Surviving Superwoman Syndrome

Do you feel constantly overwhelmed with your ‘to do’ list? Do you struggle with saying ‘no’?  Do you sacrifice your wellbeing to take care of others first? Do you expect more from yourself than you expect from others?

These may be signs that you are battling Superwoman Syndrome (SWS) – this is a concept that refers to the experience of many women who are struggling to meet the expectations of society, before meeting their own needs.  The idea of SWS is not new.  Many, including bestselling author Brené Brown, who Oprah Winfrey and others have amplified, have explored it.

Vaishali Patel, a psychotherapist, practicing in the GTA, says, “The concept of women being in the position of striving to have it all is generational, as society has become more-high achieving, and women have become more independent.   Ironically, some of our basic social constructs have not altered much, e.g. gender expectations with duty to family and community.  So, the movement to battle SWS is happening slowly, but happening.”

The 5 top symptoms of Superwoman Syndrome include:

  1. Personal Responsibility for Everything
  2. Pursuing Perfectionism – We seek the approval or acknowledgement of others
  3. Prioritizing the Wants of Others, Before Our Own
  4. Productivity. Linking our self-worth to being able to provide for others and not to just being our selves.
  5. Perpetually Not Happy.  This requires changing our mindset to defining ‘Happiness’ with our own wellbeing, for instance, a healthier lifestyle.


The South Asian Strain

As South Asian women, we are all too familiar with this concept – brought home, both, in real life and in the ‘reel’ life in Bollywood movies and South Asian television programming.  Expectations for women in bicultural South Asian communities differ from North American ones.  It affects multiple facets of everyday life – in career choices, relationships, spouses, education, raising children and more. We attempt to satisfy both aspects of this unique identity.   Vaishali explains, “The struggle to balance these can sometimes lead to loss of sense of self.”

Seemingly simple decisions like children’s eating habits can become stress factors – whether to feed young children as a form of nurturing – as is customary in South Asian culture – or whether to teach children the norm in North American society where children are taught at an early age to eat by themselves.


Don’t Wait Until its Broke

The general mindset is that we “if it isn’t broke, why fix it?” or ‘Why work for something we don’t need yet?”  No one wants to deal with the stigma of being a woman who can’t juggle it all and – worse one that is in need of help.


Finding Effective Solutions

Vaishali says, “The hope for the future is definitely bright. South Asian women are continuing to embrace their bicultural identities.” Consciously setting effective boundaries, by asserting ourselves to take care of our own wellbeing, will help us eliminate and manage expectations.

A fusion of elements of what’s best from both cultures can help us move forward.  One such idea comes from the word ‘shakti’, which in many South Asian languages means strength.  Shakti is also the feminine divine energy, a goddess who is responsible for creation, evolution, and power in humans.  This age-old belief still influences our self-perceptions. Across cultural and religious beliefs, South Asian women have shown a strength and perseverance through many difficulties inside and outside the home.

Influenced by this idea, Vaishali recommends living and giving like goddesses, by caring for our selves in order to fully give to others. The problem with giving like a martyr is that you eventually burn out, have low energy, battle guilt, resentment, and other negative emotions.”

She outlines, “First, you have to see yourself as a goddess, as if you are worthy of a higher wellbeing, you have to acknowledge and embrace your true value.  Then, you make sure you have the basics: proper sleep, healthy diet, adequate exercise, and enough “me” time (time when you do not take on responsibilities of a mom, wife, daughter, daughter in law, employee, etc.).”

Giving our selves the permission to take care of ourselves first is the start of our journey to wellbeing.

In doing her part to own and contribute to the Toronto leg of this movement, Vaishali conducts a variety of group meetings for survivors of SWS to work their way through various themes or tackle a particular symptom.  Vaishali also hosts outreach workshops for diverse audiences, such as board meetings, staff meetings, high school student groups, talking about stress management and wellness. She blogs about issues related to SWS at   Vaishali explains, “My intrinsic purpose is to help more women overcome SWS and achieve a state of well being.”