Can I be honest for a second?
I first started identifying as a “strong woman” my senior year of high school when I was balancing a part-time job and school. Honestly, I thought I was special, because I was able to handle so many tasks at the same time.
I remember being a child and wondering how my aunts and grandmother worked day-in and day-out, cooked dinner, and kept life together without ever appearing sad. How is it that these women were so strong?
What I did not know is that while yes, being driven and busy are mostly productive traits, if any part of a person’s behavior is motivated by extreme fear then there lies a deeper problem.
Being “strong” can actually be our way of avoiding the trauma from our past. What people see as strength in a person, might actually be a group of unhealthy coping mechanisms at work.
I saw those same mechanisms within myself.
Many times I felt emotional and alone, but I never spoke about the things I was going through. On the outside, I was thriving, especially when I went to college. Between working, being in a relationship, and in school, you’d think I had it all together.
But I didn’t. And suffered greatly in silence.
It took me a while to realize that being labeled a “strong woman” – by myself and others – had a deeper meaning that impacted my wellbeing.
Being called “strong” comes across as a compliment, but it can also be a prison if it looks like busyness, hyper-independence, and emotional unavailability.
The Prison of Busyness
Busyness is the state of having constant activity and a lot of tasks to do all at once. Danielle Wayne, an anxiety therapist, states that “staying busy is how many people cope with trauma.”
“Busyness may not feel like a negative thing,” Wayne writes,“ But if you spend your whole life on the go, you’ll never stop and address the difficult emotions under the surface.”
It may show up as being on autopilot in a “go-go” mode, never relaxing, always saying “yes” to people’s requests and overworking.
I looked at being busy as being productive. The never-ending to-do list made me feel as if I was successful and important. It definitely served as an ego-boost to my self-worth.
Yes, being busy with your work or activities can be positive and productive if there is balance and joy underneath it all. But if that busyness is built on the foundation of fear and anxiety, and distracts one from looking within, then there may be a deeper issue.
For me, that prison was becoming an overachiever, which led to maladaptive perfectionism. According to Etienne Gatt, a counselor specializing in anxiety and terminal illness, “maladaptive perfectionism refers to the unhealthy setting of unrealistic standards combined with harsh self-criticism and low self-esteem.”
Gatt also states that “It is often accompanied by feelings of distress, anxiety and sometimes depression.”
In my mind obtaining perfection is what I believed would earn me the love and respect I so desperately longed for.
Instead, there was a wound inside of my heart attached to the traumatic consequences I incurred in my childhood. This wound was attached to the imbalanced praise and traumatic consequences I incurred in my childhood whenever I did not make certain grades or get certain accolades.
Keeping busy was my way of “pushing through it” and is what helped me temporarily avoid addressing my deep-seated fears and wounds.
The Prison of Hyper-Independence
Hyper-independence is choosing to be independent of everyone even if it hurts you. Signs include saying “no” to help, taking on too many tasks, and having trouble delegating, writes Taneasha White for PsychCentral, a mental health news site.
White further states that “hyper-independence can be related to a past trauma.”
“For example,” she writes, “you might be overly independent because you learned that you could not trust others, so you can rely only on yourself.”
I can identify because I have often struggled with the belief that asking for help made me weak, that sharing my pain with others would be burdensome. They wouldn’t want to hear it or I would scare people away.
So I carried many things all by myself. I thought it was a symbol of strength, a badge of honor. Now I know that it was a prison.
Doing life alone is crippling.
Not only does it make the woman assume unrealistic and damaging expectations, but it also negates the pain she is feeling.
The Prison of Emotional Unavailability
“An emotionally unavailable person has persistent difficulty expressing or handling emotions, or getting emotionally close to other people,” reports Julie Marks.
There were times where I believed that hiding my emotions was a symbol of strength. Maybe these beliefs stemmed from all the times I heard the words “don’t cry” whenever I was sad. Or, maybe it came from feeling the pressure to personify the “strong black woman” image of unbreakable strength. Or maybe it was the responsibility I felt as the go-to person who was expected to save the world.
But one thing is certain. I did not, and I still struggle with not being comfortable feeling or sharing my emotions with others. Not only this, I believed I was an imposter for feeling certain emotions that I thought I “shouldn’t” feel.
This prison of emotional unavailability derives from a mistrustful place of not wanting to get hurt or abandoned by people. So rather than risking future pain (that may or may not happen), one may distance themselves, which can seem “standoffish” or “strong” to others. But in reality, we just do not feel safe or know how to share the deeper parts of ourselves.
This prison can keep us strong women from fully being and expressing who we are in these three ways:
01. WE KEEP OUR GUARDS UP
Being labeled a strong woman can foster expectations that one must always be strong. Guarded and in the self-protecting states. It sends the message that it’s not okay to release, unwind and be human. When a woman is living in a constant state of exhaustion in her everyday life, it can feel as if she’s hanging on by a thread.
And you know what?
Many times we do not feel strong. We feel fragile, tired, and exhausted with life. We just do not know how to let our guards down and ask for help. So as always, we suffer in silence.
02. WE FEEL STRIPPED OF OUR RIGHT TO BE WEAK
Even the most strong-willed woman has moments where she feels weak. Now whether or not she admits it is a different story.
Weakness is a feeling of being tired or exhausted, or experiencing a loss of strength, according to Healthgrades.
They further explain that “short-term weakness may occur because of overwork, stress, or lack of sleep.”
Do the following sentences sound familiar to you?
“I am tired of being the strong one.”
“I am tired of trying to keep things together.”
“I am tired of worrying about everything and everybody.”
“I have nothing to give. I have no strength. I need help.”
If you are like many of us, the words above are usually silent cries that we carry in our hearts because we do not feel safe vocalizing them aloud.
Trying to live up to the “strong woman” persona can make us feel that we have no right to be weak – aka exhausted, vulnerable, tired, or stressed.
But during those slim moments where we do embrace our weaknesses, we keep silent about it. Because strong women “keep their sh*t together” in public.
However, I beg to differ and echo the words of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who says, “strength is accepting one’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings without accepting that they define you.”
03. WE MINIMIZE THE IMPACT OF OUR STRUGGLES
Many times, we may be struggling with trauma symptoms manifesting as depression, anxiety, shame and guilt. Our minds may be focused on the pain of our past, but also on the everyday struggles of our present life.
We may feel as if we are drowning in the rat race of life and so desperately wish that, for once, we could stop and breathe. We wish that someone could just see us, check on us, and understand the real us.
Being held to a standard of strength can lead to us downplaying the impact of our struggles, to appear well kept together for others. Another word for this is wearing the “mask,” where we have a facade of calmness and togetherness on the outside, but on the inside there’s a war erupting.
We adopt the famous saying, “I’m fine,” and keep pressing forward.
But we are not fine. We do not want to make those around us feel uncomfortable. We do not feel as if we deserve the same amount of support that we give others.
Such thinking can derive from growing up with emotionally unavailable caregivers and never having a safe space to talk about our issues. Other times it could be that we are afraid of disappointing those who so heavily depend on us to “keep the family together.” And it doesn’t help when someone praises us for being a strong woman. When everybody is counting on you as the rock, how can you crumble?
Conclusion: It’s Time to Free Ourselves
Now that I understand the underlying motivator for my behaviors, I see clearly that what many people view as traits of strength were really symptoms of trauma and evidence that I’d been living in survival mode.
No longer will I – intentionally or unintentionally – glorify or be glorified for surviving; instead, I will seek healing.
Let us free ourselves from labels that do not embrace our deepest parts.
Let us free ourselves from “strength” stigmas that box us into shallow corners.
Let us free ourselves from hyper-independence, busyness, and emotional unavailability, that keeps us guarded, minimizes our struggles, and strips us of our weaknesses.
Let us welcome consciousness and truth.
A truth that says, being labeled a “strong woman” is not a compliment but rather a misconception. And such words could never, in a million years, define what it means to be A WOMAN.
Ding, the prison gates have been unlocked.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is a product of Shyteria’s research and personal experiences. Shyteria develops written, and spoken materials based on her interpretation of the research on each topic addressed. By consuming the content on this website, you acknowledge that her comments, written content, spoken topics, and any additional materials are expressions of opinion only. The purpose of Shyteria’s provided perspective is to educate, inform, and encourage her readers on the insight she has gained and practices she has developed. This does not promise or imply a complete guarantee of any specific results.