Health & Well-Being
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The Black Superwoman Syndrome & Self Care: How to Save Yourself When You’re Drowning | Q&A with Michelle Goodloe
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” - Audre Lorde
In this post, I would like to address the mystery that is "self care" among black women. If you're like me, maybe you're intentional about making it a priority. Or maybe there's still room for improvement. If you're like some of the women closest to me, maybe you don't have time because how can you make time for yourself when everyone else is always calling- family, children, husbands, and the list goes on, right? To so many women, self care can seem impossible. But after this post...I hope we can take a step together to make the impossible POSSIBLE as we chat with Michelle Goodloe, a licensed social worker and Atlanta (GA) based psychotherapist. Welcome, Michelle.
Q: Michelle, welcome to Dialosophy. I know this was out of the blue, but thank you for taking the time to walk through these questions with me. Before we get started, what does this Audre Lorde quote mean to you?
A: Thank you so much for having me Adia, its my pleasure! This quote by Audre Lorde is the core of what self-care is all about – for many women of color, we need, deserve and require space, time and energy to refill ourselves for all that we do for others. And it is an act of political warfare, because our history shows that we did not always have the opportunity to practice self-care. Self-care for us is still seen as a privilege.
Q: Okay, so since the summer, I’ve been transitioning back home and have noticed a lot of women around me that feel the “need” to take care of everybody. Especially, if who they’re taking care of is family. I ran across the term “Black Superwoman Syndrome” about a year ago. And ”historically”? I get it. If we look back at the history of our country…America has thrived on the labor of not just black people, but black women specifically. And black women have always HAD to have it together, and take care of everybody first-their families, their babies, their owner’s babies,;etc. So tell us…what is the Black Superwoman Syndrome, and what ways does it manifest?
A: To identify as a “Black Superwoman” means to identify with the super-human ability to care for everyone and everything, with no breaks in-between. Black Superwomen are everywhere: working, earning degrees, parenting, care-taking and sacrificing. But by caring for everyone and by consistently putting ourselves on the back-burner, we are embodying a non-human experience. The fact is we are not superheroes, but we are expected to be. We are exhausted.
Q: How does this syndrome impact the health of black women?
A: There are a variety of physical, medical and mental health strains that Black Superwomen experience. We are doing so much for others, which leaves little to no time for us to do things like visit our doctors regularly, eat healthy meals or get a full night of rest.
Q: Do you think there are ways that white women (and/or other non-WOC) can aid black women in busting the myth of the “strong black woman”?
A: Absolutely. One of the first things that white women and other non WOC can do is not assume that women of color are “just fine”. Create space (and eliminate the consequences) that come with women of color taking a break, saying “no” and prioritizing their own needs. Advocate for women of color, especially if you are in a leadership or supervisory role, to be able to take full lunch breaks, have mental health days and go on vacation.
Q: In what ways is perpetuating the “strong black woman” unrealistic and problematic? Why does self-care matter in addressing the Black Superwoman Syndrome?
A: To continue the Black Superwoman narrative is to prepare young Black women to value putting their needs last. It is important for us to be mindful that Black women are burdened and impacted by historical and generational trauma. In many ways, the Black Superwoman experience exemplifies what our ancestors wished to liberate us from. Interrupting this cycle by prioritizing self-care is a healthier and quite frankly, more human experience, that Black women deserve to feel.
Q: Why do you think some people deem self-care a luxury and not a necessity?
A: Some folks that deem self-care a luxury have always have access to it. If you have always lived near a well, there’s a good chance you’ve always had water to drink. So the person living near a well may really have trouble understanding the experience of a person living in a desert!
On the other hand, people of color who deem self-care as a luxury may have a different experience. Some POC view self-care as selfish and wasteful, which stems from the generational trauma that impact so many POC. We are taught that to take a break is lazy, which just isn’t true. But if generations of people before you were punished, brutalized and seen as unworthy for taking a break, it will take time, education and safety to fully embrace that practicing self-care in 2019 (and beyond) is not selfish.
Q: In what ways has the “strong black woman” manifested in your life, and how do you practice self-care currently? What are your favorite things to do with yourself?
A: I’ve had to let go of the strong black woman narrative, as it was classically written. To me, being a black woman already entails my strength. And my strength is in choosing me first, understanding my own needs and making sure that I am creating space for myself to breathe.
My favorite self-care practices are setting and maintaining boundaries, listening to podcasts, reading self-discovery books, listing my favorite R&B playlists and having meaningful conversations with my loved ones.
Q: I think the biggest problem that I’ve seen within my family, and I have to include myself in this too….because it can be ESPECIALLY hard when family calls like “Can you do this?”, “Can you do that?”, “I need you for this…” or friends text like “I need advice on this” or “Hey, can we catch up?” and I’m completely exhausted. How do we say ‘No’? I think sometimes we can confuse setting boundaries with being selfish. And that shouldn’t be the case, because we can’t pour from an empty cup ya know. In what ways can women begin to or improve in setting boundaries with friends/family and standing firm in their “No”?
A: Standing up for yourself and standing firm in your boundaries takes practice, practice, practice. Start by saying “no” to something you consider small.
For instance, when ordering something to eat from a restaurant: if the person waiting on you asks, “Would you like to hear the specials?” and you really do not want to hear the specials, tell them, “No thanks, I know what I want.”
It may sound silly and feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s okay. It may take some time to feel comfortable saying “no”. Take your time and more than anything, practice.
Q: Outside of family…there are a host of other factors that can have black women feeling like they’re drowning. As a black woman, there’s racism, sexism, beauty standards, and I’m sure a whole lot of other social factors that I don’t even know about. So, how can black women navigate these areas and survive and thrive in their personal lives?
A: There’s no quick fix to manage and cope with what we call the ‘intersectionality’ of being a black woman. We are a unique group of people, surviving multiple ‘isms’ at once. Some self-care suggestions that could be helpful are:
Q: When did you get to a point in your life where you realized you had to give your permission to prioritize yourself first?
A: During the first six months of working full-time. I was a children’s counselor and I was in complete denial that I needed to take a day off. I had a lingering cold for months, I was not sleeping well and I was early to work and last to leave. It took one of my child clients to bravely ask me, “Miss Michelle, are you alright?” for me to stop in my tracks and change the way I was treating myself. And I so thank this child for their bravery.
Q: What should our self-care look like in our intimate relationships? Looking back at my previous relationships, it can be….easy…to get consumed in another person. Especially if one partner is feeling down or needs help (ie. “saving”)…or just not operating at their best. How do you practice self-care in your relationship?
I have a whole blog on this: for our intimate relationships, it is essential that both people do. their. (emotional). work. To avoid becoming consumed in another person or becoming codependent, make sure that your “independent self” is being taken care of. Can you answer the question, “Who am I?” and your answer not involve your partner?
Know your boundaries within your relationship and be mindful when those boundaries are crossed. If you notice your partner’s mental health is in need of support, there’s a 99.9% chance that you cannot be their therapist. That’s not your role. Put your love into action by talking to them about getting the support they need.
In my marriage, my husband and I support each other having individual interests and mutual interests. We have mutual friends and separate friends, and we have mutual hobbies and hobbies we do without each other. It is important to both of us to feel fulfilled, so we hold each other accountable in pursing what’s important to us, independently.
Q: What should self-care look like in our friendships? How have you set and adjusted your expectations regarding friendships?
A: When it comes to adult friendships, something that is incredibly important is understanding what to expect from your friends and what not to expect from your friends.
Similar to your intimate relationships, it’s simply not fair and unrealistic to expect to get all of your needs met in a friendship. Adjust your expectations and value to the time spent with your friends – adult folks are busy! Make time for one another and make sure you are putting the appropriate (meaning not too much and not too little) amount of effort into maintaining your friendship. You can even practice self-care with your friends!
Q: I’ve seen many posts and debates about communication when you’re taking self-care and/or need time for yourself. I don’t know what’s “right”, because personally….I do just fall off the planet or set my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ …. Or just not answer. (Haha. Don’t judge me.) Do you think we owe people an explanation when we choose to take time for ourselves? Is ghosting or not responding ever okay?
A: No judgement! And it depends – professionally, it is very helpful to let your colleagues know when you are and when you are not available. Putting up an away message, putting a sign on your office door and simply having conversations about your availability is most times, professionally and socially acceptable.
Personally, this is also a good practice to put into place in your relationships with others. Sometimes you have to let your family know that you’re stepping away from the group chat for a bit. The key here is to choose and articulate a time to return! This sets our loved ones up for success – they know you aren’t disappearing forever, just temporarily.
Intimately, be mindful of who and who does not understand when you need to step away. In the domestic violence field, “ghosting” someone who is abusive could be seen as safety planning. It depends on what you are experiencing and how safe you feel.
Q: This is a perfect segway into asking if the above question applies to toxic friendships and relationships? If we are putting ourselves first and prioritizing our happiness, do we owe toxic friends or partners an explanation before leaving?
A: That is the perfect segway! On my blog, I wrote an article on how to end a toxic friendship. In toxic friendships and relationships, you many feel unheard, taken advantage of, or even unsafe. It may be the best option to end the friendship or relationship without a conversation – it depends.
I share in the blog that if you are contemplating ending a toxic relationship, ask yourself, “What would my life be like without this person?” If feeling such as relief, satisfaction and bliss come to mind, proceed with ending in a way that feels right to you.
Q: Thank you so much for this Michelle. The last question for this piece…I want you to venture back to a younger version of you-where self-care wasn’t a priority- what would you tell her now?
A: Little Michelle! I would tell my younger self that putting others first is only slowing you down. You are worth all that you give to others – prioritize yourself girl!
G. Michelle Goodloe is a licensed social worker, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist and the creator of Gmichelle Self Care Resources. Michelle created the website gmichelle.com to fill a space in the healing world for busy and caring folks who have experienced shame, frustration and difficulty on their journey to practicing daily self-care.
Michelle believes that self-care for the modern adult does not have to be time-consuming or expensive — but the practice of self-care is necessary and worthwhile for your health and well-being. Being that there are so many effective ways for you to take care of yourself better, gmichelle.com has dedicated space to do that work.
To take the time out of figuring out what to journal for self-care, visit Amazon.com to purchase Self Explore, Self Restore, the guided self-care journal created to support your relationship with you.
*DON'T FORGET TO EXPLORE THE HYPERLINKS MICHELLE INCLUDED IN OUR CONVERSATION*