Why the Strongest Women Are the Most Exhausted

The modern mantra of 'strong and independent' doesn't mean we don't also need to be taken care of sometimes
September 25, 2020 Updated: September 25, 2020

Most of the issues I see in my psychotherapy practice are gender-neutral; they affect men and women, for the most part, equally. Lately, however, far more women are coming in with a particular issue, and the difference is noticeable. The problem, in a word, is exhaustion.

More and more women are walking into my office in a state of mental, physical, and emotional depletion. Many of the women I meet these days aren’t just running their households, families, and children’s lives, but also earning the lion’s share of the money, serving as the primary breadwinners in the family. Women are on duty 24/7, never off duty, and overwhelmed with responsibility.

Sally runs her own company, which pays the bills for the family. She’s also in charge of her three children’s lives, their emotional health, and now their schooling. She also in charge of family vacations, food shopping, and countless other things.

Linda was over the moon because her husband had planned a weekend holiday. When I asked where they were headed, she told me that she didn’t care if it was to Home Depot or the local laundromat. The fact that he had planned and executed the weekend from start to finish, that she didn’t have to suggest, research, and organize all of or at least some part of her “holiday,” made it a real vacation regardless of destination. It was the first time in years she felt genuinely taken care of.

As modern women, we’re taught to do it all, to be independent and in charge. We’re conditioned to want and achieve these badges of honor. But if the women I’m meeting in my office are representative in any way, it seems that doing it all doesn’t come without its own consequences.

When I asked my friend Jane what she wanted for Christmas, she replied, “For my husband to take care of something from beginning to end, including realizing that whatever it is needs taking care of.”

As a society, we not only expect women to be willing, able, and excited to “do it all,” but we also show disdain and contempt for those women who have the courage to express their need (or wish) to be taken care of. We’re conditioned to judge ourselves as weak and anti-feminist when we want to be driven and not always the driver.

In a recent couples session, Gillian, a consummate caretaker, was able to confess her own wish to be taken care of, “to sometimes just be a passenger.” Her husband then contemptuously called her “a little girl.” He told her that while she claimed to want independence, an equal relationship, deep down she just wanted to be “helpless … pampered by a man, like every other woman.” It was difficult to watch and hear. But the saddest part was that she didn’t feel anger. Instead, she felt ashamed of her own needs. This highly successful, intelligent, and evolved woman questioned her own need (and right) to be taken care of. She wondered if he was right and if underneath it all, she was a fraud and that all she wanted was to be coddled and indulged.

We mistakenly imagine strength and independence to be incompatible with being taken care of, even contradictory. But in fact, the two form a handshake. We want and need to be taken care of and we want and need to be independent and strong. There’s no but in this equation. In fact, we need to be taken care of in order to maintain the strength to be powerful and independent. When we’re always the driver, of course, we sometimes long to be a passenger. How could we not?

In some ways, “independence” is a myth. No person can be entirely independent. People are social beings that prosper in cooperation with other people. We live our best lives in functional interdependence. 

It’s important to recognize, too, that there are different kinds of being taken care of. If your friend gives you a present you don’t really want or in the wrong size, you will probably feel cared for, maybe even loved. At the same time, you might also feel responsible for taking care of your friend, making sure she feels good about her present. So too, you might be thinking about having to return the present and what that will entail. You know that you are cared for, which is fundamentally nourishing and appreciated. At the same time, this experience might not hit the sweet spot where that part of you that longs to be completely off duty can just let go. The kind of caretaking your friend offers, therefore, might not soothe your need to relax at the deepest level. And that’s all OK.

On the other hand, in describing the moment when her massage therapist first places her hands on her shoulders, before the massage begins, one friend said this: “In that moment, something inside me profoundly relaxes. It’s not just because my body is being cared for, but because I’m getting what I want. I mean … what I actually want and don’t have to pretend I want. I don’t have to filter that moment through any lens or storyline to make it work. I don’t have to take care of anyone else in the process. I can just receive. It’s a moment where I’m invited into myself, a moment that’s just for me.”

When it comes to being taken care of, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. We have different parts within us and they are fed by different experiences. You can know you’re cared for and still long to be taken care of. What takes care of your mind isn’t the same thing as what takes care of your body or spirit. This truth doesn’t make you demanding or spoiled, it just makes you human.

The most important part of taking care of ourselves is acknowledging and honoring our own longing to be taken care of. And simultaneously, refusing to shame and blame ourselves for this primal longing. We must recognize, too, that our need to be taken care of can coexist peacefully with our desire to be powerful and autonomous.

Ask yourself, “When, if ever, do I feel really taken care of? What allows me to be feel completely off duty? What’s something that feels like it’s truly for me?” It’s important to pay attention, without judgment, to what really takes care of us. And, when we feel taken care of, we need to pause and acknowledge it. We can take a breath and just appreciate the experience, feel the sweet relief.

If there are ways that you can give yourself real caretaking, through your own attention and curiosity, or some other form: services, nature, people, humor, entertainment, chocolate, or whatever else, give it to yourself. The need to be taken care of is real and an inseparable part of being human. Treat this need, and yourself, with the respect you both deserve.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, and author of the upcoming “Can’t Stop Thinking” (2021) and “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com