Editor’s Note: Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and author of the book “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s the start of another year, and we are still working our way through a once-in-a-generation, life-changing pandemic almost three years after it began. We’ve all been affected by Covid-19’s scourge of sickness, hospitalization, death, loneliness, isolation, work dislocation and family disruption. Perhaps, like me, you even got sick with the coronavirus and are living with its long-term effects.
When Covid-19 hit, workers in teaching, nursing, hospitality and retail — occupations where women predominate — bore a fair part of the burden associated with the disease. And no group felt this more acutely than Black and brown women.
Women struggle to balance self-care against filling the needs of their families. But for Black women, juggling those competing needs often comes against a backdrop of intergenerational trauma and suppression of their emotions.
In the Black community, women have perfected obsessive selflessness to an art form. We end up exhausted, emotionally drained — and in many cases, unhealthy — because we are conditioned to serve the needs of others and display superhuman strength — to our own detriment. I have lost friends, sorority sisters and mentors to hypertension-induced strokes, heart attacks, diabetes complications and plain old exhaustion from a lack of meaningful self-care.
The effects of environmental stress on Black women are severe. One study found that by the time a Black woman reaches her 50s, the toll of stress on her body has resulted in an additional seven years of biological aging compared with White women. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes, too.
Northwestern University clinical psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler addressed the downside of viewing the strong Black woman as a “cultural icon” in her book, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women.”
“Some Black women do not have the necessary tools to cope with their feelings in a healthy way and, as a result, may engage in unhealthy coping strategies such as eating unhealthy foods, drinking alcohol, using illicit drugs, being sedentary or a workaholic. While these behaviors may offer a Band-aid to the problem, they are not a long-term solution,” she said in an interview discussing the work that was published last year.
In short, for Black and brown women, focusing on self-care is a matter of survival. But some of us needed the additional wake-up call that came from confronting the pandemic.
My own Covid-19 journey started in February 2020 when I came down with an early case before we had testing or vaccines. I contracted the disease while speaking at a conference in Louisiana. I was sick for a week with a high fever, respiratory distress and other complications.
I got a second, milder case in August 2021 after being vaccinated and boosted. I was lucky enough not to have to be hospitalized during either episode, but I still suffer the effects of long Covid-19, including some heart valve damage and residual issues with my right lung. Living with these infirmities means prioritizing the vital self-care I might otherwise have ignored.
By self-care, I don’t mean going to the beach or taking a vacation. That is respite.
The kind of self-care I want to see Black women practice is the kind that liberates the soul. The kind that allows us to be our authentic selves. The kind that frees us to wear our hair how we want, to speak our truths, to seek healthier romantic partners and build better friends. And it’s the kind of self-care that lasts a lifetime.
The good news is that despite the heaviness of our times, we see examples of prominent Black women saying enough is enough — it’s time to put our wellness first. Women such as Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka and actress Taraji P. Henson have spoken openly about the importance of their mental health to their overall well-being.
As a Black woman now in her 50s, it took me years to learn that although my family and friends matter, I matter most of all. I’ve learned that I have a right to joy, to peace and to self-care, too. I wrote about those hard-knock lessons in my fourth book, “Be the One You Need.”
My hope was that by sharing just a few of my own life experiences, I can help educate and inspire a new generation of Black girls and women to embrace lives filled with self-care, hope, joy, physical and emotional wellness.
But even if you’re neither Black nor a woman, these lessons can benefit you as well. Start by asking yourself three important questions: What do I want? What do I need? How am I really feeling? Your inner voice will provide the answers. Trust that you will find the courage to follow through on the wisdom you already possess.
Here are three more things to bear in mind as you focus on your emotional wellness this new year:
1. Self-care is a life strategy for success. It’s about setting healthy boundaries and ensuring that those boundaries are respected by others. It requires that you change you first and that you accept you can never change others.
2. Prioritize your mental and emotional health above all else. You’re no good to anyone if you’re not good to yourself. Your mental and emotional well-being is one of the many “health verticals” you must tend to, just as you might regularly monitor your weight, heart health or blood pressure.
3. “No” is a complete sentence. This one has really saved me a lot of heartache, unspoken resentment and time. I no longer do the things I do not want to do, to please others. I reserve my energy for only those things and people that are worth my energy.
Women in general, and Black women specifically, often find it hard to say no. But it’s what you sometimes must do, even when your kids have endless requests, your boss has demands, and friends who have supported you in the past are in a crisis. And the reason for centering your own needs is implied in the subtitle of my book “Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” It’s simply not sustainable.
Generations of Black women have watched our mothers, grandmothers and aunts do, give, run, lift, build up, sacrifice, protect and offer up themselves to anyone and everyone in need. This new year, we all have an opportunity to do better for ourselves.