Commentary: How I stopped playing the strong black woman

Dr. Shawn Ricks

Commentary: How I stopped playing the strong black woman
July 17
15:53 2019

By Dr. Shawn Ricks

I never saw my grandmother rest. From morning to night, she appeared to be in service: cooking and cleaning, helping, and caring for others.

She died of a heart attack at 69.

As I reflect today on the high rates of heart disease, stress, obesity and other physical, as well as mental, ailments among African American women, I wonder what would have been the impact had she said, “I ain’t cooking tonight, everybody is on their own,” or simply, “I’m tired and I need to rest.”

Instead, I observed what appeared to be a never-ending pace of busyness, problem solving, and making ends meet. As a result, I found myself behaving similarly. I didn’t dare go to her or the other black women in my life with what I couldn’t do. I worked hard to figure things out.

Thousands of black women suffer silently, while proudly praising their abilities to make a way out of no way. The more women I engaged with, the more I discovered that we had taken the chaos in our lives and normalized it.

Normalized chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong black woman stereotype. This received idea that black women have an extraordinary strength beyond that of other women—that we feel no pain, we don’t cry, we don’t need help—has done us more harm than good.

Black women are taught to push through, keep going, and endure difficult times without protest. Asking for help – or even believing that we’re deserving of it – is a sign of weakness and vulnerability that we’ve been taught we cannot afford.

Minimizing our mental health, masking depression, staying busy, overeating, or not eating at all, and normalizing all of it, is killing us slowly. Not only do black women continue to have higher rates of physical illness with poorer quality of care, we experience higher rates of depression than our white counterparts. And we are more likely to receive lower rates of mental health treatment.

The upside is, as national attention shines a spotlight on mental health, black women are slowly joining the discussions, and the efforts to heal. Some black women are using social media and podcasts to share their stories and emphasize the importance of self-care. Others are sharing their stories with friends and family. This movement for black women to embrace self-care is gradually spreading.

My wake-up call came in the form of burnout, exhaustion and depression. While studying for my Ph.D., I was working full-time and raising three children. I didn’t want to go to work, but I pushed through, put on my mask daily, and pretended I was okay. 

I wasn’t.

I was in the rabbit hole of my normalized chaos and couldn’t find my way out until I admitted to the harm I was causing myself. I took a hard look at my life and committed to practicing self-care. I stopped saying yes to everyone and every opportunity. I started paying attention to my nutrition and physical activity. I started to remember things that bring me joy and made time to do them. I reminded myself that I am deserving of rest, with no guilt or shame. And I spent time alone.

None of these behaviors did I learn from watching my elders, but I am confident they are saving my life. Let’s teach our daughters and sons a new normal—one that includes open and honest communication about our mental health and wellness. We can shift generational trauma to generation healing.

Healing is an intentional decision and a journey that I hope you will join me on. You’re worth it!

Dr. Shawn Arango Ricks is a researcher, psychotherapist, life coach and intuitive healer in Winston-Salem. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and IG @drshawnricks or read more about her at

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