Illustration by Wenting Li
Forget being Wonder Woman and prioritize yourself rather than always trying to be everything to everyone else.
I have a love-hate relationship with Wonder Woman. I love that strong, courageous, kick-ass women are becoming the heroines of blockbuster movies. But I hate that women and girls are made to believe they have to be everything (smart, beautiful, brave and able to save the world) in order to be OK.
The belief that we have to be everything to everyone, and to do it all without breaking a sweat, is why so many women report debilitating stress. According to a 2010 study by the American Psychological Association, women are more likely than men to experience the physical and emotional symptoms of stress (see Do you have Wonder Woman Syndrome?, below). The study also found that 28 percent of women rank their stress as an eight, nine or 10 on a 10-point scale, and 49 percent of the same women said their stress had increased over the past five years.
Wow, those numbers are staggering. So why is it that half of the women surveyed reported they're not doing enough to manage the daily stress in their lives? It goes back to what I call Wonder Woman Syndrome, the faulty belief that we have to do it all, do it well and do for others before ourselves. Think you have Wonder Woman Syndrome? Look for these physical and emotional symptoms of high stress: depression; anxiety; emotional dysregulation; anger or irritability; disturbed sleep; foggy or impaired memory; headaches; fatigue; and digestive disruption.
A colleague of mine who researches and writes regularly on self-care advises her clients to construct a wellness wall; each brick is an action we can take to reduce our stress, but what's more, each brick also acts as a boundary, protecting us from the self-recrimination, the judgment and the "shoulds" that take aim at our emotional and physical health.
Brick 1: Put yourself first.
We like to idealize martyrs, but let's get real—they all die. You plug your smartphone in every day to recharge it, right? We need to recharge our own batteries, too, or we're no good to anyone.
Brick 2: Cultivate self-compassion.
We women are very hard on ourselves: We're never quite successful enough, rich enough, thin enough, perfect enough. We measure ourselves by a set of standards we would never dream of holding our best pals accountable to. What if we were to treat ourselves with the same nonjudgment and appreciation we would a friend? By cultivating the courage to be imperfect, we no longer hold ourselves to impossible standards, but, instead, appreciate all the micromovements we make toward our goals.
Brick 3: Create connections.
Stress and anxiety are the stepsisters of shame—and shame is like a bacterium that loves to reproduce in dank, dark, deep places. By sharing our stories, we lighten our loads. It's that simple.
Brick 4: Practise mindfulness.
Stress increases when we time travel (worrying about what we did or didn't do in the past, and what we should or shouldn't do in the future). Right here, right now is a moment in time you'll never get back.
Brick 5: Just S.T.O.P.
Sense what you're feeling. Irritable? Anxious?
Take a moment to be in the now.
Objectify the feeling. This isn't your failing, so be self-compassionate.
Plan an intervention. Take a long bath or enjoy a walk.