That stereotype of the “Strong Black Woman” does us no favors when it comes to admitting we need help.
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
“I’ve always been the ‘superwoman’ in my family. I’m the one who fixes problems, gets things done, and thinks about my kids and everyone else’s needs before my own.”
“How can I make going to therapy a priority when I’m supposed to be superwoman? I’m African American and in my community, needing professional help can be seen as ‘crazy’ or ‘weak.’”
“I’m so tired of being the Strong Black Woman. But how can I get help knowing that it could hurt my family to see their superwoman as ‘crazy’?”
If these sound familiar, you’re in the right place.
Quick question: If I showed you I had the power to fly, would you be impressed? You’d probably think it was pretty awesome, right?
Now, what if I then told you that I live with depression, anxiety, and PTSD? Would you say, “Oh, nevermind — I thought seeing a woman take flight like a human jet plane was cool, but it turns out Maisha’s just crazy”?
Yeah… I didn’t think so.
Of course, I can’t say for certain how your family and community would react to your seeking therapy. But seeing that we need professional help shouldn’t take away from the good things our loved ones see in us.
Recently, singer, songwriter, and actress Janelle Monáe spoke to Essence magazine about this very subject.
She’s had huge success these past few years, and when I watch her in action in work like her Dirty Computer music video, I’m just about convinced that she has superpowers, too.
But do you know what Janelle Monáe did as soon as she got the money to afford it? She went to therapy.
“When I first started getting a check, I went to therapy. Therapy is important,” she told Essence. As a Black woman, she explained that this wasn’t something that was pushed in her community. Instead, people prayed about it.
“I also believe that that higher power gives you people on Earth to help walk you through some of your darkest times and help you cope and deal,” she went on.
I share this so you know that you’re not alone, but also to give you some hope that things are changing.
I know that stigma can be difficult to break through when you’re regarded as the “strong one” in your family, as so many Black women are. That stereotype of the Strong Black Woman does us no favors when it comes to admitting we need help.
And so many of us have been taught to regard mental illness as a source of shame, so of course it’s not easy to admit that you’re struggling.
Our communities have been ashamed of therapy for too long, but as celebrities, mental health advocates, and everyday people like you and me speak out about it, we help normalize the experience of living with mental illness — and we start to create a new future that includes getting help without shame.
To me, being superwoman doesn’t have to mean that you never struggle.
For example, thinking about your mental health and how to take care of it — in spite of the risks that come with the stigma — is incredibly brave, and that’s what makes you a superwoman in my eyes.
So if your family knows that you struggle from time to time, then they’ll have a more complete, realistic view of who you really are. Which might actually help in the long run, because they’ll know that they can’t just take what you give them without offering support in return. They’ll know that you must love them a whole lot to show up for them like you do even when you’re having a hard time.
They’ll know that you’re human. And every human on this earth has struggles sometimes.
But I know that being vulnerable around people who see you as superwoman is a lot to ask. So here are a few tips that might help you navigate going to therapy, one small step at a time.
- Tell your family only what you’re ready to tell them. You’re under no obligation to share everything when you’re not ready to do so. If going to therapy feels too personal, then you’re allowed to keep it to yourself for a while.
- Set boundaries with people who aren’t supportive. If you know your aunt’s only going to gossip about your mental health, and your sister’s only going to judge you for it, then you don’t need to deal with that on top of everything else right now. If you need to tell someone, tell only those you can trust.
- Tell your therapist what’s going on. The whole point of seeking professional help is that you don’t have to face your problems on your own! Once you start therapy, you can tell your therapist that you’re worried about your family, and they can help you make a game plan.
- Look into support groups and other people who can relate. Maybe you can find a group of other Black folks, an online community, or another resource for people who can relate to what you’re going through. You may be surprised to find what a difference it can make to remember that you’re not alone.
While it might seem like a compliment when other people see us as endlessly “strong,” it’s ultimately more healthy for us to be accepted as human beings — which includes the possibility of dealing with mental illness.
I know it’s not easy to suddenly shift to taking care of your own needs when you’re so used to putting everyone else first. And that’s exactly why you deserve to seek out someone who can help look out for you.
Go ahead and turn off those superpowers for a while and just be you, vulnerabilities and all.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer and advocate for survivors of violence, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She lives with chronic illness and believes in honoring each person’s unique path to healing. Find Maisha on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.