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SuperPerson Syndrome

“Give me your description of someone enmeshed in the SuperWoman Syndrome!”

“All right,” I said in response to the demanding voice at the other end of the wire, “a person who’s trying to do everything and do it all well.” Pause.

“You said person but I said woman,” the voice continued.

“We’re talking human beings here, not just females,” I countered. “Consequently I much prefer the more inclusive term of superperson.”

“But authors who have addressed the subject wrote of women,” the voice insisted.

“How many copies do you think a publishing company would sell,” I retorted, “if it released a book entitled The Superman Syndrome or The Hurried Man Syndrome? Please!”

We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing this topic, which has at times been at the leading edge of national talk shows and at others shoved under the proverbial rug. I’m not sure the caller ever made the internal leap to SuperPerson but our conversation remained in my thoughts for several days.

The topic itself was hauled out of the closet a couple of decades ago by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz. Her book The Superwoman Syndrome (for women trying to do it all—how to decide what’s important in your life and do it well), made headlines and increased awareness of the high cost to one’s life of this syndrome. It gave people enmeshed in the syndrome a label for their exhaustion but whether they used it as an impetus to take personal control of their run-away lives is open to debate.

The author described a range of symptoms that too frequently were experienced by woman who attempted to perform multiple and conflicting roles perfectly (e.g., wife, mother, volunteer, paid worker, homemaker) with all the attendant ramifications. They mentioned physical symptoms such as headache, body pains, and exhaustion; psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, sadness, and anger; and interpersonal symptoms including irritability, increased intolerance for noise, difficulty with projects that require thinking or writing, and conflicts with co-workers. Not a pretty picture!

Back then the nomenclature was relatively new (the term Superwoman Syndrome having been coined in the seventies). The experience it described wasn’t, however, as evidenced by an epitaph found in an English churchyard about 1860:

Here lies a poor woman, who always was tired,
For she lived in a place where help wasn’t hired.
Her last words on earth were “Dear friends I am going
Where washing ain’t done, nor sweeping nor sewing,
And everything there is exact to my wishes…

Four years after The Superwoman Syndrome was published, Marian Thomas challenged females to rise above the “I must do it all” mentality in her book Balancing Career & Family. And a decade after that Brent Bost added his own twist under the title of The Hurried Woman Syndrome. “Women don’t believe me at first when I tell them how important it is to simplify,” he wrote.

Freudenberger and North, in their book Women’s Burnout, added to the body of information by defining burnout as a wearing down and wearing out of energy; an exhaustion born of excessive demands that may be self-imposed or externally imposed by families, jobs, friends, lovers, value systems, or society; demands that deplete one’s energy, coping mechanisms, and internal resources; a feeling state which is accompanied by an overload of stress, and which eventually impacts on one’s motivation, attitudes, and behavior.

Meet Lois

Lois is 39, a wife, mother, and nurse. For the past 20 years she has worked full-time at the local hospital (except for a few weeks off after the twins were born) to supplement the family income. In addition, she keeps the books for her husband’s small business, is Assistant Treasurer for the local church, and volunteers one evening a week for the Crisis Hotline. Usually she is the last to bed (after lunches and housework have been finished, of course) and the first one up in the morning to get breakfast and take her son to Driver’s Ed at 6:30AM. (He could ride his bicycle but she feels guilty if she doesn’t drive him.) When asked about her personal goals, Lois replies, “Goals? You must be joking! To survive, of course! By the time the children are grown, I’ll be too old and too tired to think about doing any of the things I’ve always wanted to do.” Recently Lois has begun to suffer from migraine headaches and bouts of depression. The depression worries her because it seems to be a contradiction of her faith to be so fatigued and discouraged.

Due to expectations placed on them by family, school, society, culture, and religion, females (like Lois) may be more easily trapped in the imbalance that this syndrome describes—but they haven’t cornered the market. Not by a long shot!

Meet Ted

Ted is 47 and the father of four teenagers. As agreed during their courtship his wife is a full-time homemaker. Regardless, Ted is determined to give his children all the things he missed out on as a child. To accomplish this he works 50-60 hours a week to pay for music lessons, private school, ski equipment, summer camp, motor home, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In addition, he is head Deacon for their small church, the youth leader, teaches a Bible-study class and is generally applauded for doing the Lord’s work. Within the past few months he has become irritable, short tempered, and is afraid he might be developing a stomach ulcer. He wonders why the zest seems to have gone out of his frenetic and workaholic life. When he does take a vacation Ted is often restless, sleepy, and irritable. “Vacations don’t work for me,” he told a friend. “I don’t feel good when I take them.” Of course he doesn’t! There isn’t enough deadline-driven adrenaline to keep him going and the vacation doesn’t last long enough for his brain and body to recover, just long enough for him to realize how awful he really feels. As a consequence, the quality time with the people who are dearest to him in the world (or who were intended to be) falls flat.

Ted is all male but he, too, has been snared in the SuperPerson Syndrome. Ted, Lois, and countless others are existing in quiet (or not so quiet) desperation as they try to do it all and do it all well! In consequence many of them turn to any number of substances (e.g., caffeine, food, alcohol, other drugs) or other addictive processes to summon up that extra bit of energy. Eventually they fall exhausted into bed for a few hours of restless sleep so they can get up and do it all over again. Sooner or later their reserves of vital energy are exhausted and illness may result.

Human beings usually know when life isn’t working as well as it could for them. And they often sense, at least at some level, that they need to take steps toward healthier living, but they grapple with successful accomplishment for a variety of reasons. Here are examples of some contributors.

Expectations. Living in balance can be derailed by inappropriate or unachievable expectations–our own as well as those of others. There are always at least two standards that create conflict for human beings: the way they were brought up (what is expected of them) and the reality of life (who they are innately as individuals). Cultural expectations, that define everything from appearance to occupation, contribute to the struggles many have in developing healthy patterns of living. Confusion on how to handle exhaustion (both from extensive responsibilities and the resulting conflict) can lead to burnout.

Self-esteem Issues. Living in balance can be more problematic for those who struggle with issues of self-esteem, notably only and eldest children, and those who are eldest of gender. Tongue-in-cheek I joke that this is because our parents practiced on us. That we had to do everything well and be quick about it, in order to be what they needed us to be for them to be viewed as good parents. Once that habit pattern was established in childhood, many carried it with them into adulthood.

Difficulty in saying “no.” Some individuals associate saying “no” with being a bad person. It may be connected to self-esteem issues, too, as in people won’t like me unless I say yes. There may be some brain-function overtones here, as well. Some researchers think that the left hemisphere of the cerebrum, where, for the majority of us, speech sounds are produced and heard, has an easier time with the word “no” than the right hemisphere. Thus, individuals who prefer to use the right hemisphere may have more difficulty saying no. And when they do so they may experience higher levels of discomfort, especially if saying no results in controversy or confrontation (e.g., there may be 10-100 times more connectors between the right hemisphere and emotional processing centers).

Mislabeling motives or behaviors. We can temporarily try to fool” ourselves through the words we use. Denial, minimizing, mislabeling, and pretending often play into typical but responses: but it’s for a good cause, or but it’s the Lord’s work, or, but if I don’t do it who will, or but they expect me to do it. (I’ll bet they do since we play a big role in teaching others what to expect from us and how to treat us!) Fortunately, there is a better way to orchestrate our lives.

Religious contributions. As a preacher’s kid (my father was a minister in a neo-evangelical denomination), I saw the impact of spoken and unspoken demands on the clergy as well as the membership, to say nothing of our own family. It was years before I realized that in many Christian churches the egalitarian (promoting equality) androgynous (exhibiting a spectrum of traits stereotypically assigned to only one gender) model regularly took time to fill His own cup. I imagine there were many who thought it rather selfish when Christ reportedly got into a boat and left with his friends for a few days of R & R, leaving crowds of people who wanted and needed help. That picture of balance seems to be glossed over in many churches, if not outright ignored!

In addition, some established religions have emphasized an ethic that can put the devout female at highest risk of all for this syndrome. Some churches emphasize God first, others second, and yourself last. Then continue with it is more blessed to give than to receive; add a mind-boggling description of a virtuous woman as outlined in the 31st chapter of the Book of Proverbs (Bible), and intimate that one can never do too much for God. It is no wonder that affiliated women can become so busy taking care of everyone and everything that they neglect their own personal and spiritual growth.

Misunderstanding of the concept of “perfection.” Some individuals routinely confuse the spiritual ethic of perfection with the temporal trap of perfectionism. That is, they aspired to do everything perfectly —all the time. We can expend tremendous amounts of needless energy trying to perform every activity perfectly or flawlessly. It is important to evaluate outcome realistically. People often continue routines and traditions or cling to unreasonable standards of achievement generation after generation —even when these may no longer represent the best use of time and energy. Ask yourself: “Who is setting my standards for me?” “Is there a more energy-effective way to do this?” “How much time do I want to devote to this task in comparison to other things I want to accomplish?”

Gender Socialization Differences. A powerful force behind the development of this syndrome in females is the difference in the way boys and girls are raised in our society. Females are often programmed to direct their time, energy, and attention toward others, especially toward husbands and children, regardless of the impact on their own lives. Unlike some males who often set definite priorities for themselves, many females typically add roles and responsibilities without changing or deleting any of the others. They try to prove themselves in all spheres simultaneously. Women who combine homemaking duties with a career (especially if they have trouble realistically fusing these multiple functions) and those in the helping professions are at even higher risk. This means that females may find it a bit more challenging to respond to requests for service with, “I can do that–and in order to do so, this and this will need to go on the back burner.” Indeed, some studies indicate that females take care of over 80% of all household chores. If a single female parent heads the household, the percentage may rise.

Meet Jeni

After fifteen years of marriage, Jeni filed for divorce. After some bitter haggling with her infrequently employed husband, she was left with custody of their three children (ages 7 to 13) but no alimony and irregular child support at best. Jeni perceives that her church was unsupportive because, in her words, “My husband was only beating on me —not cheating on me.” Finances are very tight, as her secretarial position does not pay a high salary. Moreover, Jeni is expected to send her children to parochial school to the tune of several hundred dollars each month for tuition and uniforms. Many evenings after she has helped the children with homework and put them to bed, Jeni stays up to sew and mend clothes, make lunches for the next day, finish the housework, and prepare for teaching the lesson at her local church. Most weeks she drives thirty miles round-trip to help her aging parents with their grocery shopping. Lately she has developed symptoms of ulcerative colitis and is losing weight. When the doctor told her to, “Slow down,” she replied, “How can I?”

It is worth noting that for many women in our culture, providing care to others on a regular basis is an expected duty; for men, it is an unexpected expression of compassion (even though there are men who have been very effective caregivers). Because of this expectation, growing old for a female is often very different from the way it is for a male. Contrary to myths, only about 5% percent of the elderly live in nursing homes; families care for most of the others and in three-fourths of the cases, the caregiver is a woman. When you add up society’s assignment to the female gender for taking care of husbands, homes, children, and the elderly, it is no wonder that many women live their entire lives feeling like no one (themselves or anyone else) has ever really taken care of them.

Meet Angela

Angela grew up in a very poor family but now lives in a rather affluent community. Her husband, a blue-collar worker, has a more realistic approach to material things. Because of her low self-image, however, Angela frequently works double shifts as a LVN in order to provide her three daughters with a much higher standard of living than she had as a child. Because she is gone from home so much, the girls are developing some undesirable habits including watching television instead of doing chores, talking on the telephone instead of doing homework. Angela hates to nag them so she works even harder when she gets home. The woman is chronically tired, has little energy for effective communication with the rest of the family, and cannot understand why everything seems to be falling apart when she is working so desperately hard to achieve the “perfect family.”

Angela is confused about the difference between caring and caretaking. Caretaking involves doing for other people what they are capable of doing for themselves. It not only wears out the caretaker and causes fatigue, resentment, and personal burnout, it can also deprive others of the chance to take responsibility for their own personal growth and actually prevent them from developing, and from learning how to take healthy risks. Self-neglect does not help anyone in the long run because an empty cup has nothing of value to give away. Caring, on the other hand, involves a healthy, balanced nurturing of self as well as others, with a goal of supporting everyone to become as actualized (real) and differentiated (reaching our individual potential) as possible.

I met Angela by snail mail. The postman delivered her letter about noon. It read in part, “I am grateful to have read your article about the Superwoman Syndrome. At last, after going to many doctors for over ten years, I have a diagnosis. Now I need a cure! But my life is full of good things. What can I do?” Her letter, like others, was full of pain, frustration, fatigue, and discouragement. This is a very real problem and people enmeshed in its trap often do not have the foggiest idea of how to extricate themselves.

Strategies to Consider

Everyone’s brain is unique, as unique as his/her thumbprint. And everyone’s experience is unique. Consequently, each recovery story will be unique. However there are some strategies that can serve as a basis for an individualized recovery program.

Decide to live a balanced life. Information itself does not necessarily become an impetus for change. We must act upon the new knowledge and decide to implement a balanced life style of functional caring —for the self as well as for others. Balance means keeping everything in a state of proportion, adjusting as necessary. If a person always gives and rarely receives, his/her cup may be quite empty, containing nothing of value to nurture the self or to give away. Learn to carefully evaluate every request made of you for your time, money, or energy. Every request does not have to be fulfilled simply because someone wants your help. Once you have agreed to grant a request, decide how much time, money, energy, and level of perfection you are going to apply to the project.

Give up care-taking! Once the chores are divided up and family members understand their individual responsibilities, avoid gradually picking up the tasks of others simply because they are not following through. Allow natural consequences to occur. If chores are not finished, perhaps some family or personal activities will not occur either. Be realistic. It is so easy to assess the environment in terms of another’s standards or to continue routines generation after generation that may not represent your best use of time. If family members want fringe benefits that cost more than the budget allows, let them be creative about cutting down in other areas and/or earning the necessary funds for the projects. Parents (women especially) often feel guilty if they don’t provide for all of their children’s wants. Rather, what adults need to provide most is role modeling for balanced living —a rare and precious gift.

Bring your standard of living into line with your available resources. Be ruthless about reducing your standard of living to a manageable level that matches your energy levels and time prioritization (forget trying to keep with or one-up the Jones’s). List the routine tasks that must be done, divide them according to individual aptitude and interest (whenever possible) and insist that everyone carry his/her own weight (e.g., even small children can learn to pick up after themselves, set the table, help prepare meals, assist with lunches).

Learn to prioritize. The word prioritize means to arrange items in a certain order of importance, a skill than can help us to avoid getting sidetracked with multitudinous responsibilities. Obviously, everything in our lives cannot be assigned equal importance, equal time commitment, and equal energy expenditure. Even good and desirable activities! Many people have a great deal of difficulty prioritizing and eliminating activities because they’re all good things. Begin by assessing your relationships. Try this order of priority: Higher Power, spouse/partner, children, employment, friends. People who are living lives of exhaustion often have this list reversed. I know several families who work together to keep their relationships in a healthy order. They trade baby-sitting one evening a week and one weekend day each month so that the adults can spend one-to-one time with spouses/partners.

Live at high-level wellness. This means much more than the absence of illness. It means a commitment to nurture yourself, eat nutritious meals, get regular exercise, allow sufficient time for sleep, and include humor and relaxation in your daily program. Taking a picnic to the woods or spending an afternoon at the park, ocean, or zoo are inexpensive mini-vacations that can offer incalculable dividends. A five-minute catnap can do wonders to rejuvenate the nervous system. Stress can suppress the body’s Immune System and lower a person’s resistance to illness. Some of the physical symptoms that often accompany chronic stress (e.g. headaches, recurring colds, backaches, irritability, bowel problems, insomnia, ulcers, depression) can resolve as a person begins to develop a balanced, nurturing lifestyle.

Eliminate nonessentials. Ask yourself questions such as: “If I could accomplish only three things, what would they be?” “If I had only one month to live, how would I spend my time?” It can be difficult to be objective—especially when everything on the list consists of good activities. Often a trusted friend can assist us in being more objective. Evaluate your friendships. You may need to gradually weed out those that drain your energy. Allocate time for personal growth. As authors Sally and Jim Conway point out in their book, Women in Mid-Life Crisis, we each have specific gifts and talents that need to be identified, honed, and utilized. We each have an identity that is rooted in who we are as individuals. This identity is bigger than our routine activities of serving others. We are often very skilled at helping others to develop their talents and rather negligent about setting aside time to work on our own personal growth.

Will implementing these strategies cure an individual of the SuperPerson Syndrome? No more than a recovering alcoholic is ever considered cured. Can they help a person to live in a state of recovery? Yes! One woman I know refers to herself as a RSP—recovering superperson. The idea is simple; the implementation can be difficult. Recovery is hard work and it takes time. Maintaining balance is a lifetime process. It is possible, however. Each of us has available only a limited amount of time and energy. How we use that time and energy impacts our relationships, our health, our overall success in life, and even our longevity. Each individual must take responsibility for personal choice. The good news is that with increased awareness, information, insight, and consistent practical application, we can learn to make healthier choices on a consistent basis.

Beware!

The SuperPerson Syndrome can affect males as well as females, singles and marrieds, white-collar and blue-collar workers, and children as well as adults! Do you need to take another look at your life in terms of the SuperPerson Syndrome? I do, ongoing. It is so easy to get caught up in doing good, in picking up the slack for others, in meeting a variety of expectations. And, in the process, skimp on rest, play (yes, I said play–a difficult concept for some), exercise, meditation, proper nutrition, activities with friends, desirable hobbies, you name it.

Female or male, boy or girl, man or woman, our brains work best in the context of a balanced high-level-wellness lifestyle. If we aim to be truly productive, role model effectively to upcoming generations, and leave this planet a better place than we found it, our service will be characterized by balance. In the process we can live healthier, happier, more authentic lives, and perhaps even live longer than we otherwise would have, had we continued to burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. Yes, it’s worth taking another look!

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About Arlene Taylor PhD

Arlene Taylor PhD

is a Licensed brain-function specialist, Licensed Clinical Christian Counselor, health educator and author.

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