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Retiring Superwoman

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll remember that this summer I started asking for questions and tailoring my comments to them. I recently received a question that seemed suitable to write about here because it’s one that shows up a lot in my coaching and consultancy. It comes in many forms, but one version is “Why can’t I slow down and make time for myself because x depends on me?” Some people complain, “I’ve tried to set limits and take care of myself, but when I do everything falls apart.” Or “People need me.” Or “I’ll slow down when x (my husband, children, mother, or boss) steps up.” I’ve seen people check themselves out of hospitals early, run themselves almost to death, and make all kinds of sacrifices to their mind, body, and spirit in caring for other. It’s painful to watch.

If you’ve seen this or are one of these people, you know that the superwoman syndrome is real, and it’s costly. Women have growing rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and addictions due to trying to hold it all together while denying themselves. A lot of people have written about this, entire books, coaching programs, and podcasts are devoted to it. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest you check out How to Avoid the Superwoman Complex by Dr. Nicole Swiner, Overcoming the Superwomen Syndrome by Linda Ellis Eastma, and anything by Brene Brown.

All these resources are great, but they can miss the brutal reality many superwoman are so because it’s a way for them to be always control, deny their needs, protect ourselves from feelings and vulnerability, or hopefully inoculate ourselves from disappointment. By definition, a superwoman is always available has no needs and is stronger than others. As quiet as it can be, caretaking is a kinder, gentler, and sometimes more socially acceptable way of meeting our narcissistic needs.

We typically think of narcissists as selfish, egotistical, and arrogant – the opposite of self-sacrificial “super caretakers.” But they aren’t opposites: they have the same kinds of wounds, but they just show up differently. Both are trying to be seen and heard. Both desperately seek acknowledgement from others. Both are trying to fix parts of their hearts that were broken early in their lives, often by parents who were trying to protect them and keep them humble and safe, or who needed to rein in their curiosity and their healthy grandiosity. I could write more about it, but this messed-up narcissism is thought to be at the root of many of our social ills: gangs, relationship problems, intergroup conflicts. More about this is to come.

So, how does a superwoman learn to put her cape down and stop over-functioning?

First, she reflects on what she’s doing and why. If you frequently feel overextended and unappreciated, feel like you’re giving more than you have, or feel taken advantage of and resentful, then stop and do a self-assessment, and begin the journey to being a vulnerable human. It won’t be simple, and you’ll need both safety and support. We can talk in future articles For now, let’s start with the hard realities: the self-assessment.

  • 1. Know that your over-functioning probably isn’t helpful, or not in the ways you think it is. When you do things for everyone, you inhibit their growth, development, and resiliency. People learn by doing. When we don’t make room for other people to show up, we contribute to their oppression and narcissistic injury.

  • 2. Be honest with yourself. Superwomen are rarely giving from a loving place. Deep down, most feel overwhelmed, resentful, and even angry. If you’re a superwoman your well –your heart, soul, or spirit – probably feels empty a lot. And it might feel like there is never any reciprocity in your life (and there isn’t), because over-functioning will never get you the validation, care, and acknowledgement that your heart desperately seeks, because there’s no room for people to give back to you.

  • 3. Finally, remember what Toni Morrison said in The Bluest Eye: “The love is only as good as the lover.” Who wants to give burnt-out, leftover love? Superwomen typically give because they believe that it’s best. But what if I told you that when you give from an empty heart, it’s toxic? Would you rethink your “gifts”?

If this resonates with you, hit me up on Facebook or my website. If you’d like to learn more about narcissism, building a village of support, or anything else, please let me know.

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