The Black Superwoman Complex
It’s okay to not be able to do it all. It’s okay to not be okay.
As a young black woman living in today’s world, I’ve had to overcome and will continue to overcome any obstacle in my path. This is the demeanor I grew to have based off of being surrounded by examples of successful black women all my life. Most of the role models in my life include black women that have always presented themselves in a strong manner, consistently made it their duty to help and uplift others, and exuded strength even in the face of their own personal struggles. As I enter into my mid-twenties, I see many of these qualities within myself and in other young black women my age. However, the desire to succeed, help others, and remain emotionally strong and level-headed can be taxing on the mental health of the black woman. In my own experience, the strength I was outwardly exuding to fulfill those roles was a facade, concealing an internal emotional battle from the world.
“I’m sorry. You know I, um, I gave you the wrong advice when I said we couldn’t have our moments — that we had to be strong. That black superwoman complex, we don’t have to be that. We can just be real. We can break down. We can ask for help. We can be there for our sisters and our brothers the way you were there for me.“Sandra Thompson to Malika, Good Trouble
My first time ever hearing the word for this sensation I’ve seen firsthand and had been experiencing was during an episode of Good Trouble. Upon hearing the term, I did a little research into what the “black superwoman complex” encompassed. This complex refers to the “strength and fortitude that black women display when faced with personal and societal challenges“. It also includes the unrealistic emotional expectation of always seeming “perfectly put together” (never complaining or being “overly” emotional), feeling duty-bound to help others, and handling our issues on our own without needing or expecting anyone’s help.
The root of this phenomena is due to the stereotypes, racial and gender bias black women face every day in society. In our past, black women have had to rise above the “societal perspectives and characterizations of the black woman, [such] as the ‘Welfare Queen,’ ‘Jezebel,’ and ‘Mammy'” stigmas. This desire to reject the biases, limitations and notion of disenfranchisement placed upon us created this complex generations ago. As a result, many of us are still suffering, usually silently, from this generational trauma today.
The black superwoman complex will have you stretching yourself to fulfill multiple roles for others while also, emotionally neglecting yourself. However, we must be aware of the long term repercussions to this way of functioning.
Everyone has a limit, emotionally, mentally, and physically. While this phenomenon can push black women towards success (because we want to continue rising above our biases and stereotypes), it can also lead to us to being pushed past our emotional, mental, and physical limits. The latter does happen quite often, which can cause unnecessary stress and unhealthy coping habits, like emotional suppression. These suppressed emotions are the result of years of having to remain emotionally strong in front of society in the midst of our struggles. As society continues to uphold ideas of unrealistic emotional strength for black women, it creates a space where we cannot outwardly process the full spectrum of our emotional vulnerabilities (whether or not we recognize it). As suppression continues and the limit is reached, it will begin to negatively impact us, causing feelings of isolation and depression. It ultimately leads to an internal/external imbalance between the private feelings of isolation and depression and the external illusion presented to the public that everything’s okay.
“Society expects Black girls to always take care of others and handle their troubles on their own”Cheryl Woods-Giscombé
It’s imperative that we start putting ourselves first, for the sake of our mental health and sanity. If not, we will continue to suffer from the struggles of the black superwoman complex. It’s okay to show your vulnerabilities and not always take on the roles of caretaker, nurturer, teacher, etc. We have allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of our emotions, disregarding society’s judgment of being too emotional out of fear of seeming weak or being stereotyped (i.e. the angry black woman). When life happens to us, we need to have those moments where we break down, cry, and/or have anger. This is when having a solid support system is important—to have as a crutch to lean on when things are tough and also to help when we are not able to do things for ourselves. The thing is we also have to be willing to ask for that help sometimes.
No one has it together all the time and that’s okay. Just remember that although you may be able to do it on your own, you shouldn’t have to. It’s up to us to break the cycle for the next generation.