The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
This week we’re rewinding to a very important conversation that you might have missed here on the podcast. In April 2018 I had a conversation with Dr. Spirit all about how we can shed the superwoman status. Given all that we’ve experienced this year I think it’s a timely reminder to not measure ourselves against unrealistic standards and to recognize that our worth does not come from how much pain we can withstand.
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Session 202: ICYMI, Shedding Your Superwoman Status
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 202 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll jump into the episode right after a quick word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: In April 2018, I had a conversation with Dr. Spirit all about how we can shed the superwoman syndrome. Given all that we've experienced this year, I think it's a timely reminder to not measure ourselves against unrealistic standards and to recognize that our worth does not come from how much pain we can withstand.
As a reminder, Dr. Spirit is a licensed professional counsellor, nationally certified counsellor, parenting coordinator, child sexual abuse prevention facilitator, certified forensic mental health evaluator, and marriage officiant. You may also have seen her hosting the popular series Love Goals on the OWN network. If there's something that resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Spirit.
Spirit: Oh, it is my pleasure. I'm so excited to be here with you.
Dr. Joy: Yes, I am very excited that we will have this conversation today. This has been a highly requested topic to talk all about the strong black woman, the black superwoman, and it being time for us to take our capes off.
Spirit: Oh, girl, please. Let's take them off, let’s untie them, let's burn them, let's do whatever. Let's get it done.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I mean, this is something that has been talked about quite a lot in mental health circles. There was a recent video that just came out from Because Facts, which is a series from April *[inaudible 0:03:58], that talked about all of the health impacts that being strong black women can have on us. Can you start by telling us a little bit about what this stereotype is and where it came from?
Spirit: Oh, absolutely. When we talk about these strong black women or this strong black woman, it’s that black women have a history of being known for being some of the strongest women on earth, and of course we have. I mean, if you look at where we've come from, if you look at what the struggle of African Americans in the United States has been, there was a time and a place where we had to do that. And so although many people look at it and say, listen, it started as a way for us to really be able to sidestep some of these negative stereotypes about us.
Historically, we talked about the mammy, the one that was the caretaker and who looked out for everybody, but it was a really disrespectful almost ambiguous kind of description or characteristic or characterization of black women. Then there was the Jezebel, this idea that all black women were hyper sexual and the only thing that we were good for is the value that was created from our physical bodies. And then if we weren't the mammy or we weren't the jezebels, then of course we had to be the woman that everybody has come to know and almost (I would say) hate or hate to love in the last two decades–is that angry black woman.
And so a lot of people have this idea that the superwoman, the superhero black woman, has emerged as a way to counter all of those stereotypes. And to say, listen, we're not mammies, we're not jezebels and we're not angry; we have it all together. We can do all things, we are all powerful and we will not crack under the pressure, no matter what is given to us. And so out of these archetypes has come this new evolution of this idea of what it means to be a black woman. But that in and of itself is wreaking its own havoc amongst us.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and it does feel like there has been growing conversation with black women realizing like, look, we don't have to play into this stereotype, like it's okay for us to not be strong. But I also think that there is some real pride attached to it and it feels like there’s this weird tension there.
Spirit: And you know, it's so funny, Joy, that you say that. Because my experience is actually not even that we don't have to live up to it, but it's almost a breaking under the pressure, that I can no longer live up to it. I'm looking to the left, I'm looking to the right, and I use all these external cues to tell me who I should be, particularly in this age of social media. Everybody looks like they are having the time of their lives, they have no worries, they have no struggles, and everyone is trying to keep up with the Joneses (for lack of a better way to say it).
But what black women are finding is, wait a minute: behind this stereotype, underneath this cape, I am buckling under the pressure. I can't breathe under the weight of all of this. And unfortunately, what they are finding is that they are fatigued, they are broken and they are bruised, and they simply cannot do it anymore. And so that's why it's important for us to help black women understand, one, that they're not alone. Two, that this is a stereotype or a myth that's impossible to live up to. And three, that trying to do so is only going to kill you in the long run. So when you hear the idea that black don't crack, oh, I'm quick to tell my clients, “Oh, yes, it does. It just cracks from the inside out.”
Dr. Joy: Spirit, are you seeing that that is typically where a lot of your clients will then come into therapy? When they've like hit this breaking point?
Spirit: Oh, my goodness, I'm so glad that you asked that. Because, as I tell my clients, (particularly with women, since we're talking about this idea today) is that it's almost never the thing that brings you in. It's not the presenting symptom. Because since we have the cape on, we don't realize that there's an issue. We usually are coming in for something else. We're coming in because our relationship is not working out, we're coming in because we need some help with our children, getting them together, we're coming in because we recently lost our mother, the matriarch or our grandmother. And so we're just trying to get just the slightest bit of help, but not too much because, you know, I'm a strong woman.
And that's part of the archetype. It's the idea that I really don't need help from others so I just need something to get me to the next step. Just a little something to take the edge off and then I'll be good again. But what happens when you get in front of a therapist like me who does that really deep, deep work–that does that family of origin work, that does the childhood trauma work–what you're able to learn is, one, that it's okay to step away from this archetype. And two, you have every right to deal with every part of you that makes you human.
Dr. Joy: I really like that, Spirit. And as you were talking, it made me think about how scary that might be like if you have invested in this identity as a strong black woman. How scary it might be to sit with a therapist and have them start peeling that back.
Spirit: Oh, my goodness, it can be very disconcerting, especially for the client that's not prepared for that. So one of the things that I talk about, especially in that initial session, is what brought you in. What are you hoping to get out of this session or this work together, and how will we know when we’ve got there? And so as we begin to kind of look at some of those things, when I realize, “Uh-oh, we’re bumping up against that archetype. Uh-oh, there may be more to this,” what I do is make my client aware of that. Ask them are they able to connect the dots and are they interested in going there.
Because therapy is not about taking somebody further or faster than they're willing to go. It's helping them rediscover themselves in a place that is safe, in a place that is comfortable and in a place that is loving and compassionate. And you can only do that when a client is motivated to do that and when they feel safe enough to do that. So I'm always very careful about what that means but I'm also holding my clients accountable to themselves and to the goals that they say that they want.
So if you're wanting to live your best life, then how might getting real about what your life has been up until this point benefit you and help you meet that goal? And it's almost always the case that they want to go further. Because at the end of the day, most of us really do want to live our best lives; we're just afraid of the steps that it may take or we don't know what it's going to take to get there. And that's where the challenges lie.
Dr. Joy: And I think it's really important to highlight that, Spirit, because I do think that that does stop a lot of people from maybe trying therapy. Is this fear of like a therapist dragging them into something that feels like they can't come back out of. But the idea that they really have a choice about, “Okay, I'm identifying this kind of thing and it looks like there may be some work to do here. Do you feel like this is a place you want to go?”
Spirit: Hello, and not only do you feel like this is the place you want to go, but is this the right time for you to go there? Because when you begin to pull back those layers, sometimes it's not the right time. If I'm already stressed and I'm doing everything that I can to hold it together, perhaps this isn't the moment to look at some of the things that might lead me to fall apart, and I will have clients that tell me that all the time. And I'll say, listen, do you realize that you are on the verge of (especially in African American culture) what we have traditionally called a nervous breakdown? Do you realize that you're on the verge of that or, i.e., that you may need some more intensive support, some more intensive therapy or even looking at possible hospitalization?
And I cannot tell you the number of black women, Dr. Joy, who have said to me: Spirit, I don't have time for a break down. The kids is acting up, my husband is going crazy, my job is going crazy. I don't have time. And they actually want to schedule hospitalization like they schedule a mani-pedi. And I have to say: Girlfriend, let's talk about this case. Because here it is that you think you can control time and the problem is you think you have more time than you actually do. So how do we get real and how do we shake off some of the characteristics that are associated with this schema, so that you can finally focus on you and be your best you? And once we talk about those areas that are related to what it means to live under that black superwoman archetype, then they're able to see, oh, my gosh, I do do that and I didn't even have any idea that that's what it was or that's what it was related to.
Dr. Joy: More from our conversation after the break.
Dr. Joy: Spirit, I think it is fine to have maybe almost like an academic discussion about what this archetype looks like. But I do think listeners will benefit from hearing: How do I know if this is something I'm struggling with? Like, how would a person recognize that they may be dealing with some of this superwoman stuff?
Spirit: Oh, yeah, so let's talk about it. Because the actual woman who really is credited with characterizing this, she said that there were five simple archetypes. And maybe they were a little more technical, but I’d like for our listeners to be able to relate to it. I like to talk about mental health in a way that everybody can understand so let's just keep it really simple because I want people to see themselves.
Okay, so there are five characteristics that go along with this particular schema and the first one is this obligation to present an image of strength always. I am strong, I am powerful, I am woman, hear me roar. And not only is that how I see myself, but I feel the pressure, whether it's from other women (and those women could be my girlfriends, it could be my mother, it could be from stories passed down), I have an obligation to present black women to the world in this strong powerful way and I will not let us down. So it's this collective idea of how I need to be presenting all the time and that's from a place of strength.
The second characteristic is I have an obligation to suppress my emotions. Basically, what does that mean, Dr. Joy? That means you're never going to see me sweat, you're not going to hear that this is hard, you're not going to hear that this is too much, you're not going to hear that this hurts me or this frustrates me or I don't understand how to do this. I'm going to look like I always have it together. Even if the world is falling apart around my feet, you will never ever know it.
The third part of this archetype is this idea that we cannot be dependent on help from others and we are not vulnerable. There is nothing wrong with me. All my bills are paid on time, I've got it going on, I know how I'm handling everything, I am not a weak person and I am not vulnerable to anything that may come my way. I'm ready for every challenge, I can do it on my own and I don't need anybody's help in order to survive.
The next one is a motivation to succeed against all odds. Black women have long been known for making a way out of no way. We talk about making ends meet, riding it till the wheels fall off. When you feel like you're at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. All of those things that have been passed on from generation to generation since we stepped foot on this continent. The idea that you make a way out of no way and so that becomes part of our belief system–that I always have to be able to figure it out and make a way out of no way.
And then that last characteristic that falls under that whole superwoman schema is the idea that it is my responsibility to put others before myself. I can wait. I can go without, I can do without, I'm the strongest one in the bunch. I always have to put the needs of others in front of me and I will deal with me later on. And the problem is that we never deal with that and that is where we go awry. And what makes it all the more worse is that we as black women are so collective that we get into what's known as network stress. Which means I'm not even just worried about my own situation but I'm worried about and affected by the situation of others that are connected to me.
So if my mother is in trouble, her pain is my pain. If my girls are in trouble, their pain is my pain. If my neighbors are in trouble, their problems are my problems. But this network of any and everyone that I'm connected to, I have an obligation to put them before me, to rescue them and take on their pains and burdens as my own. Now, wouldn't that be enough for anybody to crack under?
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. And the video even talks about like how black women do that more than other people. Like taking on these issues and the stress actually feels as if the stressful situation is happening to you.
Spirit: Oh, absolutely. And that goes back to that collectivism mentality. You know, we have always been about being our brother's keeper and you hear these kinds of colloquialisms and analogies within our community. And they are passed down from generation to generation and you come to own them as a particular obligation. You don't want to drop the ball, you don't want to be the weak link, you don't want society to be able to look at you as the negative stereotypes that have travelled and been passed down from generation to generation as it relates to us as a group. And so basically you decide they will never see me sweat. And why? Because they're not supposed to. But that couldn't be further from the truth, Dr. Joy. We all sweat.
Dr. Joy: Right. Of course, of course. And see, Spirit, this is where I find myself like really struggling with the tension of this because I think that there is something very powerful about the fact that our culture is collective and that I am my sister's keeper. Like I feel like I and a lot of people take real pride in that. But of course, as you’ve mentioned, there's a point at which that goes too far. So what is the boundary? How can we continue to take care of each other, but also know when we have to kind of make a line that you can't go too far with it?
Spirit: Yes. And actually, I'm so glad that you're asking that because I feel like this conversation is so timely. Because here as we look at April, April is National Stress Awareness Month. And so what we know is that black women are disproportionately affected by stress just due to the high demands of our daily lives, our struggles and our inability or unwillingness to shake off this black superwoman complex, if you will. And so what we have to do is we have to pay attention to us as individuals.
And when I say us, I'm not talking about this network stress. I am talking about, we have to go inward and look in first instead of outside because the reality is you cannot pour from an empty cup. It is impossible. And so we have to decide that when we get ourselves together, we want to be together not just from head to toe, but from the inside out. And we have to be aware of what kinds of things cause stress for us, we have to be aware of those early signs of stress so that we know when it's taking a toll on us. We have to know how to manage our stress and we have to know how and what to do if we find that we can't handle the stress that we're under. Understanding that that does not make us weak but in fact it makes us stronger.
Dr. Joy: Okay, so that feels like a great compromise. Like in order to continue to take care of the community, you first need to take care of yourself.
Spirit: Come on! And then we also have to understand... I love to tell my clients this over and over again: you don't have to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm. You do not have to do it. But unfortunately, all of these lessons that we're talking about go against this superwoman complex that we've been taught, that we've been conditioned to believe. And so the moment that we take our eyes off of others, the moment that we decide, “I'm not going to take on the problems of someone else...” Because there's a difference between helping, enabling and taking on.
And far too often, we don't know the difference and we find ourselves overly involved in other people's situations, believing that that's what we're supposed to do. I'm strong enough. I got this. I don't want to see you suffer. I won't suffer if I take this on. We have to realize our own humanness, we have to give one another permission to be human and, most importantly, we have to give ourselves permission to be human and protect ourselves–our minds, our bodies and our spirits–as a temple. As a very, very fragile precious temple. And we only have one and we don't get a second chance, as far as we know.
Dr. Joy: Spirit, as you were talking about like one of the characteristics related to this superwoman complex, you mentioned the idea that it causes us to have issues with help-seeking behavior. And I often think about my experience has been that black women tend to want other black women therapists, most of the time it feels like, at least in my experience. But I do feel like there is some difficulty when you are working with another black woman therapist who you presume has it together... That it feels like it makes it more difficult maybe for you to step into a more emotional space or to admit that you're struggling because of this need to kind of have this presentation.
Spirit: You know what? I think that that's highly possible, Dr. Joy. To that, what I would say is then that would be a challenge not for that woman who comes in and sits in that chair but more so a challenge for those black female therapists. To have the awareness, because I think that that's part of the cultural competency piece that we're all challenged and charged to have to be, to have to fulfil. I think we need to understand that about the client that is sitting in front of us and then we have to be the ones to take charge and know “How can I make that okay for her?”
And so I can tell you that for me in my therapy, or in my therapeutic orientation, it's very important that my clients understand straight away that, one, I'm not your girlfriend, even though we may have that connection. And we may be able to speak a certain way and we may be able to use references that each of us get, just from a cultural place because we are culturally similar. But I also want them to know that I am not the expert in their lives–that they are, and I'm just here to reflect back to them their journey as they understand it or even to help them understand it in a different way.
And most importantly, I want them to understand at all times that I am human just like them. And to that, I will often tell my clients and they will tell you back as they are out in the streets talking to other people or as they refer people to me. And they'll say, “One of the things that so and so told me is she said that you do not play about putting you up on the pedestal.” And I will tell them immediately, no, no, no. Because let me tell you: do not look at me and think that you know what my life is about.
I have no problem sharing my struggle with you over the years, if I think that that would be therapeutically appropriate and there would be some value to that. But if for even a single second, I think that you were using me as your measuring stick, then I will not only point out the pedestal that I'm concerned that you're placing me on, but I will jump off headfirst. And I will not only do that to break the idea of perfection for you, but also to show you that I can take that leap and still survive, and the world hasn't fallen off of its axis. So I will do it to be a model to you, to be a mirror to you, to show you what is possible when you shake off that cape.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and it feels like that's where some really good work could happen, right? Like through that learning, that they can see that I can take this risk and it's still okay.
Spirit: Yes. I'd be like, oh, it's getting good now, girl. You’re getting into your growth. Now we're in the journey, now that you put your shoes back on. Because the real deal is I can never tell you what your journey is like and it's not for me to judge your journey because I will never, ever be able to walk a single mile in your shoes. And so it is not for me to judge your journey, it is not for me to assess where you should be in your journey. How can I do that with something that I can't experience? In the same way that you will never be able to do the same in my life.
And so A plus B always equals C in your own life. If you look at your A and you look at your B, it is no wonder that you are at C, right where you are sitting now. And it's all about helping you to unpack the journey so once you understand and are able to make those connections, you then become empowered and in control of where C, D and E take you. And that's really what it's all about.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, I like that, Spirit. More from our conversation after the break.
Dr. Joy: What would you suggest to people who may be listening to this episode and they're like, oh my goodness, I do recognize this in myself. I feel like this may be something I struggle with. What kinds of like tips or strategies might you have for people who think that this may be an issue for them?
Spirit: Well, you know, I always say... and this is just my bias as a therapist. Therapy, therapy and more therapy. I believe that it is imperative that at some point in your journey (and really, to be quite frank with you, at multiple points in your journey) that you would give yourself the gift of therapy and getting on somebody's couch. Because we all deserve and we all can benefit from the idea of sitting with somebody who is trained to help guide us in a place and in a way where they are as objective a person as I am ever going to be. They are not invested in my situation at all so they have no stake in this.
I love to tell my clients, “I have no horse in your race. I'm not betting one way or the other, I know nothing about anybody else. This is just about your individual performance for where you are now, where you're trying to go, and how do you connect those dots.” And so I would say that therapy gives you one of the best ways to absolutely be able to do that.
But then you have to look at the other part to that because therapy, for most people, is just once, twice, or three or four times a month, depending on how you set up your therapeutic journey. But that is just a few minutes once a week if you're lucky. That means that you have six other days and 23 other hours in a week to have to engage in this journey with you as the leader, without your therapist there to guide you or to support you or walk you through. So you have to know, how do I take time for myself? What do I need to do to get this journey right? And so in addition to that therapeutic processing, you also have to think about eating right, sleeping right, moving right. And in the moving right, I say that's both getting the exercise that you need and that's also getting the rest that you need. And we don't do the rest part well–and a lot of us aren't doing the exercise very well either, let's just be real.
And then, even more importantly sometimes than all of those things combined, we have to learn as black women how to set limits. How to set limits: understanding that “no” is a complete sentence. Understanding that I do not have to be all things to everybody and there will come times where I have to say no to my friends, no to my family, no to my job, no to my church, even no to myself. I have to set boundaries so that I can be okay. Because the real deal is that everybody, even pseudo superheroes need time to rest, rejuvenate, recharge, and replenish. And we have to find a way to strike that balance in our lives.
Dr. Joy: Those are great tips. In addition to that, do you have any, like favorite resources related to this topic for people who maybe want to read more or feel like, okay, I want to do more work in this area? Like any books or things that you enjoy?
Spirit: You know what? I don't really think that it's about books nowadays, unfortunately, because I think that everybody is reading something. It's so interesting. I come into a session and I have clients, especially since we're talking about this archetype... And I want to be very clear, because I don't want people to be like, Spirit said don't read. No, that is not what I am saying, okay? But what I am saying is when you are dealing with a woman who thinks that she is a super woman, nine times out of 10, Dr. Joy, she has already gone above and beyond to research the mess out of what she thinks her situation is.
Because remember, she doesn't need help. She's trying to figure it out on her own and she has the answer. So I'm more likely to see that woman come into the office and go, “Okay, I already know what's wrong with me. I think I know what my diagnosis is.” And you go, how is that possible that you could actually know that? And she goes, “Well, you know, I've looked on the websites...” And she'll name 50 million websites. “And I’ve figured that out. I figured out that with my parents...” Oh, I'm sorry, that's my little bitch waking up now. That's the *[inaudible 0:34:16 mama?] being the superhero.
But she says, “Listen, I think I already have it figured out.” And so what I say is don't try to put the pieces together. Simply show up with your pieces in hand and allow somebody else to help walk you through the journey. In the same way as when you go to the salon and you're going to get a mani-pedi, you don't sit there and you tell the woman “Okay, first you're going to put my feet in the water. Okay, now you're going to make the water dish. Okay, now it's time for you to take it out.” We don't do that. You don't go to your favorite restaurant and say, “Okay, can you tell them that when they make my steak, first I want them to set the temperature at 350. Then I want them to make sure that there's enough oil on the grill.” We don't do those kinds of things. We simply show up and say I'm here to be a part of the experience.
And so that's what I encourage all of the super women who are out there listening to this show right now, knowing that they are cracking under the weight or knowing that their muscles are ready to give out, or that they are simply exhausted: stop trying to read about it, stop trying to study about it, stop trying to think that you have to have the answer. Simply show up. Show up and allow somebody to help you even if nobody else ever gets to see. Because that's the beauty of therapy–it's the confidentiality. Just show up. Just show up.
Dr. Joy: Nice, nice. So any news or events that you have going on or coming up that you want to share about?
Spirit: The easiest way for people to stay abreast of what it is that I'm doing and if they want more information about how to do those things in terms of contacting me or watching or listening, simply come to my social media. I’m @Talk2Spirit, and that's Talk, 2, Spirit. You can find me at Talk2Spirit on all of my social media and I will always keep you abreast about what's going on, not just in the month, not just in the week, but sometimes on the day.
And more importantly, more importantly, if they think or they know that they need help or they just want to expand this conversation, one thing that I do know that I do each and every week without fail is Free advice Friday. They can come to my Facebook page every Friday at noon Eastern Standard Time and we do a live Facebook chat featuring beautiful, wonderful, gifted, talented, knowledgeable therapists from all over the country. As a matter of fact, I think we've already seen you on the couch at least once, Dr. Joy.
Dr. Joy: Absolutely.
Spirit: It’s about time to get you back.
Dr. Joy: Okay, so they can definitely catch you for that. And I definitely would encourage people to tune in for that because those are great conversations.
Spirit: Yes, we always have a ball. And more importantly, we have the opportunity to talk to people directly, face to face, whether they'd like to remain anonymous or whether they could care less and they are there to get the information, tools, tips and resources that they need. So each and every Friday, Free Advice Friday. You'll find old clips, new clips of everything that it is that I'm doing and also you can put in a request for me to do some other things. Like I say, you never know where the work finds us.
Dr. Joy: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Spirit.
Spirit: Oh, it's gonna be on my pleasure. Listen, one of the things that we have to continue to do is we have to continue to support each other, we have to continue to look out for each other. And until we get to the point where we are able to retire these capes for good, I challenge every woman out there within the sound of my voice–check up on your strong friend today. Check up on her. Check up on the one that never says she needs any help, that always seems to have it together, because the real deal is that helpers need help too. And whether or not we ask for it, each of us can benefit from it.
And sometimes it's the one person that refuses the hug, it's the one person that refuses the help, it's the one person who hides behind “Oh, I'm good. I'm fine. I'm okay.” Understanding that none of those things are a feeling. Check up on them and give it to them anyway. Because usually it feels so uncomfortable because they are cracking, just trying to save face on the outside. So look out for your super women today. Maybe give them a kryptonite necklace for Christmas. How about that?
Dr. Joy: Let's go with vibranium in the spirit of Black Panther.
Spirit: I love it. Come on, Wakanda forever! But isn't that the Superwoman archetype all over? Don’t get me started.
Dr. Joy: We’re not going to start a new episode now, Spirit. That’s a perfect way for us to wrap up.
Spirit: Yes, we'll save that for part two of that movie.
Dr. Joy: Exactly, exactly. Thank you.
Spirit: My pleasure. I can't wait to see you all again. God bless.
Dr. Joy: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Spirit. Be sure to check out the show notes to learn more about her work and to connect with her on social media. You can find those at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session202. Don't forget that if you're looking for a therapist in your area, make sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory.
And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.