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January 12, 2021

Navigating My Superwoman Complex During The Era of COVID- 19

The idea of going into 2021 with the COVID-19 pandemic lingering left me conflicted. While I
understood the need for the measures in place; as someone whose default position is to
measure their self-worth entirely in terms of productivity and tangible accomplishments,
the uncertainty surrounding 2021 left me uneasy. I had only just begun to take steps off
the rollercoaster that has been 2020 and was now beginning to get back to some semblance
of normal. The thought of a repeat was disconcerting.

So, I promised myself this time around would be different.

It is no secret COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of colour. The
daily challenges women of colour experience have been heightened, yet we still expect and
are being expected to show up fully and perform all of our duties as if things were normal.
Navigating my superwoman complex has always been a challenge. But navigating it during
the era of COVID-19 was a completely different ball game.

The superwoman complex can be defined as a woman who works hard to juggle multiple
different full-time roles, such as a worker, entrepreneur, mother, homemaker, supportive
friend and partner, volunteer or a student and strives to excel equally in all. For Millennial
and Gen Z women of colour in particular, superwoman syndrome can be compounded by
having to balance cultural expectations of the ideal daughter with wider societal
expectations of womanhood. The superwoman complex is rooted in the historical legacy of racial and gender stereotyping. It arose out of the efforts of our mothers and foremothers to neutralise the
negative stereotypes of women of colour by highlighting our unsung positives qualities that
exist in spite of oppression. It is an adaptive response that has been integral to our survival.
But the superwoman complex is somewhat of a double-edged sword; it can have both
favourable and unfavourable consequences,  both an asset and a liability.

As women of colour, we often celebrate our determination to succeed and pride ourselves on our resilience. But as Regina Romero stated, “an overused asset that develops uncritically
without ongoing evaluation and attention to changing needs and demands runs the risk of
becoming a liability”. Throw the additional stress of a pandemic into this mix and it is an
accelerated path to burnout.

COVID-19 raised our expectations of productivity. The extra ‘free time’ we had as a society,
was being widely promoted as the silver lining in what was a very dark cloud. It sparked a
drive for betterment, and our social media feeds were flooded with images of folks starting
businesses, launching side hustles, developing new skills, or picking up new hobbies.

As someone with a superwoman complex, this kicked me into overdrive. It elevated my
stress levels and brought a sense of guilt and shame anytime I wasn’t busy. In practice this looked like:

  • Setting unrealistic goals and feeling inadequate for not achieving them.
  • Not allowing time for self-care until my ridiculously long and never- ending to-do list
    was completed.
  • Saying ‘yes’ to everyone and everything and stretching myself so thin that it was
    impossible to complete anything to a satisfactory standard.
  • Feeling obliged to display strength 24/7 and hiding my anxiety and frustrations about
    the pandemic for fear of seeming weak.
  • Being over reliant on escapism as a coping mechanism, instead of dealing with fears
    and uncertainty head on.
  • Prioritising the wellbeing of others at the expense of my own wellbeing.
    Being scared of failure and letting the fantasy of perfection be my driver.
  • Emotional eating, dysfunctional sleeping patterns and periodic crashing and burning.

Despite having all that ‘free time’, I was less productive. I never quite found the time to
process the reality of the pandemic and hold space for those emotions.
So, this time around I am doing things differently.

It is the same storm, but I am in a different boat. I am re-imaging what it means to be strong through mindfulness, and valuing, caring and prioritising my wellbeing.

Doing the five things listed below have made things that much easier.

  1.  Establishing a routine – COVID-19 undoubtedly altered how I live my daily life, but
    not everything has to completely change. Staying as close as possible to my pre-
    lockdown routine has given me some much-needed stability in a period of
    uncertainty. I am my best when my eating, sleeping and exercise patterns are set to
    a regular schedule.
  2. Untangle self-worth and productivity – It is not possible to perform perfectly in
    multiple or conflicting roles and keep accomplishing them with ease in the long run.
    A superwoman is a fictional character and not a role model. So, I am learning not to
    measure my self-worth entirely on my tangible accomplishments, and understanding
    that I am valuable for who I am and not what I do.
  3. Switching off – It is healthy to pause, it is okay to say no and it is important to have
    boundaries. I cannot pour from empty cup. I am no good to others if I am not good
    to myself. So, I have been making time daily to unwind, relax and recharge.
  4. Practicing gratitude – Gratitude is a powerful tool, it energises, heals and brings
    hope. Keeping a gratitude journal has enabled me to understand what I can control
    and focus on what I value most.
  5. Giving myself some grace– COVID-19 brought a lot of new, a lot of stretch and a lot
    of challenge. No one is their best right now, and that is okay. It is completely normal
    to experience a range of emotions at this time. I am giving myself permission to
    process my feelings, understanding that I am not weak or less than for having them.

Things have not been easy, but they have definitely been better.