I’ve always been an ambitious person, but sometimes my accomplishments feel like they aren’t enough. As I delve deeper into my career, I find myself striving to reach the next pinnacle and achievement without fully reflecting on all that I’ve done previously. I’ve spoken to my therapist about this behavior, and she suggested that I write out my accomplishments for each quarter so I can see them physically on paper, to know that they’re real. Although I’ve taken her advice, I often ask myself, “What’s next?” Instead of looking forward to the next career achievement or milestone, I wish I could be more present without the insatiable thirst for more. My self-awareness and practice of self-reflection have allowed me to analyze what’s behind this behavior, and in short, I think it’s due to experiencing a mixture of perfectionism and imposter syndrome and being raised by my parents to succeed at all costs.
Jenet Dove, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Jenet Dove Counseling, specializes in supporting over-functioning Black women perfectionists dealing with burnout and depression. After careful observation, she believes Black women who relentlessly and vigorously pursue their goals tend not to prioritize self-reflection, rest, celebration, and reassessment, allowing them to constantly strive for the next accomplishment, often neglecting opportunities to appreciate even the smallest success.
But how did we, as Black women, get here? Unrealistic societal expectations and the harmful “Strong Black Woman” trope. According to Dove, Black women often bear the burdens of societal expectations and historical adversities that shape their lived experiences. These expectations are deeply ingrained in the “Strong Black Woman” archetype, which demands unwavering strength, resilience, and relentless pursuit of success to overcome systemic barriers (which I can resonate with as a two-time first-generation college graduate and caretaker).
While this archetype may initially empower many Black women, Dove believes it can have long-lasting detrimental effects, like positioning Black women as invulnerable, unyielding, and constantly self-sacrificing. “These depictions impose unrealistic standards on Black women, stripping away their humanity and perpetuating the belief that they should endure all hardships without displaying vulnerability or seeking support. As a result, many Black women may suppress their emotions, leading to mental health challenges such as high-functioning depression that can often go unnoticed due to their outward appearance of competence,” Dove says to ESSENCE.
Esther Boykin, a psychotherapist, agrees with Dove as she believes that many Black women find themselves pushing from one accomplishment to the next with no pause due to being characterized as the superwoman and strong nurturer. “This narrow view of our worth often lends to an internalized idea of ourselves needing to stay focused on others while simultaneously setting an impossible standard. When our primary focus is on how others are doing, it can feel uncomfortable or selfish to pause to reflect on what we have accomplished. I often see this in my clients who will get a big promotion, finish an incredible project, or reach some other incredible milestone but gloss over it to celebrate others in their life or focus on parents, partners, and children who need more. There is a mindset that “I can’t be good until everyone else is good,” which blocks many women’s ability to savor the sweetness of success for themselves,” she shares.
Another barrier she sees among clients is the unconscious belief that they don’t deserve rest or recognition. “The strong woman trope, while often meant as a compliment, convinces many of us that we are meant to be superhuman in our efforts and achievements. When the standards are so unrealistically high, we rarely feel deserving of accolades or even rest between the incredible things we accomplish. What often looks like tenacity and a strong work ethic can be insecurity and fear. The social messaging combined with overt and subtler forms of racism and sexism Black women face at work is a breeding ground for imposter syndrome. And when we are questioning our success, the idea of pausing to celebrate is impossible, Boykin states.
However, not acknowledging your success can impact your mental health in several ways, says Alelia Watson, M.A. “Firstly, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, as you may not recognize your accomplishments, and instead focus on what you have yet to achieve. This can also increase anxiety and stress, as you may feel like you are not progressing. Secondly, not acknowledging your progress can cause you to become unmotivated and lose sight of your purpose, which can further exacerbate feelings of depression and hopelessness,” she says.
So how can Black women shift to prioritizing balance, fulfillment, and joy?
Slowing down. According to Boykin, slowing down to acknowledge our accomplishments and give ourselves the rest needed to continue moving forward is critical to our emotional well-being. “High-functioning depression and anxiety are often masked by jumping from one goal to another without pause. The pause allows women to receive the care and recognition they deserve and create a space to assess their feelings. Are you enjoying the work it takes to achieve these moments? Is the next goal one you want to pursue? When we are disconnected from ourselves, it can create a sense of frustration and overwhelm that isn’t easy to describe,” she says.
Boykin continues, “Women can shift their approach and truly learn to stay in the moment before pushing forward to the next goal is to build a community focused on celebrating you. This can be a group chat with a few friends, a monthly brunch with colleagues, or a formal group designed for support. Changing ingrained patterns isn’t easy, so having a group of women who understand your experience and will remind you to slow down is especially important.”
Myisha Jackson, licensed professional counselor and founder of Healing Journey Counseling Center, suggests incorporating rigorous self-care practices beyond the superficial aesthetics often depicted on social media, like shopping sprees or visits to the spas. “Devoting time to celebrate ourselves and our accomplishments is an essential element of self-care. It allows us to genuinely appreciate our progress and honor the efforts we have invested in reaching our goals. It’s important to acknowledge that success encompasses more than external achievements; it also includes personal growth, resilience, and overall well-being. Being present now holds immense significance for our mental and emotional well-being. By fully immersing ourselves in the unfolding of life rather than incessantly chasing future aspirations, we cultivate gratitude and find joy in the small moments that constitute our journey,” she says.
Incorporating strategies that promote balance and fulfillment is essential, according to Dove. “Black women can cultivate a lifestyle that honors their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This can include establishing boundaries to protect their time and energy, engaging in activities that bring them joy and rejuvenation, and fostering meaningful connections with loved ones. Practicing mindfulness, regular self-reflection, and seeking professional support, such as therapy, can contribute significantly to their overall well-being,” she states.
Here are a few approaches of hers to consider:
Nurture Self-Compassion: Black women are encouraged to adopt a practice of self-compassion by treating themselves with kindness and cultivating a nurturing inner dialogue. This skill set holds immense significance for Black women and is one of the key strategies I emphasize to my clients at my practice. While it may sound simple and cliche, the truth is that Black women often encounter significant difficulties in practicing self-compassion. We tend to be our harshest critics, tearing ourselves apart when we make mistakes or experience failures. This can trap us in a cycle where we must work even harder to compensate for our errors rather than show ourselves grace and compassion. Instead of rushing to overcome negative emotions by striving to achieve more after making a mistake or failing to meet a goal, I encourage black women to envision speaking to themselves with the same loving and supportive tone they would employ with a cherished friend. When you attain a milestone, you must pause and acknowledge your achievements, sincerely valuing them.
Additionally, purposefully embrace celebrating your victories, regardless of their magnitude. Move beyond mere recognition and honor your accomplishments with the same enthusiasm and joy that you would wholeheartedly express while celebrating the successes of a dear friend.
Establish Boundaries and Prioritize Self-Care: I encourage Black women to build self-care in daily routines. Make self-care an intentional and essential part of your life by consciously prioritizing your well-being by establishing clear boundaries that protect your valuable time and energy. To achieve this, learning the art of gracefully saying no to excessive commitments and dedicating ample time to activities that nourish your mind, body, and soul is crucial. Recognize that rest and rejuvenation are not indications of laziness nor rewards to be earned through additional labor. Rest is a fundamental necessity that you deserve, irrespective of your productivity level.
Challenge Perfectionism and Celebrate Small Wins: Shift your mindset from pursuing perfection to healthy striving and embrace the concept of “good enough.” Instead of fixating solely on the next goal, appreciate the smaller milestones along the way. Take pleasure in your progress and acknowledge that success is a continuous journey, not a final destination. Start practicing self-acceptance and nurturing a sense of self-worth that doesn’t rely solely on constant accomplishments.
Cultivate Supportive Relationships: Find your tribe! Surround yourself with individuals who understand and support your need for rest and celebration. Seek out kindred spirits who recognize the importance of taking breaks and savoring the results of their hard work. Engage in open dialogues, sharing your triumphs and personal journeys, and consciously sit still and fully embrace their support and encouragement rather than minimizing or diminishing it. Wholeheartedly embrace the uplifting influence of their affirmations and empathetic gestures, allowing them to strengthen and amplify your profound sense of fulfillment. If you find it challenging to identify dependable individuals within your support system, consider seeking the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. They have the expertise to establish a safe and nurturing environment beyond acknowledging your achievements, allowing you to cultivate vital skills for establishing rest and celebration as a sustainable and enduring life strategy.
Reflect and Practice Gratitude: Dedicate time to reflect on your accomplishments and express gratitude for your journey and the lessons you have learned. Purposefully engaging in reflection is akin to ascending to a vantage point that offers a wider outlook. It creates space for you to genuinely recognize the development and advancements you’ve attained from a broader perspective. Cultivate a habit of gratitude by expressing appreciation for the opportunities that led to your successes and the support you received along the path. This practice can enhance your overall mindset, fostering positivity and enabling you to embrace and cherish your accomplishments fully.