The Perils of the Superwoman Persona

by Dr. Mom®

Women today enjoy opportunities their own mothers could only dream of. Yet, instead of feeling “liberated” by the women’s movement, many are burdened with an overwhelming sense of responsibility and suffer from toxic overload. The glamour of expanded role opportunities has become a double-edged sword–effectively removing restrictive gender roles, while increasing expectations for all women. 

The compelling—yet highly unrealistic—expectation that today’s woman must be everything to everyone has been characterized as the Superwoman Myth. Contemporary iconic role models convince women that we can—indeed must–excel in our careers, nurture our intimate relationships, care for our children and our aging parents, be generous toward others, maintain an exciting social life, remain physically fit, appear youthful and attractive, and pursue noble personal goals. To be anything less than the new ideal is a betrayal of promise and equated with failure. The mistaken belief that other women are coolly and capably juggling careers, family responsibilities, social activities, and volunteer commitments leaves the weary rest of us feeling woefully inadequate and outraged.

In a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth, women who make the decision to forego a career and devote themselves to their families often feel devalued. Many strive to become domestic goddesses or take on excessive volunteer commitments to gain an identity outside the home. The impossible expectations created by the Superwoman persona produce physiologic and psychological stress symptoms in many women, whether single or married, employed, or raising children. All too often, the attempt to “have it all” by “doing it all” leads to painful self-recrimination, growing marital tension, strained friendships, chronic sleep deprivation, physical illness, and bouts of sheer despair. We ought not to be surprised at the epidemic of depression and anxiety among American women or at the astonishing volume of mood enhancing drugs prescribed for them.

Yet, we have so normalized activity overload that “busy, busy, busy” has become the all-too-familiar mantra for the new millennium. Perpetual busyness has come to be equated with success, significance, character, and worth. Women dutifully fill their day planners with the multitude of activities required to run their homes and care for their families: with work schedules and deadlines, meetings and appointments, pressing commitments and routine errands. We note our noble intentions and to-do list our mundane activities. We fret over self-improvement efforts and guiltily perform volunteer services. Instead of the enhanced quality of life we imagined, however, our supreme efforts and endless activity are rewarded by unrelenting stress and mounting discontent. We fall into bed too late and too tired, mentally drained, emotionally depleted, physically spent, and often–though we are reluctant to admit it–feeling resentful about giving too much and compromising our own needs.

Countless productive, busy, exhausted women feel bewildered—even betrayed—by the realization that the contentment they so diligently pursue has been stolen by their very efforts to attain it. Rather than bringing fulfillment, the pursuit of perfection in every arena consumes endless energy and leads to profound exhaustion, irritability and resentment. For many women, a lack of self-knowledge and self-acceptance is what makes us chase the Superwoman Myth. In my own early quest for the glamour of “having it all,” I found a special identity in “doing” until I was doing too much, and still failed to find my unique self.

As a “recovering Superwoman,” who knows first-hand the personal perils of being lured by the false promises of the Superwoman siren song, I am deeply committed to helping other beleaguered women escape the bonds of busyness and heal their harried lives.

Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.