Stuck, Not Broken: Understanding Mental Illness

Stressed Black Woman

Picture a young Black girl named Lauren growing up in the suburb of a major city with her family. Her parents are married and she is the middle of 3 children. From the outside their family looks “perfect.” A two-parent household where both parents are working and the family has enough money to cover necessities and some luxury items. However, if you looked inside and observed the family dynamic you might notice something different. Lauren’s parents do not get along well and the conflict between them is frequent. They are never physically violent with each other but they pick on each other’s mistakes and have a very low tolerance for each other’s quirks. Lauren’s parents are also very critical of her and her siblings. They push them hard to succeed and are harsh when their kids do not live up to their expectations. The parents even withhold love and affection from Lauren and her siblings when they make a mistake. In order to survive in this environment, when it felt like Lauren could be critiqued an any moment, when the love from her parents did not feel consistent or stable, Lauren became a perfectionist. She agonized over everything, spending extra hours to make sure that things were perfect. She began to be self-critical to preempt the harsh criticism from her parents if she made a mistake. She has trouble falling asleep at night because she worries about her parents not loving her, about doing something that might cause them to reject her permanently. In Lauren’s efforts to adapt to a difficult home environment, she developed symptoms of anxiety. While her efforts to be perfect may have been adaptive as a child, as an adult these strategies are no longer working for her.

As an adult, Lauren struggles to do things in a timely manner because her perfectionism makes it difficult to get things done. She has internalized her parent’s critical voices and even though she lives 1000s of miles away from them she hears them in her head whenever she is about to do something new or challenging. Lauren has a hard time accepting love and affirmation from other people, romantic partners in particular, because she fears that they will leave her as soon as they find out that she’s not perfect. Lauren feels stressed and on edge all of the time; she has headaches, difficulty sleeping, and an almost constant tightness in her chest. Lauren struggles to accept feedback because she can’t tolerate looking at her mistakes in a constructive way. Lauren is struggling with generalized anxiety disorder. Continue reading “Stuck, Not Broken: Understanding Mental Illness”

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Making Space for Whatever Comes

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Today feels hard. If I’m being honest yesterday and Friday felt kind of tough too. Not overwhelmingly hard but emotionally challenging. I was feeling annoyed and irritable by 10am yesterday and while venting with my co-workers and having a generally good day helped, I still went to bed feeling sad. This morning I awoke noticing that familiar weight and feeling of tightness in my chest, a telltale sign of sadness for me. I’m not sure why I feel sad, maybe it’s my hormones, maybe it’s thinking about the experiences of undocumented immigrants this week that is causing me to feel frustrated, sad, and worried, maybe its the gray and rainy weather we’ve had over the last few days, maybe it’s not getting enough sleep recently. Maybe it’s all of these things. Continue reading “Making Space for Whatever Comes”

Where will you stand at times of Challenge & Controversy?

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We are in the midst of trying times. There are so many things and people that are under attack right now: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women’s rights, the environment, etc. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed. Unsure of what to do to continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and communities that we care about. Now is a time when it is essential that we know what our values are; when we know what matters and we do what matters. When I talk about values in this context I’m referring to things that serve as guides for ongoing action. Values are like a compass that help you to know in which direction you would like to move forward and enable you to determine if you have gotten off track. Our values can help us achieve our goals but are separate from them. Engaging in our values may feel uncomfortable at times and is certainly not always easy but when our behavior is consistently aligned with what matters to us, our lives are enriched.  Continue reading “Where will you stand at times of Challenge & Controversy?”

Hidden Figures: Being Your Own Hero

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Hidden Figures depicts the powerful, true story of three Black women who worked at Nasa and were instrumental in helping the first Americans get to space in the early 1960s. The  intellects and leadership abilities of these three women shines through the movie and it is refreshing to see Black women depicted as their own heroes. Some of the most poignant aspects of the film were the many indignities that the protagonists had to navigate while trying to do their jobs. It made me think of my grandmother who I know faced similar racism and sexism and my mother who integrated her high school and was the in the first class that included female students at Princeton. It highlighted the strength it takes for Black women to continue to hold their heads high and push the needle forward in the face of indignities. It reminded me that progress never comes without pushing from the oppressed. It reminded me of how exhausting it can be to be a Black woman in this country.

The racism and sexism in Hidden Figures was heavy and nuanced. No one use the N word or said straight out that Black people or women weren’t capable of working at Nasa but both of these -isms were highlighted throughout the movie. Black women still face racism and sexism, it may have gotten more subtle than barring women from being engineers or having to use segregated bathrooms but they persist. The racism and sexism we experience today most often manifests in systemic forms and as microaggressions. Systemic manifestations include lower pay for women, making it hard for women to work and have families, and normalizing fathers not taking an active parenting role. Microaggressions can include the questioning of our competency and expressions of surprise when we do a job well. I’m sure you have many examples of experiencing racism and sexism in your life. Continue reading “Hidden Figures: Being Your Own Hero”

Fences: On Losing Yourself in Relationships

fullsizerender“That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave some room for me…I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine. I did that. I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn’t hardly tell which was which anymore.” – Rose from Fences by August Wilson

While watching Fences, a play written by August Wilson adapted for film and directed by Denzel Washington, I was struck by Rose (played by Viola Davis); her commitment to doing the right thing and the stability that she provided for her family. Rose’s sacrifices on behalf of her family are characteristic of the sacrifices that so many Black women make. Putting aside our desires and ourselves to such an extent that it’s hard to find either after a while. Hiding our wants so well that even our loved ones can’t tell that we’ve lost touch with the things that used to excite and energize us. In the quote above, Rose reflects on the fact that she married a man who took up all of the room in their house, all of the room in their lives, and that she lost herself in their relationship. She failed to make room for herself.

Failing to make room for ourselves in relationships is something that happens to many women. We are socialized to prioritize relationships, to prioritize the well being of our romantic partners. This is particularly true for heterosexual relationships that adhere to patriarchal values. As Black women we are often asked to put aside our strengths and defer our dreams in order to support our romantic partners. It is communicated to us through family members, friends, and church communities that we should prioritize our relationship, that we should support our man, that him and his needs should be put first. That achieving the goal of marriage should be enough to sustain and fulfill us.  We are shown models of “good women” who don’t have needs of their own, who spend all of their time and energy catering to the men and children in their lives. We hear the harsh critiques of women who dare to put themselves first. Continue reading “Fences: On Losing Yourself in Relationships”

Year of the Black Woman: Taking Stock & Moving Forward

love-selfcare-createherstock-12016 has been a rough year for many of us. There have been deaths, losses, grief, disappointments, heartbreak, and more. It is easy to dismiss 2016 as a horrible year that we would like to forget. However, when we don’t reflect on what we’ve been through, we miss the opportunity to learn from what we’ve experienced and move forward in healthy and constructive ways. It can be alluring to externalize all of the hard things we went through, feeling as though we had no role to play, no power or agency in difficult situations. While this is any easy stance to take, it puts us in a passive position and keeps us from learning from our experiences. Additionally, when we fail to take stock of what has happened we may overlook things that feel proud of or positively about.

Despite the challenges most of us have faced this year, the beauty, creativity and strength of Black women has shone through 2016. Black women have continued to lead as activists, in the arts and entertainment industries, in business, politics, sports, literature, and health care fields. We have continued to push the needle forward, speaking truth to power, advocating for our communities, and encouraging each other along the way. It has been a tough year and like a tea bag put into hot water our bold, sweet, strong flavors have been highlighted as we were immersed in 2016.
Continue reading “Year of the Black Woman: Taking Stock & Moving Forward”

Dealing with Family Drama During the Holidays

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You’re heading home for the holidays and cautiously looking forward to spending time with your family. Hoping that maybe this year will be different. Maybe things will go smoothly and you and your family will be able to keep things light and get along. Then while you’re home have a simple conversation with your mom, and before you know it she’s said something that makes you feel like a helpless 5 year old and you want to crawl under your chair. Family drama can involve anything from tense interactions and arguments to navigating a family member’s ongoing drinking problem and hurtful outbursts, to facing the daunting experience of going to spend time with family members who were abusive.

For some people the holidays are a wonderful, uncomplicated time spent with family. However, for many of us, spending extended time with family during the holidays can be complicated; there are some aspects that we enjoy and others that we dread. Much of the conflict and and drama we experience when we return home arises from unresolved issues that began long ago. Our visits home are made more difficult when we haven’t sorted through these complicated dynamics. Continue reading “Dealing with Family Drama During the Holidays”