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Caping Ain't Easy: 6 Self-Care Strategies for the Superwoman

How to harness your superpowers for health and wellness.

Authorship: Harris, C.L., Grange, C., and Sturdivant-Williams, A.

Being a "superwoman" is a cultural norm for Black women. And if you are like many Black women, you either smile, cringe, or both when someone compliments your "superwomanhood" or keen ability to “do it all” with seeming ease, confidence, and competence.

Godisable Jacob/Pexels
Source: Godisable Jacob/Pexels

In truth, there are many reasons to smile. Black women do have the remarkable ability to create loving communities and powerful opportunities under circumstances that seem insurmountable. This is as true with historical figures such as Harriett Tubman and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune as it is with contemporary figures such as the current Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris.

However, donning that metaphorical cape is anything but easy, and when role demands push up against one another (e.g. work deadlines that conflict with parenting or other duties), it can become overwhelming. Even strong women can find themselves caught in a cycle of sleepless nights and other poor health choices such as overeating, excessive drinking, overindulgent shopping, and other mood-altering coping responses. Left unchecked, unbalanced superwoman sensibilities can lead to physical and emotional fatigue, a decline in health, and additional negative consequences.

Although it is a popular trope, what really is a superwoman? According to Cheryl Woods-Giscombe (2010), a UNC professor in the department of nursing, she is a woman who has "had to take on the roles of mother, nurturer, and breadwinner out of economic and social necessity." She uses culturally sanctioned strength-based schemas when navigating these roles. To be clear, as many Black women will tell you, the roles of mother and nurturer extend beyond biological motherhood and nuclear families to extended families and communities.

But what are schemas? Schemas are beliefs or generalizations that we use to organize, interpret, and guide our interactions in the world. Our self-schemas are those that have been internalized and that drive how we think, feel, and act in particular settings or situations. Dr. Woods-Giscombe and her colleagues (2010, 2019) developed the superwoman schema model to understand how Black women's strength-based schemas can impact their health. According to Dr. Woods-Giscombe, the superwoman schema is characterized by perceived obligations to “(1) project strength, (2) suppress emotions, (3) resist feelings of vulnerability and dependence, (4) succeed despite limited resources, and (5) prioritize caregiving over self-care" as we navigate our roles.

Being a superwoman in and of itself is not problematic. It becomes problematic when we misuse the "Black Girl Magic” that has allowed Black women to thrive. After all, anyone can become weathered when they overuse or misuse their superpowers.

So, how do you know if you are a superwoman who might lack balance and risk potential ill effects? Start by reflecting on the following questions.

  • Do you have multiple roles that often conflict with one another and require your attention?
  • Are you the one in your family or social group that everyone relies upon for emotional, financial, or other tangible support? Do you often jump in to lend an assist even when it puts a strain on you?
  • Do you often attempt to handle life’s challenges on your own?
  • When you are feeling stressed, depressed, or upset, do you routinely keep your feelings inside and just “push through” to handle your responsibilities?
  • Do you often find yourself taking on more than you can reasonably handle out of an obligation to help others?
  • Do you always seem to come last on your to-do list?
Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be a superwoman whose beliefs about strength and self-reliance risk becoming your kryptonite. The paradox of the superwoman schema is that strength, self-reliance, and high achievement orientation are necessary traits needed to achieve goals and sustain a meaningful quality of life in a society that often marginalizes women of color. In fact, some research has documented the protective effects of some aspects of the superwoman schema against the negative health impacts of discrimination (Allen et. al., 2019). Yet, when stress competes with strength, and when strength and self-reliance cause you to suffer in silence and avoid seeking help, physical and mental health and relationships suffer.

Although it is fair to state that the superwoman schema can apply to all women, it is important to understand that the experience of it may not be the same for all women. Black women’s unique experiences are embedded within a historical and sociopolitical context where they had to “rise to survive” to help their families and communities counteract the oft negative effects of racism, discrimination, and economic inequities experienced in their daily lives. These experiences are magnified when those within both the Black community and larger society lack empathy for the depth and significance of Black women's experiences and their invisible pain. If you are a woman of color, think about how many times you have heard you got this, you are strong, or other expressions that translate into expectations to just power through whatever you are going through.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Not surprisingly, these messages of strength and survival have been modeled in our mothers, grandmothers, and elders in the Black community for generations. Strength is not only valued, but Black mothers (more so than Caucasian or Latina mothers) view strength, self-reliance, independence, assertiveness, and ambition as critical to their girls’ development (Oshini and Milin, 2018).

For Black women, caregiving can also include financial provision for their families and activism. This can add an additional layer of stress for those who feel obligated and responsible for giving back to their families and communities (Beauboef-Lafontant, 2009; Woods-Giscombe, 2010). Because these superwoman schemas and behaviors have been associated with a delay in self-care, poor health behaviors such as sleep deprivation and binge eating, anxiety, and depression (Watson & Hunter, 2015; Harrington et al., 2010), there is a need for women of color to reconceptualize strength and how they use their gifts to live a balanced, stress-managed lifestyle. If you are a superwoman, consider these practical strategies to find balance and maintain wellness.

Six Superwoman Strategies

  1. Practice sharing your feelings. Suppressed anger, depression, anxiety are associated with poorer health. There is a reason therapy is called the “talking cure." The ability to express and process one’s feelings is a healthy way of coping with stress.
  2. Use your strength to say "no." The ability to say “no” is your sacred right. Sometimes you will need to choose and focus on one thing instead of trying to multitask many. Saying “no” also empowers others to find solutions to their own problems.
  3. Use your strength to say "yes." There are times when saying “yes” is critical for your renewal. Sometimes saying yes to support, a social outing that can feed your soul, or an opportunity that services your spirit is what is needed. The challenge is to know if the “yes” serves you or someone else.
  4. Create a self-care plan. Create non-negotiable rules around caring for your health no matter what remains undone. Create a “Must Do” list and place sleep, exercise, and healthy eating on it. These behaviors will allow you to work more efficiently, feel better emotionally, and be more present in your relationships.
  5. Set yourself up for success. Prioritize your obligations based on significance or impact for you, rather than the external needs of the situation or someone else’s desires. Trying to do it all often results in no one thing getting sufficient attention. Although this may result in others being disappointed, no one has ever died from disappointment. Stress, on the other hand, can shorten your years.
  6. Mobilize your village. Change your mantra from “I got this” to “It takes a village." Accept that your village might not do things like you would and be okay with it if it allows you to acquire sufficient rest and engage in other valued activities.

As your inner superwoman tries to argue you out of these strategies, remind yourself that strength is not just about your ability to survive or save others from duress. It is about self-care and self-love. Remember, the greatest gift you can give others is a healthy and happy you!

What are your superpowers? What aspects of the superwoman schema do you struggle with? Leave us a comment.


1. Allen, A. M., Wang, Y., Chae, D. H., Price, M. M., Powell, W., Steed, T. C., Rose Black, A., Dhabhar, F. S., Marquez-Magaña, L., & Woods-Giscombe, C. L. (2019). Racial discrimination, the superwoman schema, and allostatic load: exploring an integrative stress-coping model among African American women. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1457(1), 104–127.

2. Beauboeuf-Lafontant T. Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance3. Harrington, E. F., Crowther, J. H., & Shipherd, J. C. (2010). Trauma, binge eating, and the "strong Black woman". Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(4), 469–479. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; 2009.

3. Harrington, E. F., Crowther, J. H., & Shipherd, J. C. (2010). Trauma, binge eating, and the "strong Black woman". Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(4), 469–479.

4. Oshin, L. A., & Milan, S. (2019). My strong, Black daughter: Racial/ethnic differences in the attributes mothers value for their daughters. Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, 25(2), 179–187.

5. Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, 21(4), 604–612.

6. Woods-Giscombé C. L. (2010). Superwoman schema: African American women's views on stress, strength, and health. Qualitative health research, 20(5), 668–683.

7. Harris, C.L., Grange, C., Sturdivant-Williams, A. (2020, August 20). Caping Ain't Easy: 6 Self-Care Strategies for the Superwoman. For the Souls of Black Folks (Blog).

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