00:31:04):
That’s where you get the demand withdraw pattern.
Dr. Sarah (00:31:07):
Can you talk more about that?
Dr. Yael (00:31:09):
So that’s this classic, I mean even just the words probably evoke a picture and many people have these kinds of relationships and the stereotypical way that it goes in a traditional heterosexual relationship, although it can happen in any kind of relationship, the gender is reversed. Same sex relationships that happens is that one person is very intense and in the way that they express their needs, it can feel very demanding to the other. So they’re sort of pursuing, I need to talk to you, or I need us to have sex more often, or I need us to talk about what our future is going to look like or I need you around more often. And the other person feels overwhelmed or uncomfortable or they don’t want to participate, and so they shut down. They sometimes literally walk away and close a door and go to another place and refuse to participate in a conversation.
But oftentimes, and this comes from famed marital researcher, John Gottman’s work in traditional heterosexual couples. If the wife is the one who is coming across as more demanding, the husband might do something that’s called stonewalling where they’re physically there, but they just look shut down. Their face gets very flat and expressionless and they look like they’re not activated. But what’s interesting about John Gottman’s research is that they take these physiological readings and what they find is that physiologically somebody who looks really shut down and checked out of a conversation often is very aroused and part of their heart is racing. Their skin conductance is high, so they’re not actually common. Part of what they’re doing when they look shut down is they’re trying actively to calm their body down. And so often what looks like a demand would drop pattern, and sorry, before I go on, what happens when your partner is shut down and you are wanting something from them is that you get really frustrated and whatever the thing is that you want, you’re going to get louder about it.
Like, this person is not hearing me, so I’m going to talk louder, which makes so much sense. If you think that the other person is unwilling to listen, you’re like, you are going to listen to me if I have to scream at the top of my lungs because it feels really important that they do. Of course it does. You’re in a relationship with this person. But what we find is that one of the strategies that helps people to reshape this demand would drop pattern that can really be become this vicious perpetuating cycle is to help the person who comes across as more demanding to try to soften the way that they approach their partner. It’s got to be a shared project. So if one person is able to do that and then the person who has previously been stonewalling or walking away can be more receptive or ideally can lean in a little bit more, you can kind of rebalance that. So instead of the person demanding pushing and the person withdrawing running away, now you have both people turning in towards each other in a more balanced fashion.
Dr. Sarah (00:34:08):
Yeah, and it’s funny when you talk about when Gottman is doing the research where he’s actually measuring the physiological arousal in someone who’s stonewalling, it makes me think actually a lot about, because it’s a podcast called Securely Attached, it makes me think about a strange situation and research that they’ve done in attachment research where they’re looking at children who have that presentation of that avoidance where it looks like they’re shut down. It looks like they’re not really interested in. So basically just if people aren’t familiar, the strange situation is a laboratory research situation that is how we can measure a child’s attachment style or pattern in real time. And so what it’s set up is the parent and the child are in this room together. The parent leaves or I think a stranger comes in, a parent leaves, the parent comes back and there’s a couple series of exiting and returning.
And what they’re looking at is how does the child respond when the parent leaves? But also very importantly, how does the child respond when the parent returns? And with a child who’s avoidant, which makes me think of this stonewalling description, is they’re not very responsive to the parents’ return. They kind of keep playing with their toys. They don’t really seem to care too much that the parents come back. There’s this sort of flatness and what they’ve in subsequent research on this phenomenon where they are also checking, attaching all these sort of sensors to the child and measuring their physiological arousals, even when a child looks not responsive to the parent and avoid, and in that way their physiological arousal is really high. And so yes, same idea. The child is actually disengaging as a form of trying to regulate themselves and manage the stress. They’re still stressed, but they just are trying to solve that problem alone and internally. And I wonder, I know that Gottman’s research is very much informed by attachment is stonewalling. I am assuming that’s very, very common in someone who has a more avoidant attachment pattern.
Dr. Yael (00:36:28):
Yeah, a hundred percent. And what’s interesting about attachment styles is that on the one hand, they develop early in life and can be pretty consistent. On the other hand, if a relationship has patterns that feel really unhealthy and problematic, you can develop an avoidant or an anxious attachment to your partner because of what you’ve been through. So I do think that it can be something that comes from early life or for some people it’s like they’ve gone through some things with their partner and they have handled it together in such an unhealthy fashion that they do develop these. But to your point, I do think it is about avoidant, kind of an avoidant attachment response. This is a total side note, but I just recently finished reading Platonic by Marisa Franco. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but she talks a lot about, I think the subtitle is actually How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. I don’t know, I’m going to butcher it, but it’s all about how understanding our kinds of attachment styles contributes to our ability to make and sustain friendships, which of course is so important in life, especially for parents. We need those support networks. So it might be an interesting one for your podcast.
Dr. Sarah (00:37:45):
Oh yeah, I’ll definitely have to look at that book. That sounds really interesting. And actually, it’s funny because I was just recording another episode earlier about, and we were talking about how as a parent, sometimes our friendships atrophy because gosh, parenting is so all consuming and it takes up so much, but how do we recognize that our friendships are actually part of the most important things that help balance out the demand? And to go on an even different tangent, but I feel like this is still really relevant. It’s kind of going back to your book that you wrote is this idea of these different roles that we have. We’ve talked jumped around, we’re talking about how we show up with our kid and how having that flexibility and that willingness to be able to understand what our values are, but also be able to pivot in the moment and modify what value we’re going to hold onto in a particular moment and accept the reality of a situation with our kid can be really helpful.
Clearly it’s super helpful in terms of our romantic relationships because that super intimate and kind of high stakes relationship can really get charged when we have a value or having what feels like a need not being met and how we can be flexible in solving that problem collaboratively. But friendships also has the same thing, but then our work identity, because the book you wrote Work Parent Thrive is a lot about balancing out being a parent and being a working human being. And I imagine there’s a ton of ways that we can apply flexibility and act principles to that too.
Dr. Yael (00:39:28):
Yeah, so my book Work Parent Thrive draws on a lot of ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in terms of the strategies that I recommend. But the general thesis of the book is that we often think about our roles as competing for finite resources in this kind of zero sum game where whatever we give to parenting means that it gets lost from our friendships or our partnerships or our work. And you could play that out in any of the combinations, but it really feels like there’s this finite pie of attention and time and energy and whatever you give to one role gets taken away from the other. And that is true, right? There’s no question there’s only 24 hours in the day and we do need to sleep for some of them and we get depleted. But there’s also this really interesting literature that I got absolutely obsessed with when I first became a working parent and got very depressed about how tired and depleted and stressed out I was.
And it’s this literature that talks about this construct called Work Family Enrichment, which sits alongside work family conflict. But the idea of work family enrichment is that our roles can actually feed each other, they can be beneficial for each other, and both are true. They both compete and they can be allies. And if you think about the image of a yin and yang, the two fish shapes kind of sit alongside one another and they kind of push on each other, but together they can create harmony and there’s a black dot and the whitefish and a white dot and the blackfish, so they also feed each other. So it’s both. And what my book talks about is the social science that helps us figure out how to get our many demanding roles to help each other out more, and as a result of that, help us out more as individuals.
I think that there’s lots of different ways to think about that, but the three paths that I talk about are the transfer effect. So it’s this idea that whatever role you stepped away from, if you’re stepping into another role, you’re building skills and often those skills can feed helpfully back into the role that you stepped away from. So if you’re, I mean, let’s see, it doesn’t even have to be work, but say you are married and you have a kid and you feel like, well, I can never spend time away from my kid. I’m only a parent. But actually when you’re stepping into your role as a partner, you’re building lots of skills and you’re modeling for your child how important close relationships are, and you’re modeling for them that sometimes they’re not the center of the world and other people are the center of the world.
That flexibility is something that you’re modeling for them. And so stepping away from them is actually good for them and it’s good for you and it’s good for your relationship and it feeds back to your role as parent. If you think about it from the work context, if you leave your child at daycare, you can feel really guilty, but actually that time away from your kid helps you to build skills and take for example, a task from start to finish, which is something really helpful to teach your child. And everybody has some special skill that they have at work that then they can teach their child. And then the second path is what I call the stress buffer effect, and that’s the idea that we all have stressful patches in our various roles. Sometimes your toddler is going through a really difficult phase and it really depletes you.
So having another role to step into gives you a break from that. I also interviewed a colleague whose child was going through cancer treatment, and so when he would go to work, it would be this break from thinking about cancer. It was never very far from his mind, but it offered this sort of respite from thinking about that. Same thing goes with our work. Sometimes we’re really stressed out at work and it feels really good to go home and get a hug from your kid if you have a kid who will give you one. And then the third path is the additive path. And that’s the idea that psychologists define happiness in lots of different ways, but one of them is the pursuit of meaning and purpose, and that’s a really important form of happiness. And what we know too from research is that the more rules that we have, the more rich with meaning our lives can be.
In other words, we don’t put all of our existential eggs in one basket because if parenting was the only thing that ever mattered to you, then you’re going to feel really lost after your kids launch into independent life. Or if they choose a path that doesn’t agree with your values, which they might because kids sometimes do. So it helps to kind of spread your eggs around and find meaning and purpose in lots of different pockets of life. So in those various ways, our roles can actually help each other out. They can enrich each other. And the more that we sort of understand the science of how that can work, the more we can live these lives with lots of different demands pulling at us in different directions all the time and not panic about it, we can kind of realize this is not only doable, this is actually a positive. And even taking that attitude, it’s kind of like shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset helps you stay inside of it with more comfort.
Dr. Sarah (00:44:32):
That is so powerful. What a reframe, right? Because I think we all, I mean, I’m a working parent and I know a lot of this stuff and it’s still really hard. I feel a lot of guilt for how much I work. I’m tired because I’m spread really thin, which makes me more vulnerable to getting into power struggles and getting less. I mean, how tired we are imagine has a direct impact on how flexible we are, even if we have the skill of flexibility. Accessing it is really hard when you’re tired, just like your little guy, this story, he’s sounds like such a skillful kid. And when he is tired, it’s like that door just locked and he just can’t get in there.
Dr. Yael (00:45:16):
That’s totally true.
Dr. Sarah (00:45:16):
So it’s permission giving to say, I can look at this from a different lens. I can say it makes sense that it’s frustrating and exhausting and depleting and that there’s guilt and that we feel exhausted. This is true. And also there’s other things about it that are kind of unique to being a working parent that are harder to access. If this is the one role I have, I love that reminder that finding meaning in multiple roles, and even if you’re not a working parent, there’s a lot of other roles that you play beyond.
Dr. Yael (00:46:03):
You’re a friend, maybe you’re a partner, maybe you have hobbies, maybe you participate in a spiritual community, maybe volunteer. Most adults occupy a lot of different roles.
Dr. Sarah (00:46:14):
And I think it’s really hard. I think we were talking about this earlier, I’m already forgetting what we were talking about earlier, but this idea that we get stuck in parenting, it takes up so much space that we start to let other things at. Oh, and friendships, I was saying we can atrophy our friendships a little better. We can atrophy other roles, maybe our hobbies or something we’re passionate about or a family member that we haven’t checked in on. We atrophy these roles because parenting can kind of just take up a lot of space. But it’s important. I think to your point, we have to remind ourselves that finding meaning in many things, it buffers us against when something isn’t going well in parenting. If that’s the main and almost exclusive source of our value and our sense of worth and our sense of meaning, then it could feel like the bottom’s falling out. Whereas if we have meaning a sense of connection and confidence and mastery in lots of different places in our life, lots of different roles, then when one is feeling really a real struggle, sometimes it does. It’s easier to zoom out and say, oh, this is tough. And also I’ve got these other things that kind of are like my buoys right now.
Dr. Yael (00:47:34):
And it has an impact on kids too. I mean, imagine if a kid feels like if they’re not performing well or successful by whatever metric is defined in your family as successful, that the bottom is going to drop out for you, their parent. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. And so in a way, I think that having a real commitment to finding meaning and purpose in roles outside of parenting is actually a gift that we give our kids. I’ll be okay even if you do something that is disappointing or you fail in some way because we’re all going to fail in some way, your kids will fail. They’ll bomb a test, they won’t get into the college that they want. They’ll get dropped from a team. Somebody will reject them socially, and that’s okay. You can be there for them and they don’t need to worry about you feeling like you failed as a parent because your entire self-worth doesn’t ride on them being successful in whatever domain.
And I think it’s very freeing for you and for them, but it does result in you being pulled in lots of different directions. And I think recognizing that as something that’s positive, I think does feel freeing as opposed to like, oh my God, this is so bad. I’m being taken away from the thing that should be the most important. Actually, you can see that as a gift, but I will also say that just as you said before, it’s got to happen within a container. We really can’t do everything all the time. You can’t have a hundred friends that you’re really responsive to and be able to take care of your aging parents and be there for all the school plays and do your job. There are limits. And so I do think there is a reality that we have to figure out how to prioritize and how to say no. And I do have a chapter in my book that is probably my favorite chapter for people who occupy lots of different roles that the title is remember to subtract, because we can’t just keep adding things. We also need to carve out space so that we don’t feel completely overwhelmed all of the time.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:36):
Yes. Oh my God, that is something I have to work on. That is one of my biggest practices is returning to the awareness that space is so important because I have a really bad habit of saying yes to too much and adding more and doing all the things. And if you look at my Google calendar, it’s dizzying and it is funny. So after we’re done recording this, I’m going to go to reiki, which is something I do once a month. It is this space that I honor for myself. I can’t so inconvenient, the person I see can only see me at three o’clock, which means it totally messes up my whole day. I’m in a sort of rational, logical, productive headspace. I’d be like, that is not something that makes sense to do. Don’t do that. Find something else. But I found that honoring that space once a month, even though it totally eats up a tremendous amount of time, it gives me time. It gives me way more time than it takes up because it helps me slow down. It helps me reset. It helps me create space. And oh, man, I used to never do that, ever. And it’s been so transformative for me. And whatever it is for you doesn’t have to be reiki. It could be meditation, it could be a walk. The thing itself is not the really critical thing. It’s like what offers that function of forcing you to create space, just white noise. Nothing.
Dr. Yael (00:51:22):
Yeah, I love that you do that, and I will just share that before my Google calendar is also a little bit nuts. But earlier today I interviewed the author of a book called Rest: Why We Get More Done When We Do Less, which was a transformative read for me a few years back, and he’s just coming out with his second edition this month. His name is Alex Pang, and he’s awesome. But he was talking about that he defines rest as anything that you do, and it really can be anything that recharges your mental and physical and emotional batteries, and that often it’s more engaged activities. It’s not like sitting on the couch and eating chips for most people, although there’s nothing wrong with that. But for most people, it is something that is a little bit more engaged, like, I’m going for a walk or going to do reiki or what have you.
For me, it’s a run, but actually I really look forward to, I’m very diligent about my Saturday naps. I love them. I look forward to them all weekend. They’re very recharging, but it is this sort of surprising thing, but science absolutely confirms it. And he does all this really, he dives into all these fascinating examples from history, from Darwin to Salvador Dali to Ernest Hemingway who had these very deliberate rest practices, which was why they were so prolific. And I think we forget that it’s so important to take time off, not because we’re depleted, but so that we can stay engaged. And especially for the busiest among us, we got to do that. We have to be very dedicated to it. This is the time that I don’t do, I be.
Dr. Sarah (00:52:59):
Yes, yes. It was a light bulb moment for me, and I still struggle with it so much. I’m an overcommit. I’m an overplan. I just put, and I think part of it’s like I have a d, d and really, really bad time blindness. I really have a hard time conceptualizing how long a minute is. I don’t really know what it feels like to pass in the way that my clock internally is just not in sync with the world’s clock. And so I often think I can do so much more in the time I have than is physically possible. But I cannot comprehend that. I think at this point in my life I would’ve learned, but I can’t. My dad got me a mug once when I was a kid, a teenager. It’s like chron, optimist. It was like a dictionary word of the day kind of thing.
And it was like the definition of chronic optimist is someone who thinks they could do 50,000 things in one hour. And I’m like, yep, that’s me. But I over schedule and then I’m exhausted and irritable, and it’s so much harder to show up in the way that I want to in alignment with my values. It’s so much harder to be flexible. And so yes, while I still over schedule, I am learning and am really trying very hard to practice that this reality, which is the more I pause, the more I rest, the more space I give myself, just obviously the better I feel, the more productive I ultimately am, but the better I am able to show up in my best self in all of my roles. This isn’t just about work and productivity. This is about my parenting. This is about my relationship with my husband, my relationship with myself, my stress, how I cope with stress. All of it.
Dr. Yael (00:54:53):
Yeah, all of it.
Dr. Sarah (00:54:54):
So critical. I have to check out that book.
Dr. Yael (00:54:56):
It’s really good. It’s like one of my favorite books of all time because he’s actually a very funny writer. And the stories in it are great, and the science is really, really transformative. It’s so compelling. So I highly recommend it for all of your listeners and for you. But I will say one more thing, which is that we are talking today, and I asked him, why do you think it’s so hard for people to rest? Because I think by this time, most of your listeners and most people have read the blogs of rest is important. We know the science. There’s movements like The Nap Ministry. People know. We know that our teens need to sleep and that we need to do regular bedtimes for our younger kids. We know that. And yet, it’s so hard to do. It’s so hard to prioritize. And he said, well, part of the problem is that we think it should be easy.
We think we should just know rest is important and that it’ll just happen. But there’s such a compulsion to schedule ourselves that we kind of override the fact that we know it’s important because we think it should just come to us. It’s thinking that a good marriage should just be easy. If you find the right partner, it should just be easy. We need to bust that myth. It’s not easy. It takes some effort, and it shouldn’t be painful effort, but it can mean a real dedication to once a week carving out an hour that is just for you. And when somebody asks for that hour, you say, no, it’s already been committed. You’re to yourself so that you can show up for all of your roles in a more enduring way.
Dr. Sarah (00:56:27):
And doing that. Even for our kids too, we have this tendency, and we’re all guilty of it, myself included, of overscheduling our kids and thinking like, oh yeah, we could say yes to that play date. There’s time. Or Yeah, we can do this fun thing that they’ll love. And yes, they will love it, but their body might, and it might ultimately be pleasurable in the moment, but really kind of push into a reserve that we don’t want to be messing with. And so having that white space for our kids modeling, taking that white space for us, it’s hard. It is intentional. It does mean giving up some of the things that feel good in the moment and hard.
Dr. Yael (00:57:09):
Yeah, it’s hard. It means subtracting and that’s hard to do. The science of subtraction is really interesting. And there’s another book called Subtract written by Leidy Klotz. That’s a really interesting read. But what his research shows is that our brains are kind of naturally, basically we systematically overlooked the subtractive option, even when it’s the better option. Our brains are wired, in other words to add. So when we come to a life design choice and it’s like, okay, do you want to add the thing or do you want to subtract the other thing? We’re almost always going to add the thing. And what’s more is the more overwhelmed and stressed out we are, the more likely we are to overlook subtraction as an option, which is really interesting. So if you’re really overloaded and you can imagine somebody asks you to do the thing and you’re like, ah, sure, whatever, I’ll do it. Because you just can’t even process how to say no because saying no is harder. And so the overwhelm people tend to get more and more overwhelmed and the more overwhelmed we are. It’s a vicious cycle.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:06):
It’s a snowball. Yeah.
Dr. Yael (00:58:09):
I relate to that. Just recognizing it is hard to make that white space, but we feel better for longer in our relationships, in our roles, in our bodies when we do it. And then to develop deliberate practices that become habitual because the more you habituate it, the less you have to sort of fight for every minute of white space. And so I’ll just give my own example. You gave a great example of once a month that you do reiki. And I think that’s a great example for us, for my family, once a week on Saturday, and it’s religiously inspired, even though I’m not religious, we try to not have almost anything scheduled. Sometimes stuff comes up and that’s okay, but we also do a rest time. I take a nap, my kids go to their room, everybody sort of does their own thing for an hour and a half. And I know it sounds crazy. My kids are seven, 10 and 13 that they have a rest time, but they do. And I love it. They’re bored. It’s good for them to be bored. That’s where creativity grows, where they can entertain themselves without a screen. It’s okay for them to be bored. And I am a much happier mom after I get my nap, and they look forward to that because usually it means dessert at night. And I think just being really deliberate about it. The other thing is have some things you just say no.
For us, it’s like no to birthday parties. I don’t host them. I hate hosting them. So we don’t do it. And I also say no to birthday party invitations that aren’t their closest friends. So I just think having some rules that kind of automate the saying no in the creating of white space makes it a bit easier because otherwise we’re just constantly inundated with things that would occupy all of our time and take away all of our resources.
Dr. Sarah (00:59:48):
Yeah, I mean I think everybody should have a no list. Yeah, I’m going to make a no list. That’s a really good idea. I think that’s my takeaway from this.
Dr. Yael (00:59:58):
In this book, Subtract, he recommends that next to your to-do list, you have a stop doing list and that you take regular inventory, whether it’s monthly or quarterly, about what needs to come off your schedule so that you can make time for the things that matter, including the white space. And I will say that developing that cue of when I feel overwhelmed, that’s the time to pause and be very deliberate about because it’s not going to happen automatically about asking, what do I have on this to-do list on my calendar? That probably should come off.
Dr. Sarah (01:00:32):
Yeah, no, I think that’s so valuable. This whole been so valuable. I love this. I feel like we covered the whole gamut and I love it. Thank you.
Dr. Yael (01:00:45):
We covered a lot of ground.
Dr. Sarah (01:00:46):
We did. We did. And this is a very efficient podcast episode. Maybe it’s because you were well rested or were anticipating a good rest coming up, but if people want to learn more about your work, your book, how can they connect with you? Where can they follow along?
Dr. Yael (01:01:05):
Thank you. My book is sold wherever books are sold. It’s called Work Parent Thrive, and I write a weekly newsletter about the science of relationships called Relational. And so you can sign up there at substack, just look for my name. And then I am moderately active on social media on Instagram. It’s kind of my internal war. I go back and forth about how participatory I am in it.
Dr. Sarah (01:01:33):
Maybe it’s some of your white space. It’s like you can’t say yes to everything.
Dr. Yael (01:01:39):
Dr. Sarah (01:01:41):
Thank you so much for coming on. I’m really excited. If people want to know more about act, are there good resources for them? If this struck a chord with them and they want to maybe pursue working with a therapist who specializes in it, is there a way for people to filter for that?
Dr. Yael (01:01:58):
Yeah, I can send it to you. I don’t know it offhand, but there’s an online registry. I think it might be ACBS, but I’ll send it to you where you can look for a therapist in your area is an ACT specialist. And there’s a lot of great literature out there. So I’ll suggest a few books that are great for entry level, just like what is ACT and how can I gain some of the practices? So one of my favorites is called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. It’s really readable and you can even get, there’s a Graphic Illustrated version if you don’t want to sort of do the heavy duty reading. It’s a pretty light read anyway, but the graphic version is terrific. And then two of my colleagues wrote something called The Daily Journal that is almost like an eight week course of ACT, but you kind of do it for yourself, but there’s practices in there, and so they kind of teach the different core processes and you actually try them out along with the journal prompts. And then if you’re interested in the more nitty gritty, there’s lots out there. But a really good one is written by the co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and it’s called A Liberated Mind.
Dr. Sarah (01:03:03):
Amazing. All right, well, we’ll put links to all of that in the show notes and the show description so people can find that stuff easily, as well as your book and a lot of the other stuff we talked about.
Dr. Yael (01:03:13):
Awesome. Thank you so much for having me. It was so fun to chat after being in the same world and not having a chance to know each other directly.
Dr. Sarah (01:03:20):
I know. Now I’m like, oh, well we’ll be talking again. I’m very sure.
Dr. Yael (01:03:24):
I hope so.
Dr. Sarah (01:03:25):
Alright. Thank you so much and have a great day.
Dr. Yael (01:03:28):
You too. Enjoy your reiki.
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