How to Not Die: Some Survival Tips for Black Women Who Are Asked to Do Too Much

Audre Lorde

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,

it is self-preservation,

and that is an act of political warfare.”                           

–Audre (the) Lorde

High blood pressure runs in my family.  I have been taking medication to regulate it for six years and I recently started getting intense headaches and migraines that I realized were related to hypertension.  Deadline-driven days have become so commonplace in my life that I didn’t recognize or respond to the “stress” anymore.  It became normalized.  A way of life.  The way my life is.  This is a problem.  And sometimes I won’t sit down (read: take a break from work) until/unless I am hurting.  That is also a problem.  I always tell myself that I am going to take better care of myself, but the priority of paying attention to my emotional and psychic needs usually gets put on the backburner—behind things that seem to require my immediate attention.  I will take care of myself after I teach my class…  after I mentor the student…  after I attend the meeting…  after I finish grading…  after I write the last 5 pages of the paper that was due last week…  after I read the thesis, write the report, and wash the dishes…  After…after…after…  My life is a continuous cycle of roles and responsibilities that make my personal wellbeing an afterthought, something that can perpetually wait.  Until now.  I am learning that undue and unnecessary stress has no place in my life.  And looking at the lives and legacies of black feminist foremothers reminds me that I have some agency around strategies for saving myself. (For a beautiful reflection on this, see Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ piece The Shape of My Impact)

I believe the stress of weighty expectations and doing too much takes its toll on us.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  It happens over weeks and months and years of pushing our own needs and desires down until we can’t feel them anymore.  It happens, subtly, until it makes sense to do too much because that is just the way things are, the way things have always been.  That, too, is a problem.  It is a problem when caretaking (taking care) becomes something we do for other people and not ourselves.  It is up to us to survive and not just survive but thrive in our lives.  To not put work above living.  To not make ourselves our last resort.  To not wait until we are tired to rest.  To not wait until we are sick to make healthy choices.  To not wait until we have pleased everyone else to think about our own needs.  To not postpone our own happy.  To not just tolerate foolishness.

I have been working on a list of ways to take care of myself and to honor the lives and legacies of the black feminists before me whose lives ended too soon.  I worry that our foremothers were worked to death.  I worry that they didn’t see death coming because they were too busy taking care of other things.  I worry that they had too much to do and ran out of time.  I worry that they didn’t get to see themselves as celebrated and loved and worthy of celebration and love.  I worry that they worked too much, too hard, and for too little pay.  I worry that people saw them as strongblackwomen and forgot to see them as human.  I worry that our jobs, our families, our friends, and sometimes our supporters expect too much and we expect too little.

I am no longer flattered when people ask me to do things because I am “so good at it…”

I will not be punished for a job well done.

I will not be overworked and underpaid.

I will not do free labor (there must be some kind of reciprocal exchange, which does not necessarily mean money but means I don’t prostitute my gifts).

I will not let people use me.

I will not feel guilty for saying no.

I will ask for what I need.

I will walk away if I don’t get what I need.

I will fight against injustice in the world, starting in my own life!

It is inconceivable that we are expected to just get used to injustice (racism, sexism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, etc.).  We have to resist injustice and talk back to it, but not at the expense of being well.  I don’t want to give myself over to the struggle.  I don’t want to be superwoman in my twenties, strongwoman in my thirties, and suffocated in my forties.  We can’t let the work (and there is much work to be done) take us out.  We have to be mindful about how we engage others and ourselves, especially when it comes to obligations and expectations of our time, minds, bodies, thoughts, experiences and hearts.  I don’t want to give myself away.  And the labor of love that is my life is not free, nor is it worth my emotional/physical/mental/spiritual health.  I am disinterested in being a martyr.

In a posthumous collection of her work, Some of Us Did Not Die, June Jordan writes:

…But we have choices, and capitulation is only one of them. 

I am always hoping to do better than to collaborate with whatever or whomever it is that means me no good.  For me, it’s a mind game with everything at stake.  For example, what has what kind of savagery blurred or blocked or buried alive?

This is an excerpt from my Poem To Take Back the Night:

What about moonlight

What about watching for the moon above

the tops of trees and standing

still enough to hear the raucous crickets

chittering invisible beneath the soon lit stones

What about moonlight

What about moonlight

What about watching for the moon

through windows low enough to let the screams

and curses of the street the gunshots

and the drunken driver screeching tires

and the boombox big beat and the tinkle

bell ice cream truck

inside

What about the moonlight

What about the moonlight . . . .

Luckily, there are limitless, new ways to engage our tender, and possible responsibilities, obligations that our actual continuing coexistence here, in these United States and here, in our world, require.”

Here are a few survival tips (in no particular order) for black women who are asked to do too much:

  1. Take some time to/for yourself and be unapologetic about it.  At least one hour of your day should be yours.  Whether your vice be a glass of wine and reality TV, Facebooking, caking, going to a sporting event, talking on the phone to a friend you haven’t seen in a while, going to listen to live music, reading a book, writing in a journal, a bubble bath (don’t forget the candles), etc., it is important to take the time to do something that allows you to decompress, unwind, and relax.
  2. Say no! I have written about this at length here and here, but essentially I have learned how to say no to others and to say yes to myself.  This means that I don’t over-extend myself, I don’t do things I don’t want to do, and I make “no” my default response to spontaneous or last-minute requests.  I believe that women feel obligated to say yes even when they want to say no because it seems/feels polite.  Be impolite!  Say no (without an explanation/reason).
  3. Reject negativity.  We all have well-meaning folk in our life who have something to say about everything and have unsolicited opinions about our lives, loves, and choices.  While it is important to take responsibility for the choices (and consequences) we make in life, we don’t have to take on other people’s baggage.  Surround yourself with positive people.  Have people in your life who  inspire you, love you, affirm you, encourage you, tell you how wonderful and beautiful you are, smile when you walk in a room, tell you the truth (in love), and are positive influences.  As for anyone and everyone else… hellwitem.
  4. Pay attention to your body.  If you are tired, take a nap.  If you are craving chocolate, have a candy bar.  If you listen and pay attention you will know/learn your body well enough to know the tell-tale signs that something is wrong.  And if/when something feels wrong/off, see about it.  I have a high tolerance for pain and am known for “bearing” discomfort.  I am learning that it is unwise to ignore the signals your body gives you that something is not quite right.  When your body speaks, listen!  And do something about it.
  5. Sometimes, though, symptoms of distress are asymptomatic (making them even more dangerous), so have a bi-annual or annual check-up.  If you do not have insurance take advantage of clinics, Planned Parenthood, and other agencies that are available to help you get screened, tested, and taken care of. Also, know your history.  While sometimes our family medical histories can be mysteries, it is important to know what hereditary diseases or ailments you may be at risk for.  The leading causes of death for African Americans include heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.
  6. Do a regular inventory and purge anything toxic in your life.  The same way you clean out your refrigerator and/or pantry every few months, get rid of things that are expired in your life.  Not everything or everyone is meant to stay in your life forever:    This includes people, relationships, thoughts, habits, and hobbies.  Nothing and nobody should find a place in your life or headspace that is not purposefully and regularly adding to it.  Don’t keep things in your life that are old, outdated, spoiled or rancid.  Clean house!
  7. Let people go.  Especially those that don’t honor and respect you.  I believe that black women oftentimes put up with too much ish in their lives from people out of fear of rejection, abandonment and loneliness.  Don’t be afraid of being alone.  Never keep someone or something in your life out of desperation.  Be clear about your principles and standards (for friendships, networks, romantic relationships, etc.) and never settle.  If someone fails to treat you like the queen you are…On to the next one…
  8. Don’t be a people pleaser.  I personally think that post-30 should mean you don’t give a damn about what people think/say/believe about you.  Turning 30 was a turning point in my life (real talk, it was probably around 28) and when I stopped making decisions based on what I thought other people would think/say/believe about me I became more self-confident and free.  Living your life for yourself and not other people makes a world of difference.
  9. Have a confidante.  We should all have someone in our life we don’t have to “put on” for.  We need at least one person we can talk to about deep-seated and deeply personal issues without judgment, someone we can cry with/to/in front of; someone we can tell our secrets to; someone that will hug us and pat us on our back when we just need to wail.  This might be your best friend, partner, sister, or mother, but it might also be a professional counselor, mentor, or spiritual advisor.
  10. Celebrate yourself and your accomplishments even if/when you have to do it (by/for) yourself.  Don’t miss an opportunity to acknowledge all of what/who you are and where you come from.  Sometimes even small victories are significant and deserve acknowledgment.  Whether you finally completed a long-term project, got over a long-term relationship, or made it through a grueling week, celebrate!
  11. Take care of yourself mentally, physically and spiritually.  This means different things to different people.  For me it means (mentally): that at the end of a semester I do/read something that I don’t have to think/talk/write about (usually Cosmopolitan magazine).  I laugh, a lot.  I also cry.  (physically):  I try to make healthy choices (doesn’t always mean everyday…) I stopped drinking sodas and started juicing, I limit my intake of salt and sugar.  I have good intentions (that I don’t always meet) of getting some exercise in every week.  (spiritually):  I pray, I listen to inspirational music, I call my mama, I do yoga, I meditate on my life.  Figure out how to best take care of yourself.
  12. Kick it, regularly, with your homegirls.  This can be magic.
  13. Let people do things for you.  When someone offers to do something for you, let them!  Oftentimes, I think, we reject offerings of help and care because we are not used to it.  Get used to it!

Please share your strategies for survival and/or the names of black feminists who are gone too soon.  May we honor their lives and legacies by learning from them and about them.

The black feminists I name are Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Claudia Da Silva, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aaronette White, Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, Nellie Y. McKay, Ava Scott, Lelia Gonzalez, Claudia Jones, Toni Cade (Bambara), VèVè Clark, Octavia Butler, Toni Yancey, Gloria E. Anzaldúa…and others.

rboylorn

25 thoughts on “How to Not Die: Some Survival Tips for Black Women Who Are Asked to Do Too Much

  1. Black literary scholars Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, Nellie McKay, I speak your name. Remembering you and too many others, I refuse to “should” all over myself.

  2. Brilliant advice. I would add one more thought: if you do it 3 times, it becomes your job. This works both ways: if there is a chore, obligation, undertaking that you like to do, just volunteer 3x and after that no one will think to ask anyone else. If there’s a chore that nobody wants, don’t be coerced more than 1 or 2 times, no matter how many poeple ask you, no matter how badly it needs to get done, because after that third time, well, no one will think to ask anyone else.

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  4. Learn to turn off the noise. Put your computer down, your phone down and turn off your ringer. Relax with just you and the universe for a while. Do that regularly and note the change in yourself. Be careful to let your music, your words, what you read etc. be positive MOST of the time. Watch the company that you keep, and be willing to walk on to something called better if you need to.

    Take care of YOU.

  5. This was right on time for me as I was JUST having these thoughts this morning. I am a prime example of why you need to learn to say NO and stop and take care of yourself. I’m only 27, but these last few years of playing superwoman has truly burned me out. I have been feeling so flat-lined. I am definitely taking this wisdom to heart. Affirmation.

  6. I would add to this list: Don’t be afraid to take weekends off! And don’t feel guilty for it! I want to name Afro-Brazilian feminist Lelia Gonzalez, who died of a heart attack at age 59 (http://travellingwomanists.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/learning-with-lelia-gonzalez-in-defense-of-the-afro-latin-feminism/) and Trinidadian Communist Claudia Jones, who wrote about intersectionality before it had a name, and who died at 49 of a massive heart attack (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudia_Jones).

  7. Brilliant. Love the ongoing discussion based in black feminist thought. Absolutley integral for a new approach to black women’s personal & spiritual success. I love that you put actual affirmations of “I will not” but we must also place of affirmations for implemetation: “I will …” Keep Rising and writing! <3 Sari

  8. I speak the name of Toni Cade a woman of struggle and strength. This work is magical and transforming.

  9. I sing praises to you, young sis, for getting it sooner than I did.

    Shortly following Nellie McKay’s transition, I met Nell Painter in Germany at a conference in 2006. She was knitting during panel discussions and invited a group of us for dinner and beer. Joy surrounded her. She shared that she decided that she would not allow academia to claim her in the way it had so many of her Black women friends and colleagues. I was so thankful for her shared wisdom and thought that I was mining it.

    This year, following so many unsatisfying ones as an academic, I started having spiked BP levels. I’m a vegetarian, practice yoga and thought I was doing the right things, but I know its the stress triggers in my life that are out of control.

    I’m working it out, (re)claiming health – because too many of us have died (much too young).

    stay healthy. stay in sweet flight! Pb

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  11. When I re-entered academia as as student I also continued therapy and sought the advice of an acupuncturist. I was pre-diabetic and falling apart when I started school and I was just as determined to turn my health around as I was to become a Ph.D. candidate. The acupuncturist has a great “detox” treatment for those days when I slip off the track. The effect is immediate. She also referred me to a naturopath who has saved my life. I am no longer pre-diabetic and healthier now that I’ve been in several years. Of course, none of this is covered by insurance.

  12. AWESOME!!! awesome ! awesome! AWESOME!!! I will forward this to my facebook ,I am so glad I found this site, love you so much !!! , you will be place next to my original copy of ‘CONDITIONS FOUR ‘..the first Black feminist anthology.. I bought it in 1975…Black women are killing themselves looking for love..the terror and destruction can be seen on our bodies!! We have to love ourselves!!NOW~~~!!!!!

  13. Wonderful!!!!! Thank you for your courage and words. I’ve always admired Audre (the) Lorde. And reading this essay i felt her energy…

    I also would add Gloria Anzaldua. A dear friend of Audre Lorde. Who passed away too soon.

    I learned from an elder to remember that NO, is a complete sentence. It gave me so much power and help to create healthy boundaries. Another affirmation I would add is “I am worthy of love and belonging.” Too many times I learned that I would overextend myself because I desired connection from people..I also linked my self-worth too often with what I do and NOT who i am.

  14. Thank you for this piece– it deeply resonates with my life and my family, and these tips are very helpful in navigating my world… So I have one question, and i ask this question with the utmost respect for differences in experience, with the knowledge that I don’t understand everyone’s perspective, and with the desire to further understand — why are these survival tips specifically for black women?

    I am a white woman and I also struggle with balancing my activist/creative work, my financial survival and my physical/spiritual well being. I see my mother in this piece, she always puts her own health and sanity after her many responsibilities– raising children, teaching, working for several community organizations, volunteering in prisons, etc. I worry about her health and I urge her to take time off, but it never seems possible because so many people depend on her. I see my grandmother in this piece– she is in her 70s and still works, because she needs the income to survive and because her business deeply depends on her leadership. She recently fell (at work) and fractured her pelvis, and because we can’t afford to hire a home attendant, my mom and I are sharing the task or caring for her, in addition to our over-stuffed schedules. My cousins, aunties and sisters, are also overworked, over stressed and struggling with their health. We are expected to be strong and always giving to our children, our men and our work before ourselves.

    Your tips mean a lot to me and I have shared this piece with my family. I know that the concept of radical self-care is rooted in black feminism, but it seems to apply to the women in my family too. I think that the wisdom you are sharing is valuable for working women of all colors. Is there something i’m missing here? Is there a race specific element to this that I don’t see?

  15. In response to Sam,
    While I am not the author of this blog post, I wanted to respond to your comment from my perspective. I think it’s great that you read this blog and feel that you can relate to it! However, I also think that because of a dearth of conversations and discussions about/by/for black women, we need a space to write from our perspectives and speak to each other. That’s not to say that nobody else can benefit from it or that it applies exclusively to black women. My question for you is why do you feel so uncomfortable or uneasy with the fact this is directed at black women? As a black woman, I am always confronted with “mainstream” media articles that are geared toward white women…That’s just a part of living in a white dominated society. I also read a recent black women blogger responding to a similar question on her site. Check it out.

    http://blackgirlsguidetoweightloss.com/the-op-eds/blogging-while-black-on-having-an-accidentally-controversial-blog-title/

    • Thanks Erica, this makes a lot of sense. I see that “regular” “normal” or mainstream media is always from/for the white perspective, and I honor the importance of spaces for/by black women.

      I think what makes me uneasy is this:
      I am aware of how whiteness is constantly appropriating and consuming blackness (and brownness). I see so many white folks insisting on universality as a way of denying inequality and demanding access to marginalized experience and culture. Just like Erika says in her article, white people are quick to claim “colorblindness.” To me, this is one of the many ways that white people maintain our entitlement, privilege and cultural dominance.

      And I don’t want to fall into this pattern I see all around me. So when I find myself relating so completely to something that is specifically a non-white experience, I can’t help but wonder– Am I being “colorblind”? Is my ability to relate just a manifestation of my white privilege and entitlement? Am I denying or missing an important difference of experience?

      So I guess my real question is: what is the difference between being “colorblind” and relating/learning in meaningful ways across lines of difference?… This is (of course) not for you to answer for me, but something that I am constantly evaluating within myself. Thank you for your question!

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