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Black Minds Matter

I’m Successful. Why Aren’t I Happy?

May 04 2021

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Alkeme Health

Why successful Black women can often feel unhappy and empty while navigating their success

There are a lot of different ways and experiences tied to success. Some people work their way up, to some it is given, others have to fight. If you’re a Black woman having to navigate the rigorous and demanding life of professional success, the pressure to support various relationships can almost feel impossible.

Black women are taught to be strong, wise and forthright. When these labels aren’t honored through a particular lens, added pressures can evolve and take hold. Being successful doesn’t always mean happiness.

Alkeme Health spoke with therapist, Dr. Heather Lofton on why successful Black women can often feel unhappy and empty while navigating their success.

First, it’s important to review the unique issues reported by this particular group of women:

  • Chronic self-dissatisfaction
  • Chronic guilt
  • Negative self-talk
  • Self-doubt
  • Poor work life boundaries
  • Poor internal self-image
  • Poor intimate partner relationships

So Dr. Lofton, why can success feel guilty to this particular group of women?

Most often, high achieving Black women report guilt at varying points in their life and on their journey towards achievement and success. Primarily, the reported guilt is focused on the sacrifices made along the way towards success in addition to the reported feeling of regret that they could not exhibit an unlimited capacity to uphold every area of their life at the same time. The guilt can often be a symptom of the high functioning depression comorbid with the anxious symptoms, perpetuating a cycle of unrealistic self-expectation.

What are some signs of depression and/or anxiety in high achieving Black women?

We cannot address depression and anxiety among Black women in general without acknowledging the effects of the Strong Black Woman Schema (SBW). The SBW is a culturally and socially constructed archetype similar to the “Alpha Male,” proposing a specific method of existence. For Black women, the SBW schema is a model of expectation that also has self-protective and harmful components. The SBW portrays a woman who can bear the burdens of the world without breaking a sweat - and if she does, she’s weak. After all, “you can’t let them see you sweat.” While mighty in her plight, unfortunately, what this can translate to is stress desensitization and emotional suppression - both running the risk of heavily constraining one’s mental and physical health and well-being.

It is important to note that there are different forms of depression associated with different symptoms and formal diagnosis.

Some signs of depression may look like:

  • Current research focused on depression among cis gender Black females reports a frequency of high functioning persistent depression disorder. This is an exceptionally harmful form of depression as its symptoms are quite silent in expression.
  • Depression is commonly described as “suffering in silence.” Outwardly this woman appears to be perfectly fine, if not thriving; however, internally she is enduring a persistent battle.

For professional Black women, high functioning depression symptoms can look like but are not limited to:

  • Hyperactive brain (anxiety)
  • Disrupted sleep (can’t fall asleep, can’t stay asleep, insomnia)
  • Disorderly eating/ fluctuating appetite (no appetite, hyper appetite, over eating, forgetting to eat)
  • Mood fluctuation (irritability, hyper-vigilance, anxious to please, increased guilt)
  • Internal narratives of low self-esteem and hopelessness

Some symptoms of anxiety may look like:

  • Hyper self-criticism, hyper self-comparison
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Hyper controlling
  • Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  • Ruminating thought cycles
  • Irrational thought patterns (unrealistic expectations of self i.e. “I have to do everything at 100%”)
  • Intrusive thought patterns

Why is a therapist important for this particular group of women?

Engaging in mental health care is thankfully growing in importance for people in general. However, seeking therapy for Black people and specifically Black women is vital as it exposes the interlocking systems of oppression faced daily such as, microaggressions, racism, and sexism. Black people need culturally component and emotionally safe spaces to process and learn how to cope with the injustices faced daily. Without those spaces, burnout happens and mental health breakdowns are reported.

Success does not have to be balanced with guilt, burden or despair. Oftentimes, there are boundaries we can set within our relationships to feel that our success is not at the detriment of ourselves or our loved ones.

Taking pride in who you are and what you have accomplished is a great thing. But the very people who may be depending on you may not recognize that you are close to a breaking point. Being drained and burned out will only lead to more stress, which will only impact the very life we fought so hard to achieve.

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Alkeme Health

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