Stop Dismissing Fear of Failure in High Achieving Black Women

My mother raised me not to say anything if I’m not sure what to say. She also taught me to never dismiss the feelings of people around me, even if I do not understand them… And yet, as a high-achieving Black woman (as described by others, this isn’t a narcissism thing), I find myself time and time again hearing things from people when shutting up and being empathetic are better solutions.

Over the last few months, I’ve been stressed: I’ve been to more funerals and loss more people than I want to admit; mourned and buried a broken engagement; faced rejection of things I didn’t want to begin with after being forced encouraged to apply for them; dealt with a comps debacle; and, stressed myself beyond belief to build a CV that can only be stopped by white supremacy and institutional oppression.

Though I am now officially a doctoral candidate and the stress of comps is behind me, I’m relieved but only to a degree. The reality is, I’ve merely made it over a hump but not the hump… I have no idea what my ultimate hump will be but grad school is just one of many things I’m trying to juggle right now. As I look out at my life’s trajectory there are so many markers and milestones I must meet to hold the title and job I endeavor to have (Professor of X). So alas, my life is a never-ending cycle of continuous deadlines and expected accomplishments—a conundrum that most people would and should run away from.

But this is what I love… And I’m not the only sista feeling this. I can’t be.

People always say take care of yourself but when that care means having someone to listen to you and feeling supported, I feel as a high-achieving Black woman that such a thing is nearly out of the question.  I have shed a lot of tears. I have released a lot of frustration. I have found myself trying to reach out for help and find support in people around me… only to be dismissed. I asked a few girlfriends, people I consider to be rockstars and they, too, have reported feeling the same. For instance, In the last few months, I have heard all of the following (and these are just a select few examples):

“I’ve never seen you get a task and not complete it”

“Oh, you’ll get a job at Harvard”

“Might not look good right now, but it always works itself out…”

“You never haven’t landed on your feet”

“You’ll catch up”

“You’ll get it done”

Sure. Fine. Okay.

Constantly hearing you’ll be okay or you always overcome things is not only dismissive but downright frustrating. I do believe that things tend to have a way of working themselves out, but right now and especially in those low moments, I find myself wondering if the people who send me these messages see my humanity. Do they see my health? Do they see the balancing acts I employ to minimize avoid mental health strain? Do they know that until last week I hadn’t slept more than 4 hours per night on the regular since July and that sleep deprivation has both long and short-term implications? Do they care that Black women, like myself, who are often positioned as heroines and rockstars need love and support too?

Do they see, ME? Do they see us?

Why yes, we will find a way to rise to the occasion, ask for extensions, or in an extreme case walk away… But the million dollar question is this: Are high-achieving Black women being seen for more than the work we produce? Are we valuable to people around us beyond the ways we are of service to them? Do they view us as a person–someone fully, wholly, and unequivocally deserving of love, respect, attention, and care? A lot of this has been about my experience, but this raises a larger question:

Are there other Black women feeling this too? Other Black women rising to the occasion, making things happen and sacrificing self for others only to get back advice that “it’ll be okay.” 

My friends can attest to the fact that I routinely offer solution-oriented advice and support, often appear to make the impossible happen, and have even been referred to as a superwoman—but none of this is without faults. When I need my cup filled, when Black women, in general, need our cups filled, it can be silencing to hear “you’ll be okay”. This leads me to often question if empathy and support are for those among us who consistently fail… That for some it doesn’t make sense to stop and even try to realize how important something is to a high achieving and/or high performing Black woman because our production and achievement have become akin to a machine.  

There is already documented evidence that we treat Black women like crap as a culture and society, but I would argue when that Black woman is someone we’ve come to see greatness within, it is compounded by minimizing struggle and dismissing pain.

If you’re reading this and feeling guilty, good. You probably should. If this doesn’t sound like you, great—keep doing what you’re doing. If you have no idea, check in with the high-performing and achieving Black women you call friends to make sure you’re not exhausting them—as Black women we can do this to each other, too!

So, what can you say Here goes that solutions thing again…:

  1. Nothing—just listen.
  2. How can I support you and help you?
  3. What are some ways we can prioritize everything on your plate?
  4. I’m sorry, this really sucks and I wish X was going the way you wanted…
  5.         <– That, better known as nothing.
  6. Admit you’re not sure what to say.

I write all of this to say sometimes we, the high-achieving/ high performing Black women’s delegation, don’t need to be reminded of our track record. Instead, we need to be reminded that this feeling of exhaustion, frustration, or whatever, no matter how painful in the moment is fleeting rather than permanent. Sometimes we need to be reminded it’s okay to just feel it, and that someone else will be there to feel it with us, too.

So be a good friend—stop saying foolishness!

*This post was updated to reflect changes submitted by the author.*

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