The Superwoman syndrome has been defined in a few different ways. What I took from each different description is a woman who is constantly striving to accomplish everything possible in a perfect manner without the knowledge or ability to put herself as a top priority. Superwomen set standards that are unnaturally high, strain compulsively towards impossible goals, and measure self-worth entirely in terms of productivity.**
How many times have you wanted to just stop and take a break but refused for fear of how others would perceive you? How many tear-filled showers have you taken because it was all too much? How many phone calls have you answered and events have you pushed yourself to attend thinking, hoping that being around other people would help you feel better? How many days have you been so overwhelmed by all that you’ve taken on that you just want to scream and cry and say, “No. Enough!” but you don’t? How often do you feel like you can’t say no, like somehow saying that you’re exhausted makes you seem weak or like you’re giving in or that you’re admitting to the naysayers that they were right: it was too much for you to handle… so you keep going. You keep going until you’re burned out and angry or confused or your body becomes physically ill from all of the stress.
It’s so hard to let go, to say that you can’t do it all. Trust me, I know. You feel as though you’ve taken on everything that you have out of need or simple desire or sometimes to prove the point that you can handle it or out of a sense of pride because someone feels you’re the best for the job, so you have to accomplish it all.
I’m a wife, a homeschooling mom, a national officer in my sorority, I recently started taking a business class once a week, I spend at least two nights a week with my elderly grandmother, while running a foundation, a baking business, and being a direct sales consultant for two companies. There are times when I stay up for 20 hours and sleep for four for weeks at a time before I crash… then I sleep and get pissed at myself for needing to sleep when I have so much left undone. It wasn’t until recently my best girlfriend and my husband both said things that made me begin thinking that I might be depressed. I don’t feel sad so I figured there was no way I could be depressed, but depression is so much more than being sad.
Depression can be anger, confusion, indecisiveness, lack of focus, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of desire or pleasure in things you used to love, overwhelming feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, thoughts of suicide…
We as women put so much on ourselves and each other that we kill ourselves (literally and figuratively) to accomplish tasks, to make everyone else happy, to achieve, attain, and excel never realizing that while we’re looking out for everyone else’s best interest we’re ignoring our own, and that can lead to detrimental results, including suicide. Don’t be afraid to seek professional, psychiatric help for fear that friends, family, and society will call you crazy. Do it for you and your health.
Do you remember the lyrics to the Alicia Keys song, Superwoman? “Wear it on my shoulders, gotta find the strength in me… Even when I’m a mess I still put on a vest with an S on my chest, oh yes, I’m a Superwoman.” These words are inspiring and empowering and anthemic to many women out here doing it all. It makes us feel a sense of “right” in all the wrong we may be unknowingly doing to our bodies, telling us that we have to bear the weight of the world, and if we aren’t a mess we aren’t working hard enough. Somewhere along the lines we were led to believe that if we are tired we are lazy, if we can’t handle the stresses of motherhood we are inadequate, if we take time for ourselves we are selfish, if we don’t simultaneously work full time, go to school full time, and run a household we aren’t living up to our full potential. If, for a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, we are striving to be Superwomen – for society and ourselves – even when we’re “a mess,” when we are exhausted and mentally drained, physically and emotionally overwhelmed and no good to ourselves, who can we really help? Are we really putting on our superhero costume and saving the world (our family and friends and co-workers and supervisors) from dangers seen and unseen, or are we hiding behind the veil of depression and pain? What is the mask that we wear: that of strength and power and perfection or that of a pain-filled cry for help?
To quote Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes… Why should the world be over-wise, in counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask….”
No, I don’t recommend that the world be privy to our shortcomings and inadequacies in order to use them against us to our peril and their victory. I do recommend self-health checks, simply asking yourself if you’ve taken on too much and being honest in your answers. I recommend learning and understanding your risks and warning signs of heart disease and stroke – both of which can be results of extended and overwhelming stress. I recommend finding out if you’re depressed, whether you’re sad or not. I recommend making a list of how much time you spend doing things for other people and how much time you spend taking care of yourself and not being afraid to say no if taking on another task or project will leave less time for you. I recommend understanding that you are not a super alien from another planet gaining strength from the earth’s sun; you are a flesh and blood woman requiring rest and recharge. Karyn White sang, “I’m not your Superwoman… boy, I am only human.” Her song was about being everything for a man who didn’t appreciate it and didn’t deserve it, but I think the sentiment rings true in everyday life: we are only human. The same way we set goals for ourselves we also have to set limitations and boundaries and stick to them. Remember: even Superman had to build his strength back up after a kryptonite encounter.
I don’t yet know if I’m depressed, but I plan to find out soon. In the meantime, I’m going to recognize my body’s signs for rest and recharge and take care of myself. I hope you do the same.
**Ebony Magazine, selfgrowth.com