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.
We often sing praises of the “strong Black woman,” but the moniker is a double-edged sword. Black women are strong, calm, and nurturing while constantly pushing aside our well-being and surviving in silence. There’s a name for this phenomenon, the Superwoman Schema or Syndrome. Today I’m joined by Dr. Cheryl Woods- Giscombe, the woman who developed the groundbreaking conceptual framework to explore how Black women experience stress. Dr. Woods- Giscombe is a distinguished associate professor of quality of life, health promotion, and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on how stress leads to health disparities among African Americans. In our conversation, we discuss the origins of the Black “Superwoman” trope, how the effects of “Superwoman” syndrome show up in our everyday lives, and tips for those struggling with taking off their capes.
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Session 293: Black Women & The Superwoman schema
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 293 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: Heavy is the head that wears the superwoman crown or cape. Black women have worn this figurative cape on their backs for centuries, writes Jasmine Belvin in the TBG blog, Letting Go of The Superwoman Complex. And she’s right. We often sing praises of the strong black woman, but the moniker is a double-edged sword. Black women are strong, calm and nurturing, while constantly pushing aside our wellbeing and surviving in silence. There's a name for this phenomenon. It's the superwoman schema or syndrome. Today, I'm joined by Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombé, the woman who developed the groundbreaking conceptual framework to explore how black women experience stress.
Dr. Woods Giscombé is a distinguished associate professor of quality of life, health promotion, and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on how stress leads to health disparities among African Americans. In our conversation, we discuss the origins of the black superwoman trope and Dr. Woods Giscombé’s research, how the effects of superwoman syndrome show up in our everyday lives, and tips for those struggling with taking off their capes. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession, or join us in the Sister Circle to talk more in depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Woods Giscombé.
Dr. Cheryl: Thank you so much. It's great to be here with you.
Dr. Joy: I am such a fan of your work and just really excited to have this conversation with you because it's such an important one, I think, especially for black women. So I want to first have you talk with us a little bit about the work that you do. You're a social and health psychologist, psychiatric nurse practitioner and certified holistic health coach, so I'd love for you to talk to us about how all of those disciplines really come together and inform the work that you do, related to stress and mental health for black women.
Dr. Cheryl: Thanks for asking that. As a high school student, I thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I felt that I wanted to go into the field of therapy and I went to a historically black college, North Carolina Central University and had the benefit of being part of their health careers club and had research and clinical internships where I was able to shadow clinicians as well as researchers. And when I shadowed a clinician and actually had an experience shadowing that clinician as their team provided care to an older black woman (it was a mental health assessment with this woman), I was able to observe that. But I was on the fringes, I was quiet because I was a student. And the approach to assessing her mental health, the communication with her, was unsatisfactory to me. Not because the providers were not trying to give good care, but because there seemed to be a big disconnect between her lived experiences, her culture and their interpretation of what they were seeing.
And so at that time, I decided I wanted to do more research to help other researchers and other clinicians understand the context of people's lives and how social factors influence health. And so I was fortunate to be a psychology major at North Carolina Central, but I also took courses in history and black studies as well as public health. And the research experiences, I decided to pursue a degree in social and health psychology (a doctoral degree) because that was exactly what I was hoping for, to understand people's social context and how that influences behaviors and physiology and health. However, in my first semester in my Ph. D program, I quickly understood that my doctoral program was mostly theoretical in terms of research that was not applied. And I should have known that before but I did not understand that.
And so while I was collecting data on a research study looking at stress and birth outcomes of low birth weight and preterm delivery, I had a series of events encountering the providers on that unit, where the pregnant women came, and would interview them for that study. And one of the main providers was a nurse practitioner and I just observed how she was really caring for the people we were including in our research, how they related to her, and how she was making sure their needs were met and she was seeing them as a full person. And it just dawned on me that I wanted to be more applied in my work. My advisors and professors suggested that I not leave my PhD program and helped me to see the ways that nursing and social and health psychology could be a great fit and so that's how I proceeded. So I stayed in the mental health realm pretty much in nursing, and eventually got a nurse practitioner degree as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and I continued to do my research. So the practice informed my research and the research definitely informed my practice as well.
Dr. Joy: I love that. I think so many of us have that story where we find ourselves in a program and it’s like this isn't exactly what I thought this was going to be. At what point did your research turn to the strong black woman or superwoman schema? How did you fall into that research?
Dr. Cheryl: It was during that time. I was very much interested in the African American experience from high school and the courses I took in college, but also beginning to understand how adverse birth outcomes were disproportionately high among black women. And that stress was a factor and racism as a stressor was important to study. So those foundational elements of my education helped me to see that the way that we measured stress or the way that we were measuring stress in research (late 1990s, early 2000s) was not nuanced enough to understand the ways that black women experienced stress, and the ways they chose to cope. And definitely wasn't nuanced enough to help us understand how stress influenced health outcomes. And so I came across literature, lay literature like Essence magazine, literature written by noted black female authors, but also the research literature suggesting that gender and race were important factors in how we measure stress. But what we weren't doing was measuring this concept that we now call the strong black woman or the black superwoman, where black women appear, and we are very much strong, however, there's more to it than what meets the eye.
And so during my dissertation, my advisor allowed me to ask some exploratory questions informed by the literature about things such as perceived obligation to be strong. And at that time, I was really interested in emotional suppression and how emotional suppression, the literature was suggesting for broader populations that emotional expression was healthy. That it strengthened the immune system, protected against the common cold, and so if we were suppressing emotions due to perceived obligations or related to perceived applications to be strong, that made me concerned that it was maybe weakening our immune system and weakening our health. And my dissertation work led me to do some qualitative research with black women from various age groups and educational backgrounds.
And that's where that concept of superwoman schema became expanded in response to the data that we collected to have five characteristics, which is: that perceived obligation to be strong or to present an image of strength, as well as perceived obligation to suppress emotions, the resistance to being vulnerable or receiving help from others, that's the third characteristic. Motivation to succeed despite limited resources, and prioritization of caregiving over self care. And I think I listed all five, yes. So those five characteristics were derived from the qualitative data that was collected. And then a series of studies that I conducted, and now that many other researchers are conducting, confirm those categories. And now we're showing relationships between superwoman schema characteristics and health resilience, as well as adverse health effects.
Dr. Joy: Dr. Cheryl, it's not often that students can say that their dissertation research spawned this whole new area of research, so that's pretty impressive.
Dr. Cheryl: I really thank my advisor for not shutting it down. I just came from a conference where several women of color, we had a really robust conversation about the experiences we've had with having ideas, and there are probably lots of innovations that have not been actualized because they weren't supported or we were told it’s ambitious or there's not enough evidence for that, or no, you need to be doing this work over here. So as many times as I get a chance to share the gratitude I have for my advisor in saying, “This is not my area, but I'm willing to support you to do it…”
Dr. Joy: Made all the difference. I'm curious, Dr. Cheryl, if you have seen a change. Or are there elements that you might add to this list of five - years later, after your first round of conducting research? Would that list look largely the same today, or how might it be different?
Dr. Cheryl: I would say that it would look largely the same. I'm excited about it because there are other researchers that are expanding those concepts. In fact, I went to a presentation just this past week, and a researcher named Jill Scott who's at University of South Carolina, does research on self silencing. And it's very closely related to the emotional suppression characteristic, but she just added even more nuance to it. And people really resonated with it in the room when she presented because the conversation that some of the attendees had after her presentation was, now when did the switch turn for me to stop self silencing? When did I feel empowered enough to not silence? You know, when was it safe enough, or when had I had enough?
I think what's happening now is research is really helping to operationalize it more — the work that I'm doing, but thankfully, the work that other people are doing. And we're even showing some association with objectively measured variables such as risk for cardiovascular disease and even telomere length, so the caps of the chromosomes that are associated with biological aging. So it's exciting that we're seeing relationships between these variables — emotional suppression and this prioritization of caregiving over self care, tend to be the ones that are most important for us to really notice. It's not that being strong in and of itself is a bad thing, of course, that's not a bad thing. But maybe strength in the face of not having someone to talk to comfortably and safely and strength in the face of never giving yourself downtime and always putting others first, is something that is actually not healthy for us to do. Even though we are doing this out of concern for our families, our communities and society at large, how do we have strength and also care for others while also finding time for self care? That's the question.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. And I would love to hear your insight there, Dr. Cheryl, because I think that is the difficulty, right? There is so much of the world, and definitely in the US, that requires strength from black women as a form of survival in a lot of ways. But as you’ve pointed out, there is a line at which it goes too far. How do we help other black women, or what are your suggestions for not crossing the line? How do we put strength almost in perspective?
Dr. Cheryl: That's a great way to put it. How do we put strength in perspective. I think, number one, having and nurturing authentic relationships where we can let our guard down and talk freely and receive support. We're often the ones supporting others, and how do we allow others to support us in ways that are nurturing and nourishing and fill up our tank? Mindfulness is a practice that I study and investigate in my research and I think it's extremely important because it allows us to notice how the day to day is influencing our health, our mental health, our physical bodies, and even our relationships. Sometimes we're so busy trying to get things done and to survive, as you said, that we don't look up or stop enough to notice the impact that it's having on us. Mindfulness is sometimes critiqued because it's an individual based intervention and we know that a lot of these challenges that we are discussing are structural, they're coming from outside of us, and based in racism and oppression and historical social stressors. And so it is important for us to address all of those things at the structural level. And we’re human beings experiencing this structure, so in the meantime, how can we rely on our resources and give ourselves permission to have some time to be still and to breathe and to exercise and to sleep, and all those things that we know are healthy for us.
Dr. Joy: That sounds so important. More from our conversation after the break.
Dr. Joy: I’d love for you to say a little bit more about the pushback that mindfulness does get, because I think I've heard that feedback also. What good is meditating gonna do when the world is on fire and crumbling? So what other strategies would you suggest for people who really can't get past that moment, that this feels too big for me to kind of breathe my way through?
Dr. Cheryl: I really love this discussion and I'm happy when people challenge me because I think about our ancestors. We talk about the struggles and strains that we experienced and if our ancestors, our grandparents, and those before them waited for structure to change before they were able to laugh and have joy and procreate and be happy, we wouldn't be here. They had to find something in their communities, something in their household, something individually, to continue to give themselves hope to keep going. So we could say now we need to change the structure, don't blame the victim by giving these individual interventions. You think about social activists that work so hard every day and are worried about the struggle as we call it. But to be able to be as robust as possible to address those things, they still need to eat, they still need to sleep, they still need to laugh. And so you can't be on all the time or you're going to implode.
We've seen that in our leaders, in our warriors, where people just fight so hard all the time, because there's always something to fight for. Then what does that mean for their quality of life? And so no matter how many groups we're in, no matter how many courthouses we go to, or how many marches we go in, there's going to be times where we’re alone and that we have to look in the mirror, and we have to deal with the person in front of us. And so that's when mental health matters. We're part of structures yet we're, as people say, spiritual beings in a physical world. And so that individual still has to be well. The ones that are going to change the social status, the social structures, those are people who make up those groups. Policymakers are people. Structures are not robotic, they're made of people. So we need people to be well so they can advocate for humanity. It's never one or the other. And so when we think about like the ecological framework, we often say we focus too much on the individual - we need to focus on the outer circles. But still, that doesn't say dismiss the individual. It means the individual is in this structure. So we need to tend to all of the above.
Dr. Joy: Thank you for that. I think that that's important, that the individual is needed for us to be able to change these structures and we have to have something that sustains us so that we can live to fight another day, so to speak.
Dr. Cheryl: That's right.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. So, Dr. Cheryl, you were on the cutting edge of really when people started looking at like research just for black people. You've already mentioned that your advisor was thankfully supportive. I wonder what was the perception or response to your research from other peers and even other black women? Do you remember any of that?
Dr. Cheryl: They were supportive, because I have one peer in particular, and people may have heard of her, her name is Dr. Angela Rose Black. She developed a grassroots organization called Mindfulness for The People. We met each other at a health equity conference and recognized that we were doing similar work and we made a vow that day to support each other. Because both of us, I think were hesitant to put our work out there because on one hand, we wanted to get it right. Like if we're talking about black women, and the stress we experience and how we cope, we didn't want to pathologize black women, we didn't want to “air dirty laundry.” We wanted to be robust in how we described what we were thinking and what we were finding. So we kind of cheered each other along and supported one another and even wrote a couple of papers together. So there was support. There was support, definitely.
Dr. Joy: I'm glad to hear that. I think that that's interesting that you bring up this idea of airing dirty laundry because I think even with the work that we do at Therapy for Black Girls, it always feels like it's a very delicate balance of having the kinds of conversations that we know we need to have, but also like not wanting to air dirty laundry and making it like an in home conversation, so to speak. Yeah, so I appreciate you sharing that. How do you feel like your work on the superwoman schema influenced your own mental health and your relationship to stress?
Dr. Cheryl: It keeps me in check. It helps me to say, you know, where am I? It's almost like a thermometer for me because I'm aware. My children have heard me present about it their entire lives so they will also check me or they'll check themselves. So it just helps me to remember because life is like ocean waves; it's always coming in and it's going out in terms of challenges and triumphs. It helps me to retool. You can have good coping strategies, but then as we evolve and progress, life gives us new challenges and we have to keep updating our strategies and check in. Especially, of course, we've all experienced COVID in multiple ways and so that definitely required us to reflect and deepen the ways that we manage things like isolation or changes in our social environment. Not being able to be around family or other things as much that may have been supportive. So it really is a great reminder to me to check myself and to see how am I doing there. So it definitely influences my mental health. But also my mental health influenced the development of superwoman schema. I've always been a person to take on multiple things. As a graduate student, as you mentioned, I was a nursing student, I was a psychology student, I did the certification in holistic health all at the same time. I reached out for strategies to deal with my stress and that's how I really was reintroduced to mindfulness. All of it came together to guide this work, so it's back and forth, for sure.
Dr. Joy: I think it’s really cool that you say the kids will get involved in checking you. Can you say more about that? Because I think that that is an interesting concept that other people can help us to do a better job of taking care of our mental health. What does that look like for the kids to check you?
Dr. Cheryl: They'll say, are you having superwoman schema? Or they'll say it to themselves. They like to see me achieve things in life, but they also will say, Mommy, you deserve rest. They're pretty holistic in it and then I have to remind them of the same things. When they're taking on things or they're in clubs or taking a leadership role, I have to remind them, like don't let this define you. Doing this and doing that, and going here and going there. Don't let that define you. Remember that rest is important and you're more than those roles. Because we can get caught up in that.
Dr. Joy: Very healthy modeling, it sounds like.
Dr. Cheryl: Two daughters, so I'm trying.
Dr. Joy: You know, Dr. Cheryl, my experience with a lot of black women is that we do not even recognize that we are headed towards a brick wall until we like are crashing into it. And so I wonder if you can offer some suggestions around how people might even know that they are struggling with the superwoman syndrome.
Dr. Cheryl: Again, I think that's why it's really important for us to have some form of mind-body practice. It could be mindfulness, it could be yoga, it could be other forms of meditation, it could be your spiritual practices. Because those are the things that help us to slow down and recognize that things are off balance. And oftentimes, you're right, that's when we notice. When you’ve gone too far, where we crash or there's burnout. I'm not trying to advocate for crashing or burnout, but I also want women to know that we have what is enthusiasm about making things better and helping other people. And when we notice that, it's okay to step back and rest and let people know that I’m out of the office, or I'm on vacation, or I'm taking a Facebook fast - all the different things that people do. So I think the biggest way is to have friends that are accountability partners. Others also might benefit from formal therapy, having someone that you check in with on a regular basis, which can be a proactive way of preventing things from getting out of hand or dealing with things when they've gotten too far, and then maintaining that. So I think having a variety of strategies is important, for sure.
Dr. Joy: More from our conversation after the break.
Dr. Joy: We recently had a conversation, Dr. Cheryl, about navigating academia as a black woman. And a lot of the feedback that we got around that episode was that so many members of our community found it really difficult in a space like academia to do a lot of boundary setting. Especially if you are trying to be on the tenure track or like if you're the only black woman in your department. I'm sure you know a lot of this. There are always so many demands on your time, lots of requests to be on committees and do these different things. What does it look like to try to remove this cape as a superwoman when you find yourself in a space like academia or some of these other workspaces that are very demanding?
Dr. Cheryl: I'm so glad you did have a conversation about that, because it is such a challenge. And I think a lot of people who are in academia go through that challenge, as you said, of being the only one. And then when you're not the only one or when you've finally been promoted or you've advanced, then you find yourself trying to make sure that the path is still clear for other people to come through. So I think one of the biggest things (there are many things we can do) is to not have academia be the center of your life. To make sure you have other things in life that bring you joy, and that balance you and that you can go to so that it's not 24/7 academia. And those other things in life tend to remind you about what's most important in life, but they also remind you your why. Why are you dealing with so many challenges? Why have you chosen to put yourself in this position? And those things can be sources of inspiration to continue.
Having a mentoring, like advisory board of various mentors that you can talk to who are more advanced than you, perhaps in academia, in your spiritual realm, in health coaching - various forms of mentors, I think are extremely helpful. I also learn very much so vicariously from others. So even if I don't know the people personally, I love studying other people and noticing that I'm not alone in the challenges. So one of the people that I vicariously studied early in my career was Cathy Hughes, the founder of Radio One. Just learning about her story of being a single mom, but also of purchasing the radio station, living in the radio station, raising her child. The struggles that she accomplished. You know, we often see people when they're shining and they're at the height of success, but to understand what people went through to get there can help serve as inspiration for some of the things we go through. But definitely not to do it by yourself or without a community of supporters outside of academia.
Dr. Joy: Dr. Cheryl, what kind of research are you focusing on now? Are you still kind of extending the work of the superwoman schema, or are there other things you're focusing on?
Dr. Cheryl: Yes, so I am extending the work of superwoman schema. We have a scale that's validated and has strong psychometric properties, so I'm collaborating with a number of other investigators to incorporate that scale in various research with various populations. So young women, emerging adults, professional women, people with lupus, people with cardiovascular disease, students, so I love collaborating in that way. I'm also doing intervention research. So one of the health outcomes other than birth outcomes that I study, is cardiovascular disease prevention and diabetes prevention. We're doing research to try to develop sustainable interventions for black women that can be placed in the community so more women can benefit from understanding the role of stress and superwoman schema in their lives.
But I'm also still very much involved in mental health work. Just finished a study, it was actually a project with a federally qualified health center where we helped to integrate behavioral health into primary care and make sure that behavioral health is relevant to the needs of the providers, but also that the providers had support to integrate behavioral health. Because there's a shortage of mental health providers, and giving those providers the tools that are going to help sustain them in their fields is what we need to structurally change the nature of people's access to care. So those are some of the things that I've been involved in.
Dr. Joy: Lots of good stuff, you're very busy. I see why the kids are encouraging you to make sure that you're taking time for yourself.
Dr. Cheryl: Yes. And my husband does as well. He knows about superwoman schema, and he'll check me with that as well. And I do the same for him, even though he's a male.
Dr. Joy: Right. So you mentioned Dr. Scott's work in self silencing as an extension of your work. Are there other scholars doing work that are like extensions of your work that you're excited about?
Dr. Cheryl: Well, yes. One reason that we called it superwoman schema, I called it early on, was that I wondered that eventually would people want to look at this in groups other than black women? And so there are some researchers that are looking at it across cultures. I'm not directly involved in that research, but they're using the scale. I think the other extensions are more so those populations that I've mentioned in terms of different age groups and professional disciplines of black women. And of course, there are other people who focus on development, so they're looking at how it develops in children. So dyadic research with mothers and children and emerging adults, it's really exciting. I have a student who's looking at intergenerational trauma and the transfer of stress across generations, including the development of superwoman schema. So it's fun and actually gratifying to see it take a life of its own. Because I could not possibly do all of that work, so it's really nice to support others and cheer them along when they're doing it.
Dr. Joy: Thank you for sharing all of that. Where can we stay connected with your work, Dr. Cheryl? What is your website as well as any social media handles you'd like to share?
Dr. Cheryl: Okay, so I’m @CherylGiscombe on Twitter. I have a website at UNC Chapel Hill, so you can just Google Cheryl Giscombé, so my primary appointment in the School of Nursing. I have Facebook but I don't put as much professional content there, but I'm Cheryl Woods Giscombé. In Instagram, I believe I’m @DrCherylWoodsGiscombe, too. As you can see, I'm not a huge Instagram user, but you can find me there. Really, I'm still really focused on getting the literature out there scientifically and doing work like this. So I'm very grateful.
Dr. Joy: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us and we will definitely include all those links in our show notes.
Dr. Cheryl: Thank you.
Dr. Joy: It's so cool to hear that Dr. Woods Giscombé’s daughters are already aware of the superwoman syndrome, remind her of when she's carrying too much, and know how to untie their capes. Since she discussed using mindfulness and yoga as a checks and balances method for those struggling with superwoman syndrome, we thought it would be great to leave you with a brief affirmation you can use when you need it. Here’s a short affirmation from LeNaya S. Crawford, a licensed therapist, holistic healer, and certified yoga breathwork and meditation guide.
LeNaya: Hello, my name is LeNaya Smith Crawford and I'm here with the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. My affirmation for you is: You are loved. You are held. And it is safe for you to receive help.
Dr. Joy: I'm so glad Dr. Woods Giscombé was able to join us to share her expertise today. And shout out to LeNaya for her heartwarming words. To learn more about Dr. Woods Giscombé or LeNaya, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session293. And don't forget to text two of your girls right now and tell them to check out the episode. Also a huge thank you to everyone who has already voted for us in the NAACP Image Awards category for Best Lifestyle/Self Help podcast. If you haven't, please take a moment to vote for the podcast at Vote.NAACPImageAwards.net.
If you're looking for a therapist in your area, 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. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. 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.