It’s not surprising that women who take on too much often refuse others’ offers to ease their burden—but their reasons why might be.
The big piece of chicken went to the breadwinner of the house: her husband, Charles. Estelle, my spiritual teacher made that point clear as family and church members piled into the kitchen for Sunday dinner. She hustled about the stove, serving spoonfuls of her culinary labor. She routinely wiped messy spills from the countertops. For several hours, she stood on her feet and barely sat down to eat. By night’s end, her own half-eaten meal was scraped into the trashcan with most of the day’s waste. Her swift pace slowed. Her shoulders were weighted down by fatigue as she hunched over a kitchen sink filled with pots and pans. I offered to clean the dishes to which she politely declined. When I grabbed the broom to sweep the floor, she swiped it from my grasp and shooed me along with a lazy wrist. I asked Estelle why she refused my help.
“She thinks she’s an ARMY all to herself—let her be all she can be, ” said her husband, interjecting in our conversation as he sat at the kitchen table, munching on the biggest piece of chicken. He poked fun with his snarky two cents, but he pretty much spoke the truth.
It wasn’t the first time I watched Estelle hog the responsibility. I witnessed and shared in her overzealous self-appointment whenever she helped and rescued so many other people in her life. That was how she was. And yet when it came to her own life, she approached her challenges passively. Charles divorced Estelle. He up and left her—high and dry—after 40 years of marriage and her dutifully serving him. She was forced to piece together an individual life and fend for herself. Alone and financially strapped, not once did she call in a favor, a loan, a shoulder to cry on. No matter how overwhelming her situation became, she shunned even the slightest overtures to help. Therein lies the issue, the difficulty some women have of receiving—especially in a time of need.
John Amodeo Ph. D., MFT says, in Psychology Today, that “being receptive is tricky,” and connected it to a number of mental and emotional factors that many people want to avoid, like the exposure of vulnerability. He says being subjected to criticism, rejection, and the breach of confidentiality is not worth the risk involved.
Women who devote their lives to being of service, yet remain resistant to fulfilling their own needs, not only do so for the reasons Amodeo mentions. They do it because women are socialized to do so. As young girls, many of us learn from our caregivers, and the environment in which we inhabit, that taking care of others and sacrificing ourselves is all for the greater good. In her youth, Estelle learned from her mother, whom she watched cook, clean, shop, shake hands, kiss babies, and balance bills. Beyond earning a paycheck and taking out trash, very little was required of her father. Chores between Estelle and her older brother were unequally doled out, and assigned by traditional gender roles: Estelle would take on the domestic chores like babysitting, ironing, laundry while her brother would take out the trash.
Estelle had ambitions well beyond the domestic realm—she longed to study law. But her father merely praised her good housekeeping and ability to get things done all on her own, while her mother encouraged her to marry because her “talents were in the home.” So she married at age 19, and assumed the role of homemaker and caregiver to her community. As we strive to be good, our giving is internalized as spirit work, as a shiny badge of honor—denying ourselves is often the golden cherry on top. But this idea instilled in us diminishes our personal value. Women come to associate giving with good deed and getting with selfishness. And not many of us want that title. Estelle, like many women, who do the most and unselfishly give of themselves, are in thrall to this skewed moral compass that have wanting women donning do-it-all bangles and Wonder Woman capes for others while leaving themselves out of the equation.
I am well acquainted with these feelings.
During my fifth-grade graduation, my boy crush gave me a peck on the hand and a beaded glass bracelet with shiny gold clasps. I rushed home and thrust my bedazzled wrist in my aunt’s face. I shared the enthusiasm I had receiving the gift. My aunt listened—then advised, “Take it off and give it back.”
For an hour, she preached against accepting things from boys because ulterior motives—because control—because sex. I was embarrassed by her projections—more so embarrassed than when I was forced to return a Christmas necklace I received from my bestie, and the almost-new Sergio Valenti jeans she gave me for my birthday, and the three dollars I borrowed for food, because I forgot my bag lunch on a school bus. I was scolded for each incident and told to relinquish, return, or payback anything gifted me—because I was nobody’s charity case, because receiving portended some unreasonable exchange down the line—because she said so. I understood three things: that I did not deserve goodwill, that gifts from boys had different connotations and consequences that pervert their benevolence, that wanting both—in someway—perverted me. I grew up guarded in friendships and romantic relationships. I shot down accolades, compliments, and love. I believed they weren’t for me, but rather to get something from me. Intimacy was a challenge because I could not receive. It would be years before I shed my impaired perspective.
Atlanta-based psychologist Nadine Josephs encounters these issues with many woman clients, but confirms that not-receiving is particularly prevalent among the African-American women she counsels. She adds that Black women’s struggle with asking and receiving is linked to generational resilience and traumatic events, which cause them to become hypervigilant about self-sufficiency. Josephs identifies these patterns most in patients who were raised by high social achievers and in matriarchal families, where grandmas, mothers, and aunties shared stories of broken trust, abandonment, and financial negligence—where the mantra was “Have your own.” In those families, falling anywhere short of that goal is a major blow to a woman’s ego. Receiving is not an option. Women from those backgrounds, tie self-worth to receiving. They don’t think they deserve—thus, they don’t ask—thusly, they don’t receive. Josephs believes there are ways for women to overcome these challenges and it all begins with self-love. She says it is important for women “to believe we’re worthy in all phases of our lives, be open to alliances, and honest with ourselves about the fact that we can’t always do it alone. If we don’t, she says “we combust internally and externally.”
Being a steward to others is a labor of love not to be confused with self-denial—especially when in need. While living in a society that goes hard to reinforce sexist ideology, women must be mindful of perpetuating these ideas onto themselves. Too, it is equally important that women reject toxic messages, which convey that wanting and needing are not okay. They are—suffering in silence is not. Receiving is a courageous act, one that women in general—but particularly those who pour themselves into others—should be amenable to. We must be vocal. Voice is agency. Closed mouths do not get fed.
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