“Superwomen Have Breakdowns”
A few years back, my former therapist said something that took my entire belief system and tilted it in the worst possible way. Now, I’m going to share it with you.
My First Therapy Session
At the time, I was twenty-four. By all standards, I was doing really well. I had a growing career at a company with endless opportunities. I was building up a workout routine and lived in a beautiful apartment that was planted in a nice neighborhood. Wonderful people surrounded me, both friends and mentors — people I could trust. My evenings were suddenly being spent on my second job, a budding freelance writing career that has now grown bigger than I ever could have imagined.
On paper, everything was going pretty great. Except for the depression and anxiety.
When I decided to see a therapist, I did it for the sake of self-improvement. I have a degree in psychology. My education was spent learning about all of the very real things that I experienced off and on. It was no secret to me that I was at a point in my life where my mental health was a bit frayed around the edges — but I was doing really well outside of that. For me, seeing a therapist was a matter of maintenance. If I wanted to keep doing well, I needed to make sure that I was optimal.
Sitting down to talk to her, I did what I tend to do: I just offered up everything that I deemed to be relevant to the conversation. It was a collection of when I was X, Y happened and sometimes, I feel like this. She listened patiently and was polite enough to give a slight laugh when I mentioned my degree to justify my use of clinical terms because I didn’t want her to think I was one of those Web MD patients we learned about in school.
Old Ladies Pull No Punches
At the next session, we started talking about me. I told her about my path through school and my career. We talked about my transition from data-entry to system analysis and my new goal to work a second job as a writer. The conversation eventually led to my dreams and aspirations, as well as the steps that I was taking to get there.
After I rattled off my private and professional resume, she looked at me and said:
You are a superwoman.
Guided by the memories of previous talks surrounding my personal and professional accomplishments, I smiled and said thank you.
No! Being a superwoman is not a good thing. Superwomen. Have. Breakdowns.
In all my life, nothing prepared me for a grown woman to scold me for my ambition. Sure, there was the occasional squabble with my friends and peers. They would roll their eyes or make comments about how much I was doing or how much energy I had. It was never malicious or dismissive, just light teasing. More of a oh, there she goes again.
But, when that sassy old lady said no! something changed for me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Yes, You Can Do It — But For How Long?
We all have our thresholds, and the circumstances surrounding them matters. For me, taking on projects is energizing, not draining. When I don’t have something to do, I make something to do. It might be optimizing my filing system or outlining a new project, but it is always something. If anything, when I slow down, I get stir crazy and destructive.
Do you know what productivity is a good cover for? Anxiety.
Spending all of your time being productive is a great way to run from any particular demon that might be on your heels. It gives you control over something — and that can be incredibly stabilizing. For a minute. The problem is that those projects only last so many minutes, and then you are back where you were.
To be clear, I don't think that my productivity is only driven by anxiety. I’ve always been interested in learning new things and trying my hand at new trades. I don’t like to waste my time, so I try to fill it with good things that make me better. But, I do think that she had a good point.
It took some talking to realize that the fault wasn’t in my actions. She wasn’t worried because I was accomplishing a lot or stretched a little thin. She was worried about the rocking of the boat. Yes, I was succeeding. Despite how much I was juggling, my routine was working. But, what if something happened? What if the tides shifted and I stumbled? Well, then I would be in trouble.
It isn’t a secret that mental health matters, but I think we tend to underplay how it can interact with our lives. What if, while perfectly juggling all those amazing projects, my mental health took a turn, and that all came crashing down? What would my mental health be like then?
Or, what if my mental health was fine and something else happened to destabilize what I built? What would happen to my mental health, and how would I cope with it?
It was never about whether or not I could handle what I was doing, it was a question of whether or not it was sustainable. That is where the danger is. When you spend your days juggling, you always run the risk that the things that you are juggling are going to come down right on your head — and that matters.
If you’re looking for a magical solution to this problem, I don’t have one. But, I do know that I have known a lot of men and women who do so much. It’s incredible and I am happy for them. I’m happy for myself too.
Let’s just all agree to make sure that on the days where the boat tilts and it all hits the ground, we catch ourselves first.