Take Off the Cape

The Superwoman Syndrome

Recently, a highly accomplished woman said to me, “I am absolutely overwhelmed.”

She told me she cannot keep up with the responsibilities of three children of multiple ages and needs, graduate school classes, job, her family and in-laws, family pets, a recent move, health concerns, and lastly (very much last), self-care. She was in a constant state of upset. And she was in a constant state of upset about being upset. In actuality, she was more than keeping up, but the cost to her mental (and physical) health was accumulating quickly.

In the early 1980s, Helen Gurley Brown, the long-term editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, which was then a hugely popular media source replete with sex tips, feminism, friendship advice, office tales, recipes, and beauty recommendations, wrote one of the most innocuous and dangerous books ever, “Having it All.” It sat on the bestseller lists for years.

Brown argued that one did not have to give up anything: career, money, adventure, children, marriage, friends, beauty, romance, perfect dinner parties, and an immaculate apartment could all be yours. She even threw in a chapter about how to cheat on your partner, should you desire, within your busy schedule. While beguiling, the book left out a very important component: no one can have it all.

In 1984, the American Psychological Association termed the myth of having it all the ‘superwoman syndrome’, defined as a set of characteristics aspired for by a single individual, who attempts to perform all the duties typically associated with SEVERAL different full-time roles, such as wage earner, mother, homemaker, friend/colleague, and partner/lover.

Fast forward to 2021: The Modern Superwoman Syndrome still means maintaining the demands of multiple roles- businesswoman, mother, spouse, daughter, sister, homemaker, friend, breadwinner, caretaker, volunteer, chore and homework supervisor, family chauffeur, chef, personal shopper, intimate partner, family therapist, or some mixture of these and more.

Unfortunately, it comes at a cost. Women today show increased rates of anxiety, depression, chronic stress and fatigue, migraines, heart disease, strokes, and infertility.

The Research:
Studies have consistently found that BIPOC women have an over-abundance of the Superwoman Syndrome. For example, in medical and psychology research, Black women consistently prioritize family, child, and household responsibilities over self-care, with concomitant health problems, particularly cardiovascular. (See Being an African America Superwoman Might Come at a Price).

A recent survey found that mothers were the primary providers of support to children during virtual school during the pandemic, at a whopping 80%. Most were simultaneously working from home on their side gig, full-time employment.

Women experience twice the rate of depression than men do, regardless of race or ethnic background. From their teen years until around age 50, women are also twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Women are more likely to experience difficulty falling and staying asleep (63% vs. 54% of men), to experience pain at night (58% vs. 48%), and to experience fatigue during the day, according to a National Sleep Foundation poll.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, women make up 28 million of the more than 38 million reported sufferers of this severe health condition. Women’s migraines also occur more often, last longer, and are more severe than men’s.

Common Superwoman symptoms:

  • Bouts of irritability
  • Inability to sleep or excessive sleep
  • Memory issues
  • Muscle tension
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating when not physically active
  • Inability to concentrate
  • General aches and pains
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of libido
  • Over-reactivity to minor stressors
  • Difficulty relaxing, even when “off the clock “

Accumulated stress can also be the door to a multitude of chronic health issues, including early aging, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and gastrointestinal conditions.

Some tips:
Ask for help
You cannot do everything yourself, so designate a sidekick with whom you can share tasks and delegate duties. This can be a friend, roommate, co-worker, partner, or family member.

Take time out for you
Schedule breaks into your calendar and hold yourself to it. In my practice, I have clients write a big M in their planner or calendar, where they will be focusing on themselves. It’s scheduled in and protected ruthlessly.

Daily Om
Daily meditation, mindfulness practice, or yoga will relieve stress and help you to slow down.

No-Guilt Downtime
Take a break by getting a massage, reading a book, watching your favorite show, or taking a walk.  The key is to start taking care of yourself, and to rest and replenish.

Learn to say no
Start saying no to things that you don’t want, or don’t have the time, to do.
Figure out what your priorities are and say “no” to everything else. With practice, it will become second nature.

Set achievable goals
Set goals according to how you want to live. If you don’t know where to start, try making a list of all the important areas of your life (family, job, friends, pets, community, etc.). Draw a circle and divide it up like a pie chart, according to how much each area is taking up of your life. Does it match up with how you want to live your life? If not, list small actions you can take to shift the circle so it aligns more with your ideals.

Let go of perfectionism
Remember that your house doesn’t have to be clean 24 hours a day, dinner doesn’t have to be on the table every night, getting a B in a class is not going to be the end of the world, your friends will not be mad at you if you can’t make it to an event, and you can’t be the perfect employee all the time.

When needed, seek professional help.
Sometimes stepping out of the circle of your friends, family, and colleagues may be vital to get an objective view on what seems “normal.”

Also see my blog post on Mental Health and Women’s History Month.

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