Superwoman Under Stress: How to Overcome Over-Responsibility and Guilt

Big Tree in Chalice Well, Glastonbury

I have encountered, through my work, many professionally successful women who struggle with immensely stressful lives.  It seems that they are pulled in so many directions that they’re breaking under the strain of their responsibilities.  They feel trapped in a life of unhappiness where every day is just about making it through the day with what little’s left of their energy reserve.  Having a successful career seems to come at a price, and this is especially true if you’re a woman. 

Whilst a lot of men’s issues can be traced to an unwillingness to grow up and be responsible, many women suffer from feeling overly responsible for those in their lives.  For one thing, women are naturally nurturing.  We have an inbuilt sense of needing to nurture the emotional needs of others.  Men, on the other hand, tend to act on a need to provide materially for their family and friends.  This is one of the ways the genders are wired differently and it is this kind of difference that make men and women complement each other so beautifully in relationships.  But while these different tendencies are our innate gifts that help foster closer relationships with one another, they can cause a great deal of confusion in certain contexts.

Feeling emotionally responsible can be a curse, it can generate guilty feelings.  As I’ve written in previous posts, guilt is a corrosive energy that eats you up from the inside and quickly erodes your sense of worth.

Typically, a woman who holds a highly-demanding job and also has a family to look after can feel overwhelmed by responsibilities that go beyond her duties.  It is not just about juggling a career and family – often, a woman running a business will feel responsible towards her employees who have become like her extended family members, and she feels a level of responsibility for their welfare that exceeds that of an employer’s.  Thus, even when outwardly she is capable of making hard business decisions that affect her employees, the stress that builds up from guilty feelings can accumulate overtime.  For instance, making the decision to terminate the employment of someone is never easy, but for someone who feels guilty about not fulfilling her role as multiple nurturer, her guilt can reach damaging levels.

This stress will tend to spill over to her family life and make her more distant with her family as she struggles with these uncomfortable feelings which are made worse by her sense of failure as chief nurturer for her spouse and children.  Concurrently, she may also feel she has failed as a friend as she judges herself to be doing insufficiently to support her friends or to fulfil her various roles in her social and community circles.

If this sounds a bit like your life, try these suggestions:

#1  Time-Out, Get Away

Find a time away from your environment.  Remove yourself from all sources of guilt, i.e. what triggers you to feel guilty (family, work, etc).  Even if you can only find half a day, it will give you back so much in terms of clarity of thought and energy.  It will also allow you to connect to your true self again, get to know your own needs and give you a chance to nurture your needs for a change.  Bringing back some balance this way will allow you to go back to your environment with a fuller tank and better ability to nurture others.

For this reason, it is imperative to make it a priority to put aside some time for yourself every day.  Asking someone who is caught in a life of over-responsibility and guilt to take time out for herself on a daily basis is often met with resistance, as she is convinced it is impossible to find any free time from her busy schedule.  But it’s essential to find that time or you risk becoming even more unhealthy and unhappy.  Challenge yourself if you think you can’t possibly sacrifice anything from your schedule to create a slot for yourself.  Think of the consequences of burning out if you didn’t do something to correct that imbalance now.

#2  Give Up Being A Control Freak

Those close to you might have joked about you being a control freak.  Even if you tend to laiugh it off, ask yourself honestly if you might be just a bit too attached to your roles.  If so, you are putting in too much effort trying to control outcomes.  Most women are resistant to give up this control because it would make them feel like they’re not being a responsible mother/wife/boss.  But if you’re too controlling as a mother/wife/boss, giving up some of this control will make you a more responsible mother/wife/boss.  This is because when you’re stressed out from the crazy need to control, you will express your frustrations to those around you and end up doing the opposite of nurturing the emotions of those you love.

One of the symptoms of being too controlling is depression.  I believe that depression is caused by excessive giving or efforting.  When we focus all our energy on controlling, our energetic system becomes blocked: there is no flow of creative energy or life-force – and we feel drained, discouraged, uninspired.  In this state, you are useless as a nurturer.  Magic happens when you let go of this illusional control.  It opens up avenues, options, ways out – and you find your power again.

#3  Take Risks, Delegate

In your efforts to control outcomes, you leave no room for mistakes.  Striving for high standards may be a good thing but it can cross the line of being healthy when it becomes an obsession.  A lot of the stresses of a ‘high-powered’ career woman can be alleviated by a willingness to delegate.  Yet she imagines that the consequences of not doing the work herself will add to her burdens.  Nobody can do it better than I can, is a common protestation.  If this is you, let go of perfectionism.  What you deem to be perfect is only one way of looking at things, and giving up your idea of what is perfect will relieve you of so many of the unecessary burdens you’ve chosen to carry.  Accept that mistakes may be made by those to whom you delegate the work.  Allow room for mistakes to be made, knowing that it will correct itself in time.

#4  Create Distance From Your Critical Voice

Take a moment to notice that critical voice in you.  Pay attention to what it’s saying to you:  You’re a bad mother.  You’re a heartless bitch.  You’re not good enough.  You stupid woman.  You’ve done it again, haven’t you!  

This is the voice of your inner critic.  But you have adopted it as your own voice and you are totally convinced about what it is saying to you.  Reclaim your power from your inner critic by acknowledging that you are not your inner critic and it is not you.  It is just a voice that has taken on the messages from certain authorative figures in your life.  Creating a distance from your inner critic and its beratings will allow you to assess yourself in every situation more rationally instead of automatically buying into what it is saying.

As strange as it may sound, your inner critic’s role is to protect you from being hurt.  Quite likely, as a child, you had learnt that certain behaviours brought on painful consequences.  For instance, you learned that after school when you went outside to play instead of doing your homework, your mother would scold you for being lazy and punished you.  To prevent you from being punished again, your inner critic serves to remind you what not to do again, over and over.  Acknowledge its intention but know that it is operating in the wrong context.

#5  Learn To Say No

When you’re feeling like you have a thousand things to do, the only way out is to say no.  Saying no does not mean having a confrontation; you can be firm but polite, and firm does not mean hard or harsh.  Be gentle yet unwavering.  When you state what you want without any guilt or apology, people will likely accept it without drama.

Notice how your inner critic is making it difficult for you to say no.  Again, acknowledge why it is saying what it’s saying, and go ahead and do it anyway.  Notice the screechy and exaggerated tone of its warnings, designed to scare you off.  Refuse to be scared off from your efforts to nurture yourself.  Feel the satisfaction and excitement as you make your own choice, independent of what your critical voice is saying.

#6  Celebrate Your Compassionate Nature

Turn your attention for a moment to acknowledge the part of you that is compassionate.  Sure, if you worry yourself sick over too many people’s welfare, you’re being overly responsible.  But it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is based on a positive quality.  Now strip it down back to its basic quality which is love.  Recognising that there is love at the heart of your problem can motivate you to see yourself in a more positive light.  After years of listening to your inner critic, it’s easy to believe that you’re a highly flawed human being.  It comes from focusing too much on how you’re not delivering, which will actually take you further away from love.  On the other hand, focusing on the aspect of love behind your intention can bring you closer to fulfilling your role as nurturer, to yourself as well as to others.

#7  Learn To Nurture Yourself

It is interesting how women are natural nurturers but often we don’t know how to nurture ourselves.  There’s an almost self-sacrificing nature in us.  It is imperative that you learn to nurture yourself or else you’ll be driven to manipulate others to get their love and approval.  Nobody but you can give you what you need.  When you learn to nurture your own needs, you keep your relationships clean without acting out any unfinished business you may have with your parents in the context of your current relationships.  Look at your unmet needs and think about how you can provide for yourself emotionally.

Bear in mind that self-nurturance is an attitude rather than a list of things to do.  How might you change the way you relate to yourself?  Could you see yourself through a different lens, or modify the way you think about yourself?  Turn that compassion towards yourself and forgive yourself for the little things you beat yourself about.

#8  Strengthen Your Sense of Self

When you have a strong sense of yourself, you’re less likely to burn out from the demands of your roles.  It’s valuable to spend some time to get clear about who you are, beyond your roles as mother, wife, boss.  These roles have shaped your identity and you have adopted this identity as your immediate reference of who you are.  Yet who you are goes deeper than your ability to fulfil these roles.  What inspires you?  What drives you to become more than who you are being now?

Pay attention to your emotions; they give you clues about your inner self.  Notice and acknowledge what is going on in your emotional world.  Explore your inner world – the dark and the light in you, the weak and the strong, the good and bad.  Observe the spectrum of emotions in you and what motivates you.  What makes you special?  Who are you, without your identity?

#9  What Are Your Hiding?

Work, business, and your sense of responsibility for others, may be an escape – a way for you to mask unprocessed emotions.  Ask yourself what you might be afraid to face if you took away your identity as the boss or whatever your job title is, the reliable friend, the supportive wife, etc.  In other words, you may be creating dramas to distract you from your inner turmoils.  These dramas, including the generated anxiety, may act as your drug and you are addicted to it (see my next post on this subject).

Working on your personal issues will give you back some control and sanity when you realise that a bulk of your stresses are unconsciously created by you yourself.  You can then make an empowered choice to let go of this pattern and create a calmer, more fulfilling lifestyle.

I wrote this article not to highlight the weaknesses of the female gender or to diminish the sense of nurturance in women.  Rather, it’s to show you a more empowered way to embrace the beauty of being a woman in the context of operating in the business world where our sense of responsibility can sometimes be overdriven and cause us problems.  When you turn that nurturing quality towards yourself, your perception of how much work there is outside of you will change.  That old adage, “You need to be selfish in order to be selfless,” is never truer.  You need to take care of yourself first before you can take good care of others.     

Superwoman Under Stress: How to Overcome Over-Responsibility and Guilt with Amyra Mah


unusual wisdom by amyra mah

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. farouk

    i needed point number 2
    sometimes i become obsessed about being in control
    thanks for the tips 🙂

  2. Amyra

    Hi Farouk,

    Glad you found it useful 🙂

    What I’ve learnt is, like nature, we have a self-balancing mechanism operating in us: when we become obsessed about being in control, we’re likely to encounter a situation whereby we experience not being in control. In other words, the more we strive to be in control, the less in control we’ll feel.

    On the other hand, when we strive less to be in control, we give ourselves the space to experience the beauty of surrender. In that space, we realise that the insecurity we’d felt, which drove us to strive for control, was an illusion. This is how we liberate ourselves from the grips of false power, which is what control is.

    Many Blessings,

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