As a Black Woman, I’ve Been “The Rock” for All My Friends—But It’s Not Often Reciprocated
We spoke to a Black therapist about the "strong Black woman" trope, how it negatively impacts Black women's mental health and what to do if you're in a one-sided relationship.
As a Black femme, I’ve been raised to be “the rock” in my relationships and friendships, especially with men and non-Black people. I’ve been told by others that being my friend has changed their lives. But I don’t always feel that the love and care is reciprocated. Sometimes my friendships can become one-sided.
It isn’t something I gave a lot of thought to until I saw this tweet by Christina Brown: “Black women/femmes tap in: How many times have you been in situations where you’ve been the therapist, done emotional labor for others, been told you ‘transformed someone’s life’ without feeling all that reciprocated? And at what age did that start?”
Brown’s sentiment was all too familiar to me. I turned to my best friends, a Black woman and a Black non-binary person, and asked them if they had ever felt as if they offered more care than the other person in their friendships. And the answer was a resounding “yes.” Since we’re seen as “strong Black women,” we are hardly offered the gentleness, emotional labour and maturity that others often appreciate in our friendships.
I spoke with mental health therapist and registered social worker Amma Gyamfowa about this phenomenon, and how Black women and femmes can create better boundaries to avoid one-sided relationships.
(Related: Incredible Black Women Who Are Changing Canadian Health Care)
Have you ever been pigeonholed as the “strong Black woman” in your friendships?
I think a lot of us have been taught in so many different ways, directly and indirectly, to be the strong Black woman. For a long time, I thought being strong was not crying, not showing emotion, but still being able to show up for other people. It’s something that I think I’m consistently learning to unlearn, as well as trying to support other people in their journey of recognizing, “Is this actually really serving me? Is this actually helpful way to, for me to live my life?’”
What do you think of the trope that Black women are always strong or resilient?
The emergence of the “strong Black woman” didn’t come from Black communities and I love the fact that over the last couple of years, [Black women have] been collectively resisting it. For the first time, we’re really seeing this idea—the idea that Black women are always strong and superhuman, that we don’t have emotions, that we can carry anything—we’re seeing that it’s really deeply rooted in anti-Black racism.
I always ask, “What does [this trope] do structurally?” And there’s danger in what that “strong Black woman” trope does to us structurally. For example, it impacts our ability to get health care. In particular, when Black women seek mental health support, they’re often dismissed. Even in our own intimate lives, we don’t get the support that we need, or the care that we need, or we feel like we always have to show up for everybody else. But often, we’re not able to have the space for ourselves.
Do you think the strong Black woman trope promotes good mental health in Black women?
I don’t think that it does. The strong Black woman syndrome, the idea that we can struggle through anything, and we’ll make it through, is not rooted in our humanity. It’s not rooted in the fact that Black women have feelings, that we need to be able to have our experiences heard and validated. That we have needs that we shouldn’t be sacrificing for other people. It doesn’t allow us to get our supports, or have our needs met.
I’ve often heard of Black women being labelled “superhuman.” Do you feel that label dehumanizes us?
I think it makes it seem like we’re indestructible. And if there’s the idea that Black women are indestructible, it means that anything can be tossed to Black women, and they’re going to deal with it because they know how to, and that’s the end of that. It’s forcing us to be strong against things that are oppressing us and are hurting us and are harming us in every facet of our lives—which isn’t fair to us.
Have you ever had people rely on you to be their “therapist,” even before you got your certifications?
I’m somebody who dates men. So, naturally, it happens in my relationships with men. It’s definitely complicated. There’s times where, of course, you want to support your partner. But at the same time, you also need that emotional support and labour to be reciprocated. It can become difficult when that person doesn’t necessarily know how to do that, or always have the capacity to do that, or is unwilling to know how to support you in that emotional sense and regard.
Has anyone ever told you, “You’ve changed my life”? Do you feel the same about those who say that?
There’s been times where there has been that definite mutual support, and the fact that I felt like I could rely on somebody else, I can trust them, and vice versa. And then there’s times where it doesn’t feel reciprocated in the same way. It can feel really depleting. You might put so much energy into trying to support this person, and they don’t do the things that you would do for them. There are times where you begin to think, “what’s the purpose of this relationship? Do I want this relationship?” One of the things I’ve had to really figure out in my relationships is what is reciprocated and looks different? Maybe that person can’t offer me the same exact things I offer them. But is there any value in this relationship? Is it making me feel good? Is it bringing me some sense of joy? Because I think that we can still have valuable relationships, even if they’re not always reciprocated in the same exact ways.
(Related: Why Is It So Hard to Find a Therapist Who Gets Me?)
What effect can one-sided relationships can have on mental health?
You leave relationships or conversations feeling really resentful. There are times where you might be connected to a lot of people, but do you actually feel like you can turn to them for support? No. Then, you might be in crisis, or really struggling and other people have no idea. There’s a real need for us to be able to trust and depend on people we have in our lives.
What are some boundaries you’ve created that ensures that you’re not always the strong Black woman doing the emotional labour?
For my friends, one of the things that we do is we check in. Asking, “Do you have the capacity to talk about something that’s a bit deep right now?” That has been helpful. One of the things that we need to be able to do is to make sure that person that you’re talking to is good [to talk as well]. But also, if you do have something that you want to share that’s difficult, that you’re getting consent from the person you want to talk to, to share something heavy. Something that’s also been really important is allowing my expectations to align with people’s actions. I really try to meet people where they are so that I’m not doing excessive emotional labour when I don’t need to.
How can Black women take care of themselves in a world that expects us to be strong and whole all the time?
One of the things that I think is really important for people to know is that we don’t need to be in crisis before we get the support that we need. Giving yourself permission to get help and support in whatever way that looks like is important. And also letting yourself know that you cannot be the saviour all the time. Sometimes that distracts us from really caring for ourselves. So really think about how you want to prioritize yourself, and remind yourself that that’s not selfish.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.