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“I’m not physically in danger but I just don’t feel safe.”

By Heather M. Cain, LPC, LCPC

Mandated reporting aside, therapists are the keeper of secrets. There comes a time, however, where therapists must step outside of the therapy room and shine a light on things that are said inside the room. The increased commentary from Black women about their general lack of safety needs to be brought from inside the therapy room to the outside. Not just so other Black women can understand they are not alone, but for me. See, this isn’t just something my clients have expressed, but something I’ve expressed to my own therapist (if your therapist hasn’t gone to therapy, RUN!).

The past two years I’ve seen way more Black women coming to me with anxiety symptoms because they feel unsafe in the world than in all my years as a therapist! In an ideal world, safety and security should be a fundamental human right. Every individual deserves to live a life without fear. Unfortunately, for Black women, the sense of safety is often elusive. This lack of safety can lead to increased feelings of uneasiness, apprehension, restlessness, and fearfulness.

Let’s first name a few of the reasons why you may be anxious and feeling unsafe and then provide a few strategies, to help manage the symptoms.

Black women have “Black Girl Magic” but we also have what I call the the double wammy of discrimination options! We encounter racial prejudice AND gender discrimination in most aspects of our lives, including education, employment, healthcare, and public spaces. Simply put, the intersection of our gender and our race compounds the risk of violence for us. Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t. Well, the numbers say when they say Black Women are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking. We live a life of being “at risk.”

*Heavy sigh* The way the media represents Black women perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Black women. We are often depicted in negative distorted portrayals that lead to increased hostility and discriminatory behaviors which foster safe environments. We often get looked at as less than, when another race of women doing the exact same thing, get looked at as revolutionary. *eye roll*

The accumulation of daily microaggressions, such as racially insensitive comments or actions, can take a toll on Black women's mental health and well-being. One of my very first counseling type of jobs I was called “prickly” by my Indian woman manager. The next job I was called “angry” by my white woman manager. They said my “attitude” caused them to label me as such. Both of those labels caused me to shrink and second guess everything about myself…including my talent as a therapist. They weren’t labeling me as passionate or enthusiastic, they were labeling me as bad and as a problem. But when my blonde-haired colleague at my first job and my red-head colleague at the second job (both white) presented with the same “attitude” they were given a voice to talk, and they were listened to. “That’s just their personality” is what I was told. Black women have a constant internal battle going on if they should be their “authentic self” or should they go along to get along. Microaggressions make us second guess ourselves and contributes significantly to our imposter syndrome.

The number one label I have had to undo when Black women sit on my couch is the label of being strong. Don’t get it twisted, we ARE strong! I don’t know another group of humans that are stronger than Black women, but that doesn’t mean that we should be required to be strong. That strong label has helped create the barrier to accessing quality healthcare. Because there this label that Black women are strong (this label goes back to slave days), there is a HUGE disparity in medical treatment. Don’t agree, look at the difference between maternal deaths among Black and non-Black women. When Black women say they are in pain or that something “doesn’t feel right”, we are often brushed off as exaggerating. This lack of adequate care can lead to serious health concerns and add to the burden of feeling unsafe and unprotected.

Okay, now that we know SOME of the reasons why Black women have a consistent feeling of being unsafe and unprotected, let’s talk about a few of the ways I’ve used, to gain a sense of safety.

Get you a circle. Having a “sista circle” or just a group of women who can understand your difficulties is imperative! There are times when you don’t need anyone to fix it, but you just need to vent. You don’t need 100 women, just one or two real “sista” friends who understand and will give you a hug, a nod or a glass of wine without you saying a word.

Engage in self-care sis! If anyone needs to take care of themselves, it’s you! You deserve to turn the phone off and close the computer for an entire day so that you can rebalance yourself. You deserve to take a mental health day from work because your body, soul and brain are exhausted. You deserve to have another scoop of ice cream, cry at sad movies, melt into the chair of your favorite stylist or nail tech and sit by the water and listen to the waves in complete silence. You deserve to exercise for as little or as long as you want. You deserve to journal your thoughts and feelings. You deserve to have thoughts and feelings about EVERYTHING. You deserve to paint a picture or color by numbers. You deserve to get into yoga. You deserve and it’s not sac-religious for you to meditate. You deserve to rest and to just breath. Engaging in self-care doesn’t lead to laziness or overindulging in self. Self-care is about recharging what has been depleted.

“No.” “Nah.” “I’m not gon be able ta do it.” Are all complete sentences and in perfect grammar. They are also the first step in setting boundaries. I want to tell you a secret…there is no such thing as a Superwoman! A Superwoman is woman who believes they can take on everything, so they say yes! But then they burnout. When they realize they are burned out, they work through it because they are afraid of being labeled as “unable or unreliable.” So, then they become miserable while doing the thing. Setting boundaries in personal and professional relationships/situations is crucial for protecting your mental health. Black Woman, I want to be empowered to say "no" without guilt.

“I need help.” I know! As a Black Woman, asking for help goes against everything that we’ve been taught. But now is the time to unlearn unhealthy patterns. Let’s start by asking for help. Everyone else can ask for help, so why not you? Asking for help will not have you looking incompetent or inferior, but you will look like a human. You will not put stress, pressure or strain on anyone else. Asking for help actually open the doors for someone to help you take the pressure off. Help is always readily available, it’s just waiting for you to ask.

None of these strategies will be easy, but I guarantee that if you begin to incorporate one strategy per month, you will develop some sense of safety. Please, give yourself grace through the process. Take Care!

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