BLOGExplore the Intersectionality of Being Black and a Woman

Nurturing Resilience: The Intersection of Black Womanhood and Mental Health

Being Black and a woman is an experience like no other.  We are often stereotyped and invalidated in the world around us while also being the beneficiaries of a wonderful community of women who look like us.  I have never felt more love, more support, more at home, than when I am surrounded by Black women.  Black women create, uplift, and do so with all of the love in our hearts. But there are unique challenges that come with this. I have often felt that there is this expectation for Black women to be one thing, even with the acknowledgement of intersecting identities there always seems to be something left out. There are places that affirm me as a Black person, but not as a Black woman, as a Black woman, but not as a Black mother, etc.  I feel that there are so many aspects of our identities that are not affirmed in certain spaces that should be such as age, sexual orientation, religious or spiritual affiliation. And then I came to the realization that it’s not possible to have one space that affirms every aspect of who I am as a Black woman, because Black women are everything, and that is so powerful.  This realization helps many of my patients in therapy, because instead of trying to shrink themselves into the one box that they are given, they realize that they can just add more boxes, or cylinders, or heck, tetrahedrons to provide them with the space that they need to be fulfilled. The expectation for Black women to be one thing, one monolithic experience, is an attack against our Black identity, and it puts a halt on our Black identity development.

Black Identity Development

Black identity development is an important part of our well-being. Think of it as a shield against mental health difficulties and a bridge to greater self-esteem. Things that build our Black identity development include cultural celebrations, addressing and challenging stereotypes, and cultural education.  Whereas things that break down our Black identity development are oppressive environments, racism, and stereotypes. The prevalence of stereotypes against Black women are one of the many reasons that we experience attacks against our Black identity. There’s also the difficulty with caring for ourselves in the way that we deserve. Black women are expected to maintain a persona that they are the pillar of strength for family, friends, and even coworkers. Not to mention the constant expectation the Black women will be the target AND the shield for society.  Black women are also denied an outlet to share the toll that this has on us, resources to support ourselves and the communities we are responsible for and acknowledgment that these issues exist.  The gradual process of adultifying Black girls, depriving them of their innocence, teaching them to silence their emotions and desires, sublimate their needs, and care for others at their expense leads to Black Superwoman Syndrome. There can be a complex cocktail of symptoms, however, here are some key symptoms to look out for: 

  • Suppression of your emotions.  You feel the need to internalize your feelings for a number of reasons such as fear of showing signs of weakness, burdening others, or being let down. This may occur as a result of your feelings having never been validated or acknowledged in a healthy way or having no one to share with in the first place.  When building relationships with others you’re providing them with the opportunity to support you, but there’s also the possibility that they may let you down, which is understandably scary so you may struggle with vulnerability even with yourself.  
  • Lack of vulnerability. You feel like you have to fight off emotions or rely on others. You are HYPERindependent, this can look like not knowing how to accept help when it’s offered because someone may attempt to use that against you. There is a difference between being independent, and hyperindepent.  
  • You Don’t Know When To Sit Down Somewhere. You consistently push yourself without replenishing your limited resources and which comes at the sacrifice of your health. You may refrain from taking breaks at work, stay up late, and sacrifice your sleep, or consistently work late to meet goals that you have set. You do not look at the bigger picture when it comes to your goals.  
  • Self SacrificeThere’s also an intense level of self sacrifice.  You prioritize caregiving over self preservation. You may feel like it’s your job to ensure that everyone else’s needs are met while neglecting your own needs. You may also automatically do this because you were taught overtly or covertly that it was your job as a Black woman to place everyone before yourself.

So how do you address this?

You cannot heal what you do not reveal. There are many contributors to Black superwoman syndrome such as stereotypes, white supremacy, lack of healthy relationships, etc.  Once you identify the source you can find ways to combat that messaging. Surround yourself with people and narratives (i.e. books, music, films, etc) that support your growing mindset and the person that you are becoming. Here are some more tips:

  • Rework your inner dialogue

If you have difficulty being self-critical it’s time for some R&D–research and development. It may be helpful to do this with a supportive friend whom you trust. Realize that you deserve to care for yourself as much as you care for others. Take a step back and identify what is and is not working for you.  There are many reasons that Black women take on too much such as lack of access to support, being shamed when they do ask for help, feeling unworthy of the assistance, and even because you were surrounded by people who didn’t ask for help so they thought it was atypical to receive support. It’s time to address and challenge the way Black superwoman syndrome has warped your internal dialogue. Another way to approach being self-critical is to start a gratitude journal. So many times we forget the things that are special about ourselves, the things that make us unique and fantastic human beings. It can also help you to have a list of positives to go back to when you are feeling down. 

  • Avoid social comparison

Social comparison can also be a trigger for Black superwoman syndrome. You did not develop this in a bubble. You were observant of the way people like you were portrayed in the media and treated around you. Don’t feel discouraged if someone states that they don’t need the same amount of support as you. Your needs are legitimate, even if they differ from someone else’s.  

  • Be aware of rigid expectations.

Sometimes we can hold ourselves to ambiguous finish lines. It is ok to adjust your standards to best serve you, this is also a form of self-care. Additionally, we can become accustomed to others placing unrealistic expectations on us as well. It’s time to shut it down. Self-care and selfish are not the same. 

  • Identify triggers

Work on self-monitoring so that you can identify whether there are other triggers for your thoughts that you don’t deserve help or aren’t doing enough. For example, do you notice more negative thoughts when you are tired, hungry, experiencing a transition, or even when you’re around certain friends or family members ? Once you identify triggers, you can work on finding coping skills to help manage these difficulties.

  • Build community
    It can be hard to have realistic expectations when you don’t have an accurate barometer to measure by. You didn’t put the cape on alone and you won’t be able to take it off AND ignite it alone. Building community provides a great resource for support, identifying goals, and humanizing your experience. Therapy isn’t a requirement for healing, but community is.

Raquel Martin, PhD
Professor, Tennessee State University
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Where to find me?

Instagram: @raquelmartinphd

Read Next