The Complex:

What is the “strong woman” complex and why is it important?

Every society has its own spoken and unspoken views of the female gender; whether the society is matriarchal or patriarchal affects those views. Some societies have laws governing women’s rights and bodies, whereas others give women the right to choose. Nevertheless, the fact that there needs to be laws in the first place giving women rights or taking them away stipulates how little control women sometimes have to be treated as human, but I digress. It’s a roller coaster ride living up to expectations, stipulations set, and ideals of how you are supposed to be while being true to you. Whether you give in or choose to rebel against the pressures of societal expectations, at some point the struggle begins to interfere with your identity, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Throughout history the female gender has been the most controversial among societies — matriarchal societies revered women and some patriarchal societies saw women as less-than second class citizens. Women have had to, and still continue, to prove their worth to societies and their right to be respected and valued as a vital factor to the growth of society. There are so many brave women who have paved the way to alter how women are treated, but how women are viewed may take more time. There are still old-fashioned views of women maintaining designated roles that can be traced back to the hunter-gatherer days.

Even during present day, matriarchal and patriarchal societies still exist. Women are still fighting for rights to live as their own identity separate from a man, govern their own bodies, and for equal pay for doing the same job as men. Women assert their identity, self-esteem, and self-confidence while struggling through societal pressures to conform to gender roles — creating a perfect storm for dualism and the “strong woman” complex.

The term “strong woman” dates back as early as the 13th century. In the 13th century women did not perform duties assigned to a man, but the term meant “she does masculine things” (Dannefer, 2010). Over time the meaning of “strong woman” began to evolve into an unspoken complex — meaning a woman who bears the responsibility of societal standards of the female gender role while simultaneously earning a living, and pushing through obstacles without complaining.

Even if obstacles are overcome, is there something lost or gained while keeping up appearances of the complex?

The complex carries a false narrative of strength. In reality it is a base of emotional instability framed by defense mechanisms. The pressures of society become too much and a level of artificial escapisms (mental and emotional withdrawal) to cope begin to form. Artificial escapes can transpire through substance abuse, and/or detachment from connecting with others.

Whether it is through substance abuse or detachment, the complex fuels loneliness, bitterness, and anger and creates a cycle of behavior affecting future generations of women.

Duality of Self:

The pressures and expectations of society conflicting with your self-identity can evolve into dualism — duality of “self.” Dualism is the internal conflict of opposing identities — being overwhelmed by the internal struggle to conform your identity to fit community, cultural, and societal standards while compromising your authentic “self.” Eventually, dualism can create such turmoil it causes suppression of emotions just to survive. With the complex, the reactive state of suppressing emotions for survival is typically accompanied by disconnect, distrust, anxiety, and/or depression — beginning a cycle of mental and/or emotional instability.

The truth is, the female gender has always faced some level of dualism throughout history. Women have been labeled and stereotyped for either being too emotional, weak, or just inferior to a man. And if a woman asserts her independence, she may be labeled as “bossy” — whereas a man would be considered confident, strong, and/or a leader.

Even if measured — the actions and reactions being the same between a woman and a man — the woman’s actions don’t align with societal ideals of how a woman is supposed to behave. Such categorization is bound to agitate dualism.

Moving Forward:

Move forward by breathing and finding your foundation. Your foundation can be a place, time, image, or an emotion that makes you feel calm, strong, etc. Your foundation is only relative to you. Use your foundation to help you confront whatever issue you have.

And once you’ve confronted the issue, step away, and then reflect.

During reflection, intense emotion will come up again as you replay the scenario over and over again in your head. But, guide your thoughts to think about how you felt at that moment, and then explore how you got to that point — rather than thinking about what you should’ve said and what you should’ve done. The confrontation is over and there’s no use in crying over spilled milk.

Regardless if the conflict was the result of a misunderstanding or not, feel justified in how you felt at that moment. But, as you explore how you got to the point of conflict, your feelings leading up to before the conflict will be exposed, and then work out why you felt that way.

Exploring “why” does not devalue you justifying your feelings at the time of the conflict, but rather helps you work out and understand how the events that were going on around you allowed you to become so emotionally affected — and eventually you may begin to understand how you view yourself.

Delving into “why” will help you develop more compassion, not only for yourself, but for others as well — no matter how ignorant they may be. Compassion for others is not excusing their actions, but rather compassion helps you stay focused on you, your aspirations, and becoming the best version of yourself you envisioned.

Compassion means you understand the only person you can change is you.

Overcoming stereotypes engrained in so many societies is no painless fix, and there’s no easy answer on how to maintain mental and emotional stability while under pressure and facing judgments. There are going to be times when you feel overwhelmed, defeated, depressed, and maybe even some anxiety.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to grieve, cry, scream, love, and connect with themselves, as well as connect with others; and express yourself without judgement. There are no trial runs at life, so the key is to understand your own limits and when and how to step away from the stress versus shutting down.


Dannefer, D. 2010. The SAGE Handbook of Social Gerontology. Page 22. Accessed December 15, 2016

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