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Imagine this: You’re standing in the middle of your house. There’s a mountain of laundry in the corner, a sink full of dishes, and a never-ending list of things to do. On top of that, you’re juggling work deadlines, school runs, and family responsibilities. And it feels like there’s no end in sight.
This constant mental chatter is known as “mental load,” and it can quickly become overwhelming.
It’s not just another buzzword, though. In fact, it’s something that affects many people, especially women, and it can have a huge impact on your daily life.
So what is the mental load exactly, and how can you manage the stress that it causes? Here are the basics of it:
- What Is Mental Load?
- Why Does It Mainly Apply to Women?
- How to Explain Mental Load to Your Partner
- How to Share the Load: 5 Tips From Mindvalley Experts
As Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Calm Mind: A Scientific Guide to Managing Anxiety and Depression Quest, says in her book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, “We cannot improve our lifestyle until we learn how to manage our thinking.” And when you’re able to do so, you’ll be empowered to reclaim your mental space and live a more balanced life.
What Is Mental Load?
If you’ve felt mentally exhausted even though you haven’t physically exerted yourself, that’s mental load in a nutshell. It’s the constant stream of thoughts, reminders, and responsibilities, from keeping track of deadlines and appointments to remembering to buy groceries and do laundry.
But it’s not just about remembering to do things. It also requires mental energy and emotional labor.
According to a 2021 study, mental load has three characteristics:
- Invisible. It’s work that happens in your mind but leads to a lot of unpaid physical tasks.
- Boundaryless. There are no limits or boundaries, as mental load can affect a person’s work, leisure time, and even their sleep.
- Enduring. It’s ongoing because it’s connected to caring for loved ones, which is always needed.
These tasks can lead to what Dr. Caroline Leaf refers to as “mental mess”—a state where there’s so much going on in your mind that it’s difficult for you to make decisions, be creative, or get things done. And that can have a major impact on your day-to-day life.
How does it differ from emotional labor?
Mental load is often associated with “emotional labor,” a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. Although they may seem similar, they’re vastly different in concept.
Here’s a comparison between the two:
|Mental Load||Emotional Labor|
|Cognitive burden of managing daily tasks and responsibilities||Emotional burden of managing the emotions of others and social interactions|
|Examples: Remembering tasks, managing schedules, and keeping track of household needs||Examples: Managing the emotions of others, responding to others’ needs, and resolving conflicts|
|Affects both men and women, but women tend to experience more of it due to societal expectations and gender roles||Associated with women’s work in the home and in caregiving roles|
|Can lead to cognitive overload and “mental mess”||Can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout|
|Involves cognitive and organizational skills||Involves emotional intelligence and communication skills|
Mental load may be interconnected with the concept of emotional labor. However, understanding the differences will help you know how to manage both and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Why Does It Mainly Apply to Women?
Women, for generations, have been expected to manage the household and care for the children. And even as they entered the workforce, it (unfortunately) continued to be a societal expectation and norm, often without recognition or compensation.
The state of women isn’t much different nowadays. One survey of more than 4,500 women paints a dire picture of it—71% feel obligated “to worry about and think through all potential scenarios, should something bad happen.”
That’s not all, though. Here are a few more that the women in the survey have expressed:
- 74% adjust their lives to accommodate others (e.g., family, co-workers, friends, etc.).
- 79% are concerned about the social expectations for women to take on unpaid, invisible labor and mental loads.
- 76% believe that women are responsible for unpaid labor and the mental load at home.
- 86% agree that “women contribute more to society than they get back.”
- 74% feel that society treats them like second-class citizens and that societal systems aren’t set up to help them advance.
With such high percentages, it’s no wonder that many women feel “mom guilt” for taking time for themselves and struggle with feeling worthy when their mental load becomes overwhelming. And let’s not forget that it all has a massive impact on their mental health.
How to Explain Mental Load to Your Partner
There’s a lot of stuff going on in your head, and it can get exhausting. So how do you explain “mental load” to your husband or wife?
“Communication skills are never the goal but rather the means; the goal itself is communion,” explains Katherine Woodward Thomas, relationship expert and trainer of Mindvalley’s Calling in The One Quest. “How we give and receive information is simply our vehicle for getting there.”
So before you go unloading it all on your partner, it’s important to know how to communicate it with them to improve your mental health. Here are some tips for doing so:
- Share the impact on your daily life. Explain how mental load affects you on a daily basis and include how it prevents you from doing things you enjoy. For example, you could say, “I can’t watch TV with you after dinner because I have to do the dishes, make lunches for tomorrow, and do the laundry.”
- Use analogies. These can be helpful when explaining complex ideas. You can say that mental load is like a backpack you carry with you all the time, adding that when it’s time to relax, you’re still thinking about all the things you have to do.
- Avoid blame. As with any important relationship, it’s important to approach the conversation with carefrontation, not confrontation. Instead of blaming your partner for not helping, work with them to find a better solution so you can share the mental load.
Being open and honest about your experience can help create a happier and more balanced home life. As Katherine says, “When we speak our truth, we’re standing in our authenticity and power.”
How to Share the Load: 5 Tips From Mindvalley Experts
Mental load is a lot about the emotional triggers that revolve around being overworked and underappreciated. However, it’s also about your connection and how you communicate with your partner and family members.
Juggling work life with family life and personal responsibilities is already a lot. Adding parent-teacher conferences, paying the bills, and buying toilet paper on top of it can make life a whole lot harder.
Sharing is caring, as the saying goes. That goes for mental load as well.
Here are some practical tips to help you out:
1. Set realistic expectations and boundaries
Let’s say you and your partner have logged in long hours at work this week. You’re both exhausted, and household chores are the last thing on your minds.
Sure, it’s easy to assume your partner will get dinner or do the dishes. Or to just say “yes” to doing it all instead of having to make those assumptions.
Here’s the thing, though: those who struggle with mental load are often people pleasers and have a hard time saying “no.” And it’s not surprising that it happens more to women than men.
So it’s important to set realistic goals and make sure you and your partner are aware of what’s expected of both of you. This can help prevent resentment and misunderstandings down the line.
Example: If you’re both tired from a long work day, pick a task each. Maybe you’ll do the pre-dinner tasks (e.g., ordering the food and setting up the table) and your partner will do the post-dinner tasks (e.g., clearing up the table and washing the dishes).
Tip from a Mindvalley Expert: “A boundary is often seen as something hard or negative or something that creates conflict within us,” explains Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a clinical psychologist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What it is is really “an expression of our self-worth.”
2. Let go of control
Sometimes, the mental load we carry is a result of our desire to control things. It’s linked to the fear of uncertainty.
“The desire for perfect control of the environment and of oneself,” says psychologist Dorothy Rowe, “is based on a profound mistrust of the controller.”
And the downside of it all is that it can affect your overall well-being.
In fact, science has shown that it could lead to an increase in stress and anxiety. And the consequences of that? Well, one study on the impact of stress on the way the body functions concluded this: “Stress can be either a triggering or aggravating factor for many diseases and pathological conditions.”
So what’ll it take to let go of control? Confidence in yourself, for starters.
Example: If your partner offers to cook dinner, let them. It might not turn out great…or maybe, just maybe, it will. So resist the urge to micromanage.
Tip from a Mindvalley Expert: “Your potential expands as you move towards it,” says Marisa Peer, a renowned therapist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Uncompromised Life Quest. “You could never know what you are capable of because, as you get to it, your potential allows you to go even further.”
3. Divide and decide
Remember that you don’t have to do everything yourself. Even Superman and Wonder Woman needed help from the rest of the Justice League.
It starts with speaking up, according to Katherine in her Calling in The One Quest. Admit that you need help.
Break down the tasks on your to-do list and delegate them accordingly. Make a conscious effort to decide who will do what and avoid the temptation to take on more than your fair share.
Example: If you and your partner are planning a vacation, divide the task between the two of you. One person can book the accommodations and move-arounds, while the other researches the activities and restaurants.
Tip from a Mindvalley Expert: “The journey of healthy, happy love begins with the ability to speak up and risk telling the truth,” says Katherine. “Even when it’s hard, even when you fear disappointing others, or you fear they’ll be angry with you for what you have to say.”
4. Lighten the load with technology
You can’t deny, there’s an app for everything these days. And that includes managing your responsibilities.
“The most powerful skill we can learn is the ability to direct our own thoughts and behavior,” explains Nir Eyal, a habit-forming expert and trainer of Mindvalley’s Being Focused and Indistractable Quest.
Need to keep track of deadlines and appointments? A calendar app can do the trick. Struggling with meal planning and grocery shopping? A meal planning tool can save you time and energy.
So why not take advantage of these resources? By using technology to lighten your load, you can gain mental clarity and reduce stress.
Example: Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri can help you set reminders, make shopping lists, and even control your home appliances.
Tip from a Mindvalley Expert: “Only by setting aside a specific time in our schedules for traction (the actions that draw us toward what we want in life),” says Nir, “can we turn our backs on distraction.”
5. Keep checking in
Sharing the mental load isn’t a one-and-done task. It’s important to revisit the delegated tasks and adjust them as necessary.
This requires you and your partner to have what Neelam Verma calls “conscious conversations.”
“It’s when you speak from a place of honesty, authenticity, transparency, and intentionality,” says the founder of Integrity Dating and trainer of Mindvalley’s Finding Love With Integrity Dating. “It’s when your communication honors your feelings and expresses your truth.”
So make it a habit to regularly check in with your partner or family members to make sure everyone is still on the same page.
Example: Schedule a weekly family meeting to go over upcoming tasks. And make sure everyone knows their responsibilities.
Tip from a Mindvalley Expert: “[Conscious communication] requires you to have self-awareness so you can check in with yourself and ask important questions like, ‘Is this really what I want to express, or is this how I feel?’ Or ‘How do I feel?’ ‘What’s important for me to know right now?’” says Neelam.
“Instead of creating ambiguity and having question marks in your relationship or about your date, you honor your feelings and you consciously express them, and you clear up those questions so you can date with clarity and ease.”
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