A Guide To Overcoming Superwoman Syndrome


The comic book heroine Superwoman first appeared in 1943 proclaiming that she was ‘all set for high adventures, excitement and romance’ – who could argue with that?  But forward wind to 2016 and the term superwoman is being used to describe a woman who is juggling work, domestic chores and childrearing – on the outside smiling and polished, on the inside fragmented by endless demands. 

What is Superwoman Syndrome?

Hoping to tick all the boxes of modern female life, the ‘superwoman’ wakes to an onslaught of tasks.  She feeds, dresses and wipes the noses of her children, before a speedy shower and dressing.  The clock is ticking as she checks her emails, grabs her shoes, and implores the children to get theirs.  And that’s all before she starts her working day. She’s striving all day, to stay ahead, be the best, field calls from the school (not letting on that they are in any way distracting), only to return to cook, tidy…check more emails, put a wash on, eat something, anything and sleep…fitfully. 

All very familiar.  But couple this scenario with unrelentingly high standards and you have the ‘Superwoman Syndrome’.  The main symptom is stress.  Often felt as anxiety, low mood, anger and frustration.  And physically through depleted energy, headaches, stomach problems, muscle tension, frequent colds, insomnia and loss of sexual desire.

Women with this syndrome are literally asking themselves to do too much, with too little time, and crucially…to do it all perfectly.  Not happy with any standard other than perfection she comes down hard on herself when she fails.  After all, the action hero Superwoman didn’t fail.  She was always there with her cape billowing, ready to rescue any situation.  But she was a superhero.  Humans have limitations.  And accepting this is the first step to combatting this syndrome.

But is it all bad? Certainly not.  Woman can be super, and wonderful (lets not forget Wonder Woman), and research shows they outstrip men in their capacity to juggle it all.  And feminists fought hard so that women didn’t have to limit themselves to one role.  So we are in good times, we can work and have children and have it all.  And this is enormously positive. 

Getting Perspective

The really crucial question to ask is ‘at what cost’?  Palliative care nurses have done research into what people regret most at the end of their lives.  The results may help clarify why this question is important.  The things that they dying regretted most were, in order: not living a life true to themselves, working too hard, not expressing their feelings, not staying in touch with friends and not letting themselves be happier. Sobering stuff.

An Alternative

An alternative can be found in the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  He described a kind of human super being who was able to master himself, follow his own values and not be subject to the ‘herd morality’ i.e. doing things because everyone else is.  His ‘superman’ could decide for himself.  And it is the same theme that runs through Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz’s book “the Superwoman Syndrome’ – decide what’s important in your life and do it well.

How to be heroic on your own terms

So you may choose to be a superwoman, but make sure it’s of the human kind. Perfect is an unreachable goal for humans.  The more you reach for it, the more you will feel frustrated.  As a human superwoman, set achievable goals…and you will feel heroic when you’ve reached them.

Achievable goals are important, but the real crux to combatting this syndrome is to set those goals according to how you personally want to live.  To work this out, try this exercise.

·      Stop for 10 minutes

·      Breathe for a solid 2 of those with your eyes closed

·      Next make a list of all the important areas of your life (family, job, friends, travel etc.)

·      Draw a circle and divide it up like a pie chart, according to how much each area is taking up of your life

·      Now draw another circle and divide it up according to how you would ideally like your life to be

·      What do you notice? Are there certain areas that are dominating and others that are barely reflected?

·      Ask yourself what you could do make your actual life more like your ideal life, one action at a time.

Just because we can have it all, doesn’t automatically mean we must have it all.  And this is why it’s so important to identify what you personally want.  In an age where we are increasingly told how to live, living life on your own terms is a radical kind of heroism.