Have you had your mental health “tune-up” today? It’s not such a strange question when you think about stress levels brimming over and the frenetic pace of our professional pursuits in these tumultuous economic times. As African-American clinical psychologists and academicians, we understand the tireless commitment of high-achieving professionals of color and the precarious balancing acts that can test our sanity. We know, we’ve been there, and we continue to get our regular tune-ups. We believe more pointed conversations are needed among us about the psychology of our success and what keeps us motivated. It is important that we continue to acknowledge and celebrate our successes. We strive to build an intricate network of support including family, friends, mentors, peers and therapists. Further, our attention to wellness and our spiritual grounding solidify our reserves of resilience. These resources can provide the critical advice and collaboration needed to cope with the challenges of our complex lives and workplaces.
Yet, many of us hesitate to reach out, confi de in each other or establish networks that nurture and support personal and career development because these choices can carry a stigma. Sometimes it’s the most successful among us who resist seeking help. We have learned from our clients and students that as we celebrate our hardearned successes we must also fortify our coping strategies by deepening our insight and developing more effective strategies for self-care. We are in awe of our clients who share their struggles with us in our consulting rooms. A glimpse into their psychology of success illuminates the ongoing internal dialogue that fuels their persistence and allows them to tolerate the tensions often associated with being professionals of color.
We know how to make it look easy, but thriving professionally can come with an emotional toll the higher we climb and despite the rewards of our achievement.
An additional stressor can be the fi nancial demands that come with being the family “crisis worker” or bank. Sometimes, these sacrifi ces extend to our immediate families when we uproot them from familiar environments to advance our careers. Feelings of alienation resulting from dislocation can feed into a keen sense of isolation and “assimilation blues,” according to Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College.
For example, our clients disclose their ambivalence about being perceived as “exceptional” because of their accomplishments, the number of languages they speak or their intellectual prowess. The faces of their White colleagues (and sometimes people from their own racial and ethnic group) can register curiosity or contempt as they contemplate working with someone who is different from their stereotypes of African-Americans. And at other times, our high-achieving clients reveal, despite being perceived as exceptional and curiously different, they are ignored or rendered invisible.
The cumulative stressors associated with working and living in highly competitive environments contribute to depression, insomnia, anxiety and other health/mental health concerns. Upon deeper refl ection, our clients sometimes identify underlying psychological issues ranging from imposter syndrome and survivor guilt, to social class change anxiety. Further, Dr. A.J. Franklin, professor of psychology and education at Boston College, has written about another phenomenon he’s observed in African- American men and boys called “the invisibility syndrome.” Other noteworthy patterns may include issues of tokenism, exaggerated self-sacrifi ce and fear of envy related to attaining high levels of success. We sometimes see in our clients a dissonance between their authentic selves and their institutional roles. This double consciousness can sometimes feel like an out-of-body experience when we sense that we are apart from the group or at its margins. Double or multiple consciousness can impact how we interpret and navigate our professional lives. Once uncovered, our clients eventually fi nd relief by working through these diffi cult issues often associated with breaking through racial, class and ethnic barriers.
How do we move from merely coping to thriving? How do we develop and sustain feelings of power, inspiration and energy in the face of internal and external roadblocks?
We can start by creating safe spaces for conversations as we build new communities and cooperative ventures that yield highquality, robust results and benefi ts.
So, what will your mental health tune-up look like? With a more nuanced and sensitive understanding of our psychology of success, we can garner all the resources at our disposal to recast our unique strengths on our own terms. Let’s continue to tap into our personal and collective imaginations to clear new pathways to empowerment for ourselves and the generations to come. D â€” Dr. Lisa Whitten is an associate professor of psychology and director of the Offi ce of Services for Students with Disabilities at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. Dr. Linda Anderson is a professor and the chairperson of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Hostos Community College, City University of New York (CUNY).