Overcoming the superwoman syndrome

Get off the out-of-control roller coaster

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:21 pm

In my last few columns, I have written about a variety of issues confronting women in the workplace, emphasizing the need for organizations to explicitly build and deploy mentoring programs for women. Women are forecast to comprise the majority of new entrants to our workforce over the next half-decade. Cast in the context of some of Wisconsin’s “brutal realities” (we are an aging workforce, a slow jobs growth state and a “brain drain” state – young women earn their degrees here and take jobs elsewhere), the time is now for organizations to focus on acquiring, retaining and developing talented women; doing so is likely to be a strategic advantage for organizations that vigorously pursue these practices.

strategies-super-woman-leader-shutterstock_356438717In this column, I will explore the topic of the “superwoman syndrome:” what it is and what women can do to overcome it.

For readers who are not familiar with the term, a “superwoman” is a woman who works very, very hard to manage multiple roles, such as worker, homemaker, volunteer, student, neighbor, community member, etc. The term was the title of a 1975 book by Shirley Conran.

In her book, “Overcoming the Superwoman Syndrome,” Madeline Lewis observed that “superwomen” are perpetual motion machines, always on the go and always over-committed and over-extended. Lewis noted that such women share certain behavioral characteristics, such as: (1) striving for perfection, (2) possessing low self-esteem, (3) having a strong need for accomplishment, (4) difficulty saying “no” to others, (5) wanting to feel like they can do it all, (6) attention-seeking, and (7) a tendency to be “people pleasers.”

Eventually, of course, superwomen wear themselves down physically, mentally and emotionally. They simply burn out over time.  It is impossible to maintain the pace at which they lead their lives.

Often, superwomen are unhappy with the extent to which they are overextended, but feel powerless to do anything about it. It is as if they are riding a rollercoaster that is speeding out of control, but they do not know how to get off the ride.

What can women who are struggling with the superwoman syndrome do to regain control of their lives? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Take a time out
    It helps to build break time into one’s day. It is usually the case that what is on our schedules is what we wind up doing. So, put some free time onto your busy calendar and hold yourself to using it!
  • Make a sacrifice
    If your plate is filled to overflowing, then get something off of it. Offload an activity (or several) that is no longer rewarding, fulfilling or life-enhancing.
  • Let go of perfectionism
    Next time you carry out a task, tell yourself that you are going to give an 80 percent effort. Do your best to avoid offering over-the-top contribution. Then, see if anyone notices that you “went through the motions.” My bet is no one will notice because a superwoman’s 80 percent effort is most everybody else’s 110 percent effort!
  • Ask for help
    Here is the brutal reality of things: You cannot do everything by yourself. While your way of doing things ensures your standards of merit are met, by “flying solo” you wind up toiling away with no end in sight. Take a cue from your favorite superhero and get yourself a sidekick, somebody with whom you can share your commitments and burdens.
  • Relax
    This is an obvious one, right? Maybe it is, but the go, go, go superwoman has a hard time putting it into practice. Daily meditation, mindfulness practices, spiritual pursuits, deep muscle relaxation, etc. are proven stress busters, so investigate a technique that fits your makeup and put into daily practice. Do that today.
  • Develop a support system
    Superwomen often suffer in silence because they are fearful or embarrassed to share their burdened lives with another person. Like any other issue in life, we benefit from the perspectives and insights of others, especially those who know us and care about us. That is the role of family and friends. Share your frustrations with someone you trust. That person will be happy to lend a listening ear.
  • Develop assertiveness
    Nancy Reagan’s infamous tag line for her anti-drug program in the 1980s was, “Just say no.” Being assertive means taking better care of you. Your life does not have to be a pattern of solely giving, giving and giving. What are you getting along the way? You have a right to be happy and pursue activities and interests you enjoy. Be good to yourself.

Readers who are interested in learning about the superwoman syndrome are encouraged to join me at a seminar I will be leading with my colleague Krista Morrissey on Oct. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at Ottawa University’s Brookfield campus. For more information or to register, interested parties may call (262) 879-0200.

-Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D. is president and CEO of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.od-consultants.com). He can be reached at (888) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com.

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Dr. Daniel A. Schroeder is President/CEO of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC). ODC serves regional and national clients from its offices in suburban Milwaukee. Additionally, he teaches in the Organizational Behavior and Leadership (bachelor’s) and Organization Development (master’s) programs at Edgewood College (Madison, WI), programs that he founded and for which he served as Program Director.

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