14 September 2007

The Burden of the Strong Black Woman

A single disorder is causing a health care crisis among African American women. It is not one that you will hear about on the news. It is not recognized by the medical establishment and few health care professionals would diagnose it. Yet millions of African American women are affected by it in some way and have been for centuries. The symptoms of this disorder can include stress, fatigue, headaches, poor dietary and exercise habits, obesity, hypertension, chronic pain, emotional numbing, and pent-up anger. The name of this disorder? Strong Black Woman syndrome.

You are probably wondering how being a Strong Black Woman can be bad. After all, the Strong Black Woman is resilient, assertive, strong-willed, independent, dependable, and persistent. She is capable of overcoming adversity with poise, confidence, and style. No matter the odds stacked against her, she presses on without a complaint. She is the sister who will come through when friends and family are in a pinch – serving as counselor and caretaker for all those around her. Her strength and determination have enabled her survival and inspired others to endure under conditions of extreme oppression and abuse. Her crucial role in the survival of Black people in the United States is undeniable.

But such strength comes at a cost. In an effort to protect herself from the overwhelming and paralyzing pain in her daily life, the historical Strong Black Woman learned to repress sadness, grief, and anger. The experience of repeated disappointment and shattered dreams taught her to dampen hope and happiness. Rather than living and enjoying life fully, she operated in survival mode, coasting through in a numbed emotional state, with just enough hope for the possibility of a better life.

While circumstances have changed, the Strong Black Woman has not. Unable to show any signs of weakness, she cannot ask for help when she needs it and buries any sign of emotional distress in an effort to look as though she has it together. Her fear of vulnerability causes her to be closed off to others, incapable of expressing her full humanity or experiencing emotionally intimate relationships. She sacrifices her own happiness for that of others and lives a life full of unfulfilled hopes and resentment. The perpetual caretaker, she spends most of her days caring for the needs of others, promising to reserve the leftovers for herself. But usually there are no leftovers. So she ends up taking care of the needs of others at the expense of her own spiritual, physical, and emotional health. She becomes tired, unhappy, not living up to her full potential, and stressed out. She experiences feelings of guilt anytime that she does something for herself and instead fills her days with constant activity. She loses her sense of connection with the Creator and suffers from stress and lifestyle-related health problems, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, migraine headaches, and ulcers.

Each of us has a Strong Black Woman in our lives – our mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, or ourselves. It is time to release her. Free her from the bondage of being a caretaker and allow her to devote time to some much needed self-care. Help her to do the one thing that she is not strong enough to do – take care of herself.