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You Don’t Have to ‘Do It All’ — Or Do It All Alone

Yes, we’re strong Black women. Here’s how to connect to the love and support we need to also be happy Black women.

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Nicole Miles
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Black women are often relied upon as caregivers of the race, always helping others, yet never asking for help ourselves. “As African American women, we often hold up the image of the strong Black woman. That is something that we carry with great pride. We don’t often hear [about] the happy woman as being held up as very important,” states life coach Valorie Burton. For many sisters, the need to wear the emotional armor of independence and survival was something instilled in us as little girls.

This can be helpful — to a point. A new study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences suggests that some aspects of this superwoman persona (termed superwoman schema by researchers) might actually protect against the negative effects of racial discrimination to our health. But researchers also found that other facets of the persona, such as feeling obligated to help others, seem to feed chronic stress associated with racial discrimination.

“It is important to redefine what strength looks like,” Burton says. “Strength is also joy. It is also self-care. It is not simply self-sacrifice. And we are stronger when we are healthy. We are stronger when we are happy.”

Seeking support is a strength — just like lending it is. Redefining strength is important to all women, but particularly for us as Black women and those who find themselves in the caregiving role, says Burton. “I can relate to that,” she shares. “When I was in my late 20s, my mother had a brain aneurysm and she was only in her late 40s. And suddenly I understood what it meant to not have any time for yourself. Sometimes it’s not simply a matter of making the choices. Sometimes the choices are made for you. I had to, very specifically, learn to ask for help and receive that help. Understanding that asking for help is a resilience skill — that it is wise, that it is healthy and that people want to help you — is critical.”

But it also requires something that many of us aren’t too comfortable with experiencing or revealing — vulnerability. Burton has the keys to working through those feelings so we can create the circle of support we deserve.

Get clear about what you need. Before you ask for help, Burton advises, “Take the time to get quiet for a moment to identify what exactly it is that you need and then what would resolve it. This helps you get to the core of what you really need help with. Sometimes we are looking at surface issues when there’s something beneath that, that is a greater need. We can only discover what that need is when we take the time to get quiet and to be self-reflective.”

Don’t assume that others know what you need in terms of sharing the load. It can be frustrating being in a situation in which you feel loved ones and others should be helping you. “It can be easy to say that they should already know, but if they don’t know, that’s the reality,” says Burton. “So help them understand what it is that you need and what the expectations are by being very specific. For instance, one might say, ‘I’ve been driving to look in on mom every weekend, and it’s eating into my family time at home. I’d like you to visit once a month so that I can have a break.’ Doing this is especially important for women who are over-responsible, who step in and take responsibility for things that should be shared. Then that becomes the expectation. You can actually say that. ‘I’ve taken on too much. I need this to be collaborative. I need us to work together, because I cannot continue to take on all the responsibility.’ That takes courage. It’s very important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with stepping out of your comfort zone to ask for help.”

Uncover your fear of asking by answering “what if” questions, advises Burton. “What if they think you’re bothering them? What if they think you’re being annoying? Is there something annoying about the prospect of asking for an assist? For example, if you’re asking for help for something repeatedly, perhaps the other person, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel like they could or that they ought to offer the help. Perhaps there isn’t a reciprocal relationship or perhaps you haven’t taken responsibility in areas where you should. Have that conversation. Be ready to be honest about how much you’ve relied on them and to hear any feedback and address it. If they turn you down, rather than taking it personally and seeing it as some sort of condemnation of who you are, recognize that they just might not be able to [help] right now. What are your other options? Rather than focusing on the negative or internalizing a no, look at where you could get a yes and stay focused on the goal. The goal is getting help.”

Burton concludes that it is important to always express gratitude for people that help you and look at the ways in which you might be helpful to them.