The ‘Strong Black Woman’ narrative is one I’m sure you all know off by heart. We live under the false notion that we Black women are able to handle whatever life throws at us because we are more emotionally robust, self sufficient, self sacrificing and apparently possess an inhuman ability to handle pain. In fact, not only does the SBW narrative suggest that Black women do not need to be taken care of, we also get the extra duty of being the care takers to everyone else, continually making us un-celebrated superheroes throughout history.
Studies have shown that the SBW stigma has a negative impact on outcomes in both the mental and physical health of Black women and it’s also been suggested that it’s one of the reasons that Black women are more likely to remain single.
Until quite recently I myself was very much bought into the ‘traditional’ idea of the SBW and was very proud to believe that I was a superhero who didn’t need anyone else. As you may be able to tell I now realise that this long-held belief I had can be very damaging and definitely impacts our ability to feel and express vulnerability. Coupled with the fact I’m a certified Avoidant (in case you missed it you can read my post on Attachment Styles here) I have always really struggled with expressing vulnerability and have lately come to realise the importance it plays in forming romantic connections.
So to all my avoidant and/or strong superhero sisters this one’s for you!
In the traditionally misogynistic society most of us have been brought up in, showing emotional vulnerability has long been viewed as something that’s negative. We’ve internalised that to show vulnerability or emotion is to show weakness, the phrase (and similar variants) ‘don’t let them see you cry’ is used so often, no wonder many of us can struggle to feel safe expressing some of our deeper emotions.
In an attempt to protect ourselves from hurt there are those of us who don’t feel as though we can share our deepest fears and insecurities or expose our innermost thoughts in case it causes others to run screaming for the hills. And for Black women who’ve been weaned on a diet of ‘Be strong. Be independent. Be invincible.’ it can be even tougher to believe we’re allowed to expose our inner softness, especially when we feel the pressure to don armour to protect ourselves from the everyday misogynoir microaggressions we’re continually subjected to.
Why Vulnerability is actually a strength…
In an effort to practice what I preach I want to share that I’ve recently started seeing a counsellor and one of the major breakthroughs I’ve had is realising my core wounds massively hinder my ability to be vulnerable. Due to a combination of fear and (loathe as I am to admit it) sexist societal views being so deeply ingrained in my psyche, I too saw vulnerability and emotional expression as a weakness.
My counsellor recommended that I give Brene Brown’s TedTalk – The Power of Vulnerability a watch and it genuinely changed my whole perspective.
She says to be vulnerable is to be your most authentic self and that those who are able to be vulnerable, have a strong sense of love and self worthiness. In addition to this showing vulnerability means you are at your most courageous and compassionate and that the prize for allowing our selves to be seen wholly without fear, while not trying to control the outcome will award us the grand prize of forging the deepest connections.
As human beings we’re made to connect with others, we’ve always been part of tribes, families, groups, friendships and romantic relationships and we thrive when we’re with others. However trying to shield ourselves from vulnerability and hurt also has the double edged sword effect of shielding ourselves from the positives that being vulnerable brings such as experiencing connection, intimacy and true acceptance.
Being vulnerable is incredibly scary and while it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get hurt it does guarantee that you aren’t closing yourself off to experiencing true love. So here are some ways to consider being more vulnerable:
To be vulnerable is to be strong
Firstly we need to re-frame the way we interpret vulnerability and realise it takes immense courage, self care and strength of character to be our authentic selves. Being vulnerable, no matter how nerve-wracking it may be also takes self confidence and self acceptance. We need to view being vulnerable as a healthy and necessary aspect of making connections with other humans and the more open we can be the more we can encourage others to do the same as it will be easier for others to relate to us.
Let go of the need for control
We fear being vulnerable because we are scared that if someone sees the real us and does not approve they’ll reject us. So we try to control how others view us by showing them the parts of us we like and hiding the parts we don’t. But the harsh truth is we can’t control how others see us or what they’ll do and although we may not show others our worst parts that doesn’t mean we won’t be rejected. Equally if we meet people who see the parts of ourselves that we consider to be ugly and they stick around anyway there’s no greater acceptance than that.
Learn to accept uncertainty
The only certainty is uncertainty, we can never predict what other people will do. You can do everything ‘perfectly’ and there are those who will leave, you can do everything in the most dysfunctional way and others will love you all the more because of your flaws. We live in a world built on convenience where everything we want comes to us at the touch of a screen, so we don’t do well with sitting in uncertainty. But often through discomfort is where we gain the most insight which leads to the most self-growth (I’m learning this the hard way through counselling).
Focus on your self worth
Brene Brown found that those who believed they were worthy of love and belonging were the ones who found it easier to express vulnerability and had less issue with expressing their innermost desires and needs. When we don’t feel worthy we express this by erecting barriers and possibly self sabotaging. Worries about not being ‘worthy’ to receive what we want also holds us back from asking for what we want and need. Being able to increase our self worth/esteem helps us to express vulnerability, set healthy boundaries and accept the right kind of love when it’s offered to us.
As important as it is to show up more vulnerably in our interactions it doesn’t mean that you need to tell all of your business to everyone you meet either. Vulnerable sharing is a privilege not a right and those we meet need to earn access. We can start off with small vulnerabilities like sharing our interests and the things we’re passionate about and for those that reciprocate and stick around and prove their worthiness, we can work our way up to sharing our deepest darkest thoughts and memories once we feel ready to deepen the relationship.
Be brave and breathe…
As I’ve said it can be really difficult to share ourselves with others but sometimes you just need to breathe through it as the best thing you can do is express yourself honestly (and respectfully). Once we can learn to express our deepest vulnerable selves without being sure of the outcome but being brave enough to do it anyway is when you can truly live in a place of courage and authenticity.
So I’d like to re-frame the notion of the Strong Black Woman as one who shows up vulnerably, admits when she needs others, realises putting herself first is self love and openly expresses when she is hurt.
And I’d like to leave you with a final thought from Brene Brown
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.”
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