Forget “Having it All”—Here’s How You Can Overcome Superwoman Syndrome
Ever felt like you’re facing constant pressure to juggle work, family, friends and everything in between—and to do it well? Experts say that unrealistically high standards can lead to greater stress and more health problems.
You’ve seen her around. She’s the one with a beautiful family and an enviable career; the woman who always seems put together on Instagram.
Her roles are endless: caregiver, nurturer, cook, hostess, wife, volunteer, mother, daughter, etc. She makes room in her schedule for everyone and everything, and she somehow seems to do it all with grace and poise.
Before you start rolling your eyes, don’t blame her. Blame the Superwoman Syndrome.
This syndrome (first coined by feminist Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz in her 1984 book The Superwoman Syndrome), might not seem as bad as cigarette smoking or drug abuse, but women who experience the Superwoman Syndrome impose perfection in too many areas of their lives, which can cause serious mental health problems like depression and anxiety. We spoke to the experts—a psychiatrist, a neurologist and three master female multitaskers. They all say: It’s OK to do less. And probably better for everybody.
Let’s Talk Stress
The phrase “I’m so stressed” has become a casual thing to say for all of us, but it’s not something to take lightly. Stress is a pathological fight-or-flight response, and it can lead to very real physical problems.
Dr. Laura Miller, neurologist at The Queen’s Medical Center, says: “The mind perceives a threat, and reacts to that by increasing negative cortisones, blood pressure and heart rate. Back in the Stone Age, this was a healthy thing to get away from actual danger—except now our bodies are overreacting to mildly stressful things such as, say, planning your kid’s birthday party.”
Miller had just planned her daughter’s 6th birthday bash. “The party’s not a big deal, if you think about it, and, of course, it went well and everyone had a great time,” she says, laughing. “But when you’re planning everything to cake and decorations, and it’s adding to your day-to-day stressors, it can cause wear and tear on your heart and brain over time.”
Sound serious? It is. “In my practice, I’ve seen stress leading to migraines, memory issues and sleep disorders in my patients,” says Miller.
Other common issues include major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder—both of which are more prevalent in females than males in Hawai‘i, according to a 2013 Mental Health Services Research, Evaluation and Training Program study by the University of Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i State Department of Health. The study showed that 11.9 percent of women suffered lifetime prevalence of depression, compared to only 5.7 percent of men, and 9.8 percent of women suffered from lifetime prevalence of anxiety, compared to only 6.2 percent of men.
According to Miller, the medical definition of a major depressive disorder is when people have five or more of the following symptoms most of the day, every day, for at least two weeks: depressed mood, loss of interest, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, change in appetite or weight, sluggishness or agitation, decreased energy level, poor concentration, thoughts of worthlessness or guilt, or recurring thoughts about death or suicide.
People suffering from generalized anxiety disorder have excessive feelings of anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not, for at least six months.
And, since we’re throwing out numbers here, here’s a more recent one: According to the Hawai‘i Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing telephone survey of adults operated by the Hawai‘i State Department of Health, 12 percent of women on O‘ahu stated that they had been diagnosed with a form of depressive disorder, as of 2015. That’s 45,500 women. Depressive disorders include major depressive disorder, catatonic depression, seasonal affective disorder, dysthymia, atypical depression and melancholic depression.
Yikes! So, what can be done?
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Dr. Roshni Koli, a psychiatrist at Kap‘iolani Medical Center for Women and Children, is well aware that depression and anxiety are more common in women, and she says it’s not just in Hawai‘i—it’s a nationwide epidemic. She says that women face different types of stress compared to men throughout their lives and, yes, children are a major stressor.
“Pregnancy can be a time of great joy, as well as great stress or worry. Women are having children later in their lives now, as compared to 20 to 30 years ago, which can result in unique circumstances,” says Koli. “While there are advantages of having children later in life, such as increased financial stability and greater life experience and knowledge, rates of infertility and medical complications can cause greater worry.”
DR. ROSHNI KOLI, psychiatrist at Kap‘iolani Medical Center for Women and Children
Photos: Marie Eriel Hobro
Postpartum depression affects 10 to 15 percent of all women. When a woman struggles with depression, she is less likely to exercise, eat well, visit her doctor regularly and take care of herself. People with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease are also more likely to experience depression or anxiety.
“I think the key aspect to understand is that women don’t have to ‘do it all,’” says Koli. “They need to recognize and prioritize things that are the most important to them, and also allow others to help. When women come together to help one another, it’s a beautiful and powerful thing. It allows us to feel that we’re not alone, and appreciate that, although on the surface our lives may look very different, there are great similarities in how we feel and how we cope.”
—Dr. Roshni Koli
It’s not just about biology and hormones, though. Penny-Bee Kapilialoha Bovard, undergraduate adviser at the Department of Women’s Studies at UH Mānoa, says that society plays a huge factor in pressuring women to feel they need to be superwomen.
“Back when women started to enter the workforce and return to higher education, they were still expected to care [for] and nurture the home and family,” says Bovard. “Women are still primarily the caregivers, chefs, cleaners, washers and dusters—although men, husbands and fathers have been slowly but steadily increasing the amount of time they assist with caring for home and family.”
Her counterpart, Dr. Meda Chesney-Lind, chair of the Women’s Studies Department, adds the gender pay gap and the motherhood penalty to the conversation. “We have male-modeled jobs which presume that motherhood and housework will be done by someone else—this person no longer exists, but the workplace has not really adjusted,” says Chesney-Lind. “In Hawai‘i, our living costs are so high, there isn’t affordable child care. Young women have a challenge of navigating through high costs of child care and getting their life back on track. We need to have more flexible work places in America, especially in terms of maternity leave.”
—Dr. Meda Chesney-Lind
MEET THE WONDERWOMEN
Running a marketing agency worth six figures from home sounds like a dream job, and it is, for 30-year-old entrepreneur Sharon Gutierrez of Shar’Enterprise. Charging boldly forward in statement high heels and striking blonde hair, Gutierrez is a force of energy with her can-do attitude. Born in Alaska, Gutierrez moved to Hawai‘i in 2011 and is now on the board of a nonprofit (Fur Angel Foundation), working on a new clothing line (Lucky Latina) and managing 26 clients on O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island, along with Alaska and the Mainland. Add director and president of O‘ahu BNI, the world’s largest networking franchise, and you see a full plate.
People ask her whether she’s worried about when to have children or get married, and, while she does want that life, now’s not the time. And she’s learned to shake off those comments. “There’s definitely a lot of pressure to be homemakers, mothers and wives, but I know that I’m doing what I’m meant to do,” she says. “This is the season in my life where I have the energy to focus on my career without distractions, and I am loving my job so much.”
Sharon Gutierrez manages a hectic schedule by pausing, taking time for herself and not feeling guilty about it.
Her goal for herself this year has been to maintain balance, so whenever she feels overwhelmed with client and networking meetings or impending project deadlines, she makes the time to lift weights, go running or simply leave work at 6 p.m. and take the evening off. It’s been a learning process of knowing her own limits. When she first started her career, she pushed herself so hard, she got sick and had to be hospitalized. “It’s actually happened more than once,” admits Gutierrez. “I had no concept of how to slow down.”
Life coaches advise making choices and being picky in terms of your commitments, says Gutierrez. “Life goes by so fast, and we all tend to take our health for granted, so I’m trying to take better care of myself by learning to pause, make time for myself and not feel guilty about it.”
For Jaimie Norman, a former college athlete, making sure to fit exercise into her schedule helps her balance life. “If I don’t exercise for a few days in a row, I start feeling yucky. I find that I can’t concentrate and it affects my school and work,” says Norman, 26, who attends the John A. Burns School of Medicine as a first-year grad student in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.
Jaimie Norman says that carrying two planners and making time to exercise help her stay organized and focused.
As part of her curriculum, she works with multiple clients as a speech pathologist for 50 minutes on Mondays and Wednesdays. She then starts back-to-back classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On her free days, she’s working her way through college by taking on odd jobs like babysitting, cleaning houses and being a waiter for catering company Gourmet Events Hawai‘i.
Besides exercising, Norman’s trick to staying organized is carrying around two planners. “I don’t use a phone—I have to write things down. People make fun of me, but that’s how I am able to prioritize my time,” says Norman.
Then there’s Maria Price. At 30, she’s a mother to three, wife, doula, homeschool teacher, the list goes on. She also owns Baby aWearness, a family lifestyle business; Island Tea Party, a tea shop and apothecary; and M.P. & M.P. Associates, a media production management company. Until recently, she worked in their bakery, Breadbox Hawai‘i, from 5:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., then had a family dinner that was breakfast for her husband, Mike. She and the three kids would go to sleep while Mike went to the bakery to bake overnight.
Maria Price juggles a family as well as multiple businesses.
“Between Mike and I, we [were] working at the bakery together for more than 24 hours a day. It’s crazy,” she says. Then Mike, 37, had a heart attack, and they decided to sell the bakery and scale back to focus on the health and wellness of their family.
Price has borne other burdens, such as losing her mother soon after her oldest son, Gen, was born. She says she regrets not getting to know her more. “I’m realizing that she was a person too—not just a ‘mother.’ I think it’s so easy for a mom to just be a mom when they have kids.” Now that Gen is 9, she’s decided to make sure her children get to know her. “I want my kids to know I’m actually my own person and not lose my own identity. I love letting them see me as me.”
Whenever she feels her stress levels are getting high, she makes sure to take a break by making time for herself. She especially enjoys spending time with just her husband, without the kids. “My husband keeps me real as a person, to not get caught up with being a mom. He’s the one who gives me peace of mind,” says Price.
All three women share a commonality: self-awareness. They know their own capabilities and limits as to what they can handle, and, when they’re feeling the strain, they take a moment to pause and make time for themselves free of guilt. We say: Take their cues and give yourself permission to slow down and relax.
Find something you enjoy—whether it’s going to the beach, taking a hike or a simple walk around the block—and make that a priority at least once a week. And the happier you are, the healthier you’ll be.
Hawai‘i’s Gender Pay Gap
According to nationalpartnership.org, in Hawai‘i, the 2017 median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time job is $40,434, versus a man’s salary of $48,074. This means a woman makes 84 cents for every $1 a man makes, resulting in an annual wage gap of $7,640. On average, Hawai‘i women who are employed full time lose a combined total of more than $2.5 billion every year due to the wage gap. (The gap is even larger for women of color: Latinas were paid 67 cents, and Asian women 74 cents, for each dollar made by white men.)
If the annual wage gap was eliminated, a working woman would have more money for approximately:
51 more weeks of food for her family
Three more months of mortgage and utilities payments
Five or more months of rent
Only got a few minutes? Here’s how you can reduce stress in:
Visualize a peaceful place, or listen to a favorite tune.
Inhale slowly through your nose, and feel the breath start in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head. Exhale through your mouth and reverse the process.
Unplug! Turn off your cell phone, laptop and electronics. Avoid emails and the television, and say goodbye to stressful news and unrealistic social media.
Take half an hour to fit some sort of physical activity into your day.
8 Warning Signs of Stress
Your body might be trying to send you a message. It’s time to slow down if you have:
Headaches, muscle tension, neck, chest or back pain
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Loss of appetite or overeating comfort foods
Increased frequency of colds
Memory problems or forgetfulness
Source: American Psychological Association (apa.org)