I am a fan of both the words strong and wise. We all identify with strength, and it is rated highly as an attribute. But what happens when strong becomes a burden you don’t have the strength to bear? Trust me, it can happen. Black women, in particular, have identified or have been identified with that word to their detriment. It often follows a long string of enviable accomplishments like, “She obtained doctorate while parenting, taking care of aging parents, running a beauty salon and walking on a tightrope! She is a Strong Black Women.” SBW is sewn into her cape and off she flies. The thing is we know that at some point she is going to fall from the sky.
During my interviews with Black executive female leaders for my research, it was clear that the SBW cape, while initially flattering, can become an incredible burden. It was also clear that there was an emotional struggle to maintain the title but eliminate some of the mandates that come with it. While it’s nice to be the “go to person” in your family and in your home, who does the SBW go to? As these leaders matured, they shared that it was more important to be wise than it was to be strong. Being smart about how you approach the responsibilities of work and home allows you to balance your life.
Part of the wisdom is learning when to say “no.” Strength says, “Pile it on!” while wisdom says, “I am just about full, no thank you.” Strength says, “I am a bad mother if I miss my kid’s game. I can drop off the cleaning, take food to my dad, scarf down a burger and still make it!” Wisdom says, “Go get a massage and be better able to enjoy her next performance. If you don’t relax a little, you’re going to get sick.”
Even more stressful is being strong with few resources. Ask any single, underemployed parent. They too wear the SBW cape, and its weight is even heavier. When their stress is expressed in what society deems inappropriate, other badges get added to the cape like Angry Black Woman (AWB) and far worse. There are no getaway weekends or sending the kids to an away camp for a week or two. The burden of expectations is overwhelming, and the constant feeling of failure can lead to depression and isolation.
You don’t just wake up wise one morning. Life experiences teach you how to work on your approach and networking with other women allows you to collect a pool of shared wisdom. It is well worth it to sit down and talk to someone who stood in your shoes a few short years ago and can shed some light on how she got through. If she starts off with, “Girl just do it!” she may not be your best coach. Find someone who is willing to help you give yourself a break. Develop a support group who can give you fresh ideas on how to build reserves, find time for renewal, or say “No!” for the first time.
Being strong can break your back. Being wise can bring creativity, well-being, and satisfaction–for you and those who depend on you to be your best self.