The “Superwoman” Syndrome; Break The Pattern
By Chelse Benham
“Researchers estimate job stress costs American industries between $200 and
300 billion annually. The World Health Organization has recognized job stress as
a “worldwide epidemic.” – Ohio State University Medical Center Web site
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, superwoman refers to “A woman
who performs all the duties typically associated with several different full-time
roles, such as wage earner, graduate student, mother and wife. A woman with
more than human powers.” Unfortunately, the “superwoman syndrome” is alive
and well. It affects women of all economic strata. Furthermore, it is disturbing that
some women judge their performance and ultimately, their personal worth trying
to become a “superwoman.”
Maintaining a high level of multi-tasking over a long period of time and placing
other’s needs before one’s own may bring a woman to the breaking point if she
does not evaluate her situation and make choices that better balance the
different areas of her life. According to experts, women who overextend
themselves risk their health and sanity reaching for the illusion.
At media.wiley.com, “Superwoman is, by definition, super-natural. She cannot
exist – and she should not exist because to live as Superwoman is to fail. She is
the siren, luring women toward anxiety, stress and self-punishing.”
“I don't think that there is anything unique about the ‘superwoman syndrome’ in
comparison to other drives to achieve. In general, people who have a strong
drive to achieve are motivated both from a sense of personal satisfaction that
they get from achievement and from the approval from other people that may
follow,” said Dr. Kristin Croyle, assistant professor in the Department of
Anthropology and Psychology at The University of Texas-Pan American. “I think
people may use the ‘superwoman’ idea when they see women who have a
natural drive to achieve over-extending themselves, which is a natural trap to fall
into. Female gender roles often push women to take over primary child-rearing
and homemaking responsibilities, and are also pressured in many circles to have
a rewarding career outside the home. With added responsibilities within the
community, such as at church, and desires to stay healthy by exercising and
cooking healthy foods, there is simply not enough time in the day. Rather than
doing a poor job in one or more areas, women with a natural drive to achieve
may push themselves to do well in as many areas as possible. After all, there
are important reasons not to let these areas slide. For example, you can't put off
child rearing indefinitely, or house cleaning for that matter.”
According to Sue Barton, a psychologist with the Department of Family and
Community Medicine at The University of California Davis Medical Center,
research indicates that for men, coming home from work usually means an end
to the primary source of stress. In the article “Beware the perils of superwoman
syndrome” found at the UC Health System Web site, women generally do not
feel relaxation upon arriving at home. Instead, a woman may continue to feel
stressed by internalizing family problems, a messy house and shouldering the
majority of household responsibilities. It is this constant stress that may have
serious repercussions later on her health.
In an interview given at the Ohio State University Medical Center, Dr. Radu
Saveanu, psychiatrist and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and
executive director of Ohio State University Harding Hospital attributes disease to
“Stress, by itself, is not necessarily problematic,” says Dr. Saveanu. “But when it
is not managed correctly, that’s when it becomes a problem.” Saveanu says the
connection between excessive stress and illness is no longer a theory, with
studies on cardiac disease, breast cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome
and other conditions all revealing an undeniable link between disease and stress.
In “Things Will Get as Good as You Can Stand,” author Laura Doyle says that
women turn away praise at work, help with the house, an expression of
admiration so that they appear to be in control. The result is a ‘superwoman
syndrome’ where women feel overworked, exhausted and alone.
If trying for the unobtainable is so stressful, why do women get snared within this
delusion? Where do the values come? Women suffering from “superwoman
syndrome” need to stop and think about where the messages are coming from
and gain a balance in their lives.
For so long, the emancipation of women in Western societies has put pressure
on women to achieve the (almost) unachievable: to be the perfect woman while
winning in the corporate world of men.
Lara Descartes and Conrad P. Kottak at University of Michigan wrote, in their
article “Media and the Work/Family Interface,” that “concerns and conflicts
inevitably arise over competing demands on adult time and energy. And, despite
social transformations that have made it acceptable for middle class women to
work outside the home, there remains the belief that it is a mother's role to care
for home and children, particularly when the children are young. This ideal in turn
clashes with the middle class ideology that being a successful adult means
having a career, or at least a job.”
According to the womanthink.com Web site there are fundamental reasons that
lead women to fall into the “superwoman syndrome” trap. The site lists the
psychology that propels the “superwoman syndrome”:
Superwomen see other ‘superwomen’ in the media who seem to be doing
just fine. (i.e. Oprah, Katie Couric)
Superwomen feel like they should do it all and feel guilty for relaxing, not
having an agenda, or not being on the go.
Superwomen feel they need to be in control and maintain multiple jobs to
validate their sense of worth.
Superwomen expect to be a great success at everything they do. They
often have a hard time settling for anything less than perfection.
Traditional roles keep women feeling responsible for a great number of
large responsibilities such as the household and much of the parenting.
Women carry the burden of responsibility for these things, and they also
have a career, therefore they effectively are holding two full time jobs.
Superwomen are dynamic and good at multi-tasking. They derive
satisfaction from many different sources and derive more positive feelings
from having such resources.
Because women are by nature nurturers they nurture their children, their
partners and their friends often at the expense of their own needs.
Dr. Croyle lists several ways women can begin to eliminate the self-imposed
pressures of the “superwoman syndrome.” She offers this advice:
• Delegate/ask for help. Spouses, children and family members can all help
around the house on a regular basis. Hiring outside help is also an option
for some families.
• Practice saying no. Pare down responsibilities to what is really critical and
then practice assertively saying ‘No!’ to other things.
• Leave some time in the schedule to take care of yourself. Make sure that
you leave some time in for things that are enjoyable to keep yourself
recharged. Also try to find new ways to enjoy the responsibilities that you
• In some families, it is also appropriate to look more closely at priorities. If
the family is really stressed and overscheduled, could one parent take a
part-time job or quit work altogether in order to become a stay-at-home
parent? If this is financially affordable it can be a great solution that
reduces the overall stress of every member of the family. For many
families, the lost income from that person is significantly compensated by
the amount of money they save on child care.
Further advice is provided at www.womanthink.com:
• Prioritize. What do you really value in life? Make a list of what is most
important to you and then make a pact with yourself to let go of things that
get in the way of attending to your priorities.
• Make well thought out adjustments. Something as small as allowing
yourself to skip making the bed and simply closing the bedroom door or as
big as making an arrangement with your boss to work on flex time during
the first few years of your daughter’s life can help you breathe easier.
• Give yourself the "okay" to be less than perfect. Perfectionists have it
much harder than those who know how to accept things that aren’t
The “superwoman syndrome” is a self-imposed fraud. There can never be a
“superwoman.” By its own definition nothing would be good enough, perfection
would be out of grasp. The prevailing idea still circulating, propagating and
infiltrating our culture that a woman’s worth is justified by how clean the house is,
how well mannered the children are, how perfect a wife she is, how shapely her
figure is, how successful her career is and how well she handles all of these
things at the same time is a trap that leads to feelings of frustration and
Perhaps, it is time to put into action the ability to say “no” to all the propaganda
and over-loading that the “superwoman syndrome” brings with it. Take the time
now to evaluate and prioritize the things that really matter and stop piling more
on your plate and instead replace responsibilities with peace of mind and time
with love ones.
”Your life lies before you like a path of driven snow, be careful how you tread it
cause every step will show.” – Lowri Williams