Black Women Should Mourn That Which We Were Told to Get Over

This essay is an edited excerpt from “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life”)

In “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life,” I document what it is like for a Black woman to be in a professional environment as the first or only. There is a loneliness to being the first or the only, and there can be exhilaration of doing something few have done. There is also the feeling of being held to a different standard than others, having more exacting rules, and being treated differently based on one’s race, gender or sexual identity.

While all women face challenges in a patriarchal society, Black women face intersecting oppressions – gender, race, sexuality, gender identity, class, etc. — and require unique solutions. I wrote “First and Only” because many leadership books do not always prepare Black women for what we will face at work or discuss how to overcome these specific challenges.

As I ponder what has been most helpful to my own growth and development, I cannot overstate the importance of reconnecting with my inner child. I was seeking to understand a challenge at work, when a Black woman therapist introduced the concept of reconnecting with the child in me. She theorized that my inner child was likely in conflict with a team member’s, and that revelation was deeply transformative.

I realized that for years, I operated from various archetypes, often on a subconscious level. At different turns I was the victim, the aggressor and the parent figure. As I reflected on my childhood from a place of curiosity and compassion, I gained a deeper understanding of why I did what I did. That understanding allowed me to afford myself more grace and the space to heal and grow.

For example, in examining my inner child, I learned that my relationship with responsibility was deeply problematic. From the time I was a child, I often shouldered more than my share of responsibility. It also caused me to grow up fast and to do things that were the responsibility of the adults in my life. This added responsibility bred resentment. I would take on far too much and then resent the people around me. I was a martyr, but an angry one.

You may ask why connecting with the inner child is important for Black women specifically. Black girls are uniquely primed to accept too much responsibility. In many households, we were raised to be strong, which can mean not giving place for our rest, pain and grief. Further, in a racist and sexist society, research has shown that Black girls are seen as more mature, less innocent and less in need of protection than others. When Black girls experience sexual assault or physical violence, too often there is a chorus that rushes to place the blame on them: “What did she wear,” “what did she do,” etc. When Black women announce their pain, there are often voices that seek to minimize it or place the blame in their laps. If anyone needs love, acceptance and space to reflect, it is Black women.

Getting reacquainted with the inner child can include mourning a childhood cut short by trauma or neglect. It can mean reflecting on our past with truthfulness and honesty.

This practice of getting to know oneself fully is also crucial for persons in leadership positions. If you plan to lead people, or effectively lead yourself, you must know your triggers, understand your method of operation, and understand which parts of yourself need added attention.

In “Trust: Mastering the Four Essential Trusts,” spiritual teacher and life coach Iyanla Vanzant writes: “The psychological injuries and emotional wounds we experience as children affect our soul. When the soul does not develop within the experience of trust, there remains within us a child who is in a constant search for attention, understanding, love, respect, and possibly justice for her abuse or neglect. These needs, when left unmet and unaddressed, will fester and grow into disruptive and/or dysfunctional behavior patterns that will impact every aspect of our lives.”

Relatedly, my inner child learned that pleasing the adults in my life led to safety and acceptance. As an adult, I had to learn that I had agency and choice. I no longer needed to give an automatic “yes,” without considering what it was that I wanted. Left unchecked, this childhood tendency was manifesting as saying “Yes, I can do it,” when the appropriate response was, “No.” Until I understood why I was saying “Yes,” I had difficulty saying “No.”

Get Reacquainted

If you need clarity around what you do and why, or you need space to grieve and heal, consider reconnecting with your inner child. These three steps can help:

  • Therapy. We cannot give to others that which we do not possess. Often, to heal we need tools. To ensure that we can heal, support ourselves and the people we lead, we must prioritize taking care of our emotional and mental health. Therapy is an excellent way to do this. In addition to providing a safe space, therapy can support us by offering concrete and individual specific resources.
  • Giving Your Inner Child a Name. It has helped me tremendously to give my inner child a name and to identify her when I sense she is showing up. As my former therapist once suggested, I thank her for helping me grow into the woman I have become, and then I ask her to step aside. By giving one aspect of myself a name, I am able to view that portion of myself objectively while seeing all the other ways in which I have grown or am growing.
  • Greeting Your Inner Child with Compassion and Acceptance. I am learning to embrace all aspects of myself. I work hard not to judge my inner child but rather to greet her with compassion and acceptance. Judgement does not lead to last change but often, more of what we do not want. Further, self-loathing is not sustainable.

I want to be clear that reconnecting with the inner child is a practice of self-care, and I submit that we should do whether it comes with immediate rewards or not. The truth is even as Black women connect with our inner child, the people around us must do the same. But they must also do their own anti-racism and anti-sexism work. In this way, workplaces will be more receptive and welcoming when Black women do show up.

While we cannot control the world around us, we can influence the ways in which we love and care for ourselves. I will sign up for that. Will you?

Jennifer R. Farmer is a writer, trainer and activist communicator. She is the author of “First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life” and “Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide.” Follow her on Twitter/IG at pr_whisperer or on Facebook at prwhisperer.