Illustration: Dani Pendergast

The Burnout Effect

The Dangers of Trying to Be Superwoman

The need to be everything to everyone is causing chronic stress. Here’s how to put yourself first while managing life at work and home.

This story is a part of The Burnout Effect, ZORA’s look at the pressures to perform and produce in an already chaotic world.

In 2009, Lisa,* then age 23, landed in the hospital due to a series of health issues caused by chronic stress. After some testing, her neurologist delivered startling news.

“You’ll be dead by 26.”

She wasn’t expecting to hear those words several months after celebrating her new job as a manager overseeing 13 rental car locations in New York City. Lisa felt fortunate to secure the position, especially as a new college graduate during the tumultuous 2008 financial crisis. But she quickly learned how intense her new role was. Lisa worked 10-hour minimum shifts that more often stretched to 12 or 13 hours. She had a wide range of responsibilities, including cleaning cars, scheduling employees, and customer service. She also managed subordinates who challenged her authority due to her gender. One co-worker repeatedly asked her out until she had her boyfriend pick her up from a shift.

While she was grateful to have the means to provide for her then four-year-old daughter, Lisa felt guilty for not being more present. “I was so exhausted that I didn’t have time to parent. I was just going through the motions, which weighed heavily on me,” she said. “I also felt like for a mom, there’s no option to quit. You make it work and find a way to deal with the difficult things as opposed to walking away from the difficult things.”

Lisa’s mother, who provided extra childcare outside of daycare, was unsympathetic when she would complain of work challenges. “Opportunities are really scarce, especially in a recession. So I think her advice was from a place that she understood as an immigrant [from St. Kitts], which is [that] we’re not really valued in this country, we’re expendable. And anything we get, even when we work for it, we should just consider ourselves lucky,” Lisa says. “And because we consider ourselves lucky, then we really can’t complain about being mistreated.”

Even now, as much of the country is on pause, there is a weighty weariness that some women of color must work through with the added grief of a pandemic.

The demands of work and home, along with limited emotional support, made it hard for her to show up for herself. With her busy schedule, Lisa often relied on fast food or Chinese takeout. A co-worker pointed out that Lisa complained of headaches every day. Lisa dismissed the complaints as not being a big deal.

But it was.

While suffering from a pounding headache one evening, the left side of Lisa’s face went numb. Unable to lift her head up, she realized she needed to go to the hospital.

During the intake process, the neurologist asked Lisa about her lifestyle, diet, and schedule. “I was doing great the whole session. Then she asked me, ‘Are you stressed?’” Lisa recalls. “And I literally broke down.” Later, Lisa’s doctor revealed that she was suffering from chronic migraines caused in part by her high stress levels. They were so severe that it put her at risk for a stroke.

Lisa’s story is all too common for many women of color. In a 2015 study examining stress and coping mechanisms among women of color, 50% of respondents reported feeling high levels of stress. A study published in October 2019 found that 77% of the women respondents reported prioritizing their family’s needs over their own, and 48% reported that their burnout was so severe it kept them up at night.

For women of color, burnout can be the end result of trying to be everything to everyone all while dealing with a multitude of biases, microaggressions, and harassment. Even now, as much of the country is on pause, there is a weighty weariness that some women of color must work through with the added grief of a pandemic.

For Black women, specifically, showing up for everyone is much like being superwoman. Early in her career, Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe became interested in the connection between stress and health disparities. In 2010, she developed a framework for measuring and quantifying the impact of stress on Black women in the United States, which she refers to as the Superwoman Schema. The concept has five defining characteristics: the obligation to manifest strength, the obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, a determination to succeed despite limited resources, and feeling an obligation to help others. Woods-Giscobme believes that the tendency of many Black women to put their own needs last is tied to historical discrimination that Black people have suffered in the United States.

“Black women see so many areas of need, and they have a desire to nurture and nourish and help,” she explains. “And they’re not all moms, but some of them have a maternal instinct to support their children, their partners, other children in the community, their siblings, and their parents.”

Woods-Giscombe adds, “In this current environment, there’s a need everywhere you look. It’s your job, where you’re trying to achieve your own success, it’s making sure your children are still receiving adequate instruction, and it’s the larger community, where you’re seeing higher death rates among Blacks due to Covid-19.”

With respect to suppressing emotions, Woods-Giscombe acknowledges that it can sometimes be a useful strategy. “It’s a part of surviving and part of helping their families, children, and community,” she says. “But no one can be like that 100% of the time.”

Jasmine Abrams, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, observes that the tendency of Black women to put everyone else first is firmly rooted in our culture.

“What we see from research is that [the strong Black woman] is legitimately a cultural phenomenon,” she explains. “Black girls, even in their early youth, identify with this idea of women as strong and unbreakable, and they see that aspect of womanhood as aspirational. Being able to be the rock and the strength of the family — ‘the glue of the family’ as some of my research participants have said — is aspirational, and it’s often viewed positively among young Black girls and young Black women.”

For Jacqueline Reid, 42, her experience with burnout was the result of trying to live up to others’ expectations and setting unreasonable goals for herself.

After she split from her husband when she was 35, Reid felt like a failure. “I was supposed to have a house, a kid, and the husband,” she says. “Instead I got a divorce.”

“My family didn’t see how depleted I was, so I moved into a new place determined to give myself the time and space to heal.”

Her way of coping was to move to New York City to take a new role in higher education administration with a boss who Reid now realizes was unsupportive and often undermined her decisions. “The person I am now would have quit much sooner,” she says. “But back then, I dug in and said, ‘I am going to win this woman’s approval and turn this program around.’ I think too, after the divorce, it was really important for me not to fail at something else.”

Reid was also managing a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, which was aggravated by the constant walking that living in NYC required. She eventually found herself so burned out that she quit and moved back to Memphis to live with her mother.

Moving home also forced her to set some firm boundaries with her family.

“I moved out before I was better because emotionally, I couldn’t get well in a place where everybody still expected me to be superwoman,” she says. “People were still giving me things to do, and all they could see was the role I had always filled. ‘Jackie’s got it. She’s going to survive. She always has.’ My family didn’t see how depleted I was, so I moved into a new place determined to give myself the time and space to heal.”

Reid is now studying for a master’s in social work and currently works for a maternal health nonprofit.

Despite our cultural conditioning to do it all, there are ways to reclaim our time. Roxanne Donovan, a psychologist who also runs a coaching service for faculty and graduate students, encourages her clients to realize they don’t have to do everything at the same time.

“What I suggest is thinking about your life as a multivolume series and that this moment is just one page in a multichapter, multivolume life. Everything that you’re doing is important. Do you have to do it now?” she says. “Then consider expanding or contracting or shifting what it is that you are doing that’s aligned with your values as time goes by, as things shift and change for you. And part of your values should always be your health and wellness because you cannot give what you do not have.”

During the pandemic, Donovan notes there is a shift in our headspace. “All of our prefrontal cortexes have been hijacked,” she says. “We can’t think, we can’t plan, we can’t focus, we can’t regulate our emotions. That’s just what happens to our brains when we’re faced with chronic stress. It’s a natural physiological response.”

She adds the importance of recognizing that the brain fuzziness some of us are experiencing is normal and is no reason to beat ourselves up for losing productivity.

“So, being angry at myself for a normal physiological response that’s set up to keep me alive? I can’t do that. What I can do is to decide, in this moment, where do my values lie?” Donovan says.

At her retreats, Donovan has attendees write out their ideal day and then describe a typical day. “There is usually a big discrepancy between [those days],” she says. “Then we talk about how you bridge the two and what can be shifted and changed.”

“It’s important to recognize that pre-pandemic limits and needs may be completely different from your current reality.”

Abrams recommends doing self check-ins when the demands of others become too much. “Ask yourself: What do you need to feel valued and motivated?” she says. “Emotions are a good barometer for helping with this process. When we feel angry, disappointed, or exhausted, those emotions may be indicators that one or more of your limits have been exceeded. Once the needs and limits are known, you can begin to create boundaries to protect your needs and avoid exceeding limits.”

Acknowledge that those needs and limits may evolve. “It’s important to recognize that pre-pandemic limits and needs may be completely different from your current reality,” she adds. “When considering needs and limits, avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others or your pre-pandemic self. Just consider this moment and, because things are changing so rapidly around us, check in with yourself regularly — either weekly or monthly — to assess whether or not there have been changes in your needs and limits and adjust your boundaries accordingly.”

Currently, Lisa works as a communication professional in the technology space, where she has learned how to set boundaries in the workplace. While working from home, she limits her availability for video meetings. “If you schedule meetings with me on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, my camera will be on; I will look like a human. I’ll be ready to engage with you. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you might get a phone call. That’s where I’ll draw the line, but I’m not getting on camera. I’m not engaging in that way because I need to decompress,” she says.

She’s also better about utilizing time off. “In my previous roles, I would never take a sick day or a mental health day. I’ve learned to really let go of this notion that if I’m not there, it falls apart. I also don’t have to put out every fire in 24 hours. If it’s broken, it’ll still be broken by the time I get back.”

  • Subject asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons.

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