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Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Cape: Letting Go of the Superwoman Complex

We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.

Heavy is the head that wears the Superwoman crown or cape, that is. Black women have worn this figurative cape on their backs for centuries. We wear this cape in many if not every role, for example, as a mom, a wife, a partner, a friend, even an employee, etc. We expected to show up, save the day, fix others’ problems, and not complain while doing so, which causes us to ignore ourselves in the process. 

The role of a Superwoman comes so naturally to Black women because it has been internalized and causes us to assume responsibility for things people haven’t asked of us.  We might experience this as a generational pressure to be the brightest in the room, the savior, the therapist, the girl boss in all aspects of our lives. I find that working moms or wives feel obligated to work, cook, clean, over-compensate for the time they aren’t spending with their children, and be the perfect partner. In friendships, Black women often find themselves playing the “therapist” role or acting as the emotional crutch even when they don’t have the emotional bandwidth. Black women were raised by generations of women who have inhabited these roles, and the cycle continues with their daughters. I’m sure we can all think of a handful of women, if not ourselves, wearing this metaphorical cape.

RELATED: Session 54 – Shedding Your Superwoman Status

In the viral TikTok by Amber Riley (@amberpriley), she highlights a powerful mantra that we could all live by “not my dog, not my fight.” She further expresses, “we’re taking the capes off and saving ourselves.” I was empowered but also felt deeply saddened after watching this 18-second clip because this is a universal issue that Black women are enduring.  The sad thing about it is, the only person that can truly save us is ourselves. I don’t mean metaphorically either, because this narrative is detrimental to Black women’s health. Black women are living with chronic health issues or dying from wearing the tolls of being just Black and a woman. We have unique stressors that place us at risk for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other physical/psychological issues compared to our counterparts. With that being said, we’re taking the capes off and discussing some ways to lay the cape to rest.

Silence the guilt

It’s natural to want to set the cape aside, but maybe a little voice in your head says, “But you have to” or “if you don’t, who will.” Let’s call that voice guilt with a side of shame. Feeling guilty and ashamed will have you overpromising, over-extending, and over-committing for the sake of “doing it all”. A great way to start silencing the guilt is to release those expectations that do not align with you or are irrational. This might mean making a major life shift in how you show up in your relationships and participating in self-reflection on what taking the cape off looks like for you. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is this my responsibility or someone else’s? Can the responsibilities be shared?
  • Why am I feeling guilty? What is the root or reason for this guilt?
  • Is this guilt stemming from how I want others to perceive me?
  • Is this thought rational? Is there evidence to prove this is or not true?
  • Will committing to this take time away from much-needed rest or self-care? 
  • Will anyone be harmed? (If the answer is no, then it can wait.)

Setting boundaries

Boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries. I know boundaries have become quite a *buzz* word, but for a very good reason. Boundaries help you determine where you end and others begin. Without proper boundaries, you may frequently feel taken advantage of, overworked, and that your relationships are nonreciprocal. Sounds familiar, right? This is often how it feels to wear the heavy burden of being everything for everyone. Setting boundaries with yourself and those around you will teach others how to treat you and what is allowable.  A great boundary to set with a friend (you know, the one who has a crisis every day) would be being honest when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth and asking to talk later. A boundary to set with your partner might look like postponing an outing and instead of having “me time.” The boundaries that you set in your relationships may look different with each person and be adjusted over time. 

Ask for help (even if you don’t need it)

I know the superwoman in you is probably screaming by now. Many of these suggestions, if not all, go against many of the traits you have embodied wearing the cape. As a fellow “I got it” person myself, I can understand how asking for help may be more difficult said than done. Especially if you are used to handling many responsibilities at once. That’s just the thing you shouldn’t and don’t have to handle everything yourself. Allocating responsibilities to others and asking for help can create a much-needed shift. Especially asking for help when you don’t feel you need it. It is a sure way to make time for doing things you want to do for yourself.

RELATED: Why the “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype is Bad For Black Mental Health

For example, an instance where you can ask for help from your partner is asking them to take over some of the household duties, or you could ask a trusted friend to babysit so you can have some time to yourself. Asking for help indirectly may look like taking a day off work or using Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if an extended leave is needed. The ultimate way you can help yourself is by permitting yourself to realize asking for help is not a bad thing. Asking for help does not mean you are needy, incompetent, or any of the other negative connotations you associate with asking for assistance from others. “Work smarter, not harder” is the motto, right?

We’re saving ourselves. 


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here