Coaching Strong Black Women

On a warm summer day, six women gathered in the comfort of a home environment to begin what some described as a “life-changing” experience that forever changed the way they understood themselves as Strong Black Women.

All were co-inquirers, seeking to examine and respond to the same research question: “How do African American women understand and experience the relationship between the Strong Black Woman ethic and their health and wellness?” Their responses gave shape to my 2006 research project on the Strong Black Woman Cultural Ethic.

Understanding the Strong Black Woman

The Strong Black Woman Cultural Ethic is an often-unconscious, culturally embedded message that promotes (and often celebrates) toughness and self-sacrificial behaviors—frequently at the expense of Black women’s health and wellness. These behaviors are rooted in African American culture where, from slavery to the present day, many Black women have little choice but to persevere, carry on, and sacrifice for family and others. However, there is a serious health and wellness impact from this constant striving.

Numerous research studies have shown that Black women are overwhelmed by the pursuit of perfectionism, meeting goals, mediating family conflicts, and challenging the criticisms and doubts of others.

Findings from the 2001 Kaiser Women’s Health Survey pointed to the numerous health and wellness challenges facing African American women. Among African American women aged 45 to 64, 57 percent reported suffering from chronic hypertension. Nineteen percent of the co-inquirers from another perspective, describing critical reflection as “a process where individuals engage in some sort of power analysis and try to identify assumptions they hold dear that are actually destroying their sense of well-being and serving the interests of others.” Both of these TL perspectives allowed the women in my study to be in relationship with the ethic in order to fully understand the health and wellness impacts.

Coaching Strong Black Women

Findings from my 2006 study revealed four major themes supporting earlier studies:

  • Generational Behaviors. Observations from Mother models on how to be strong against all odds.
  • Treadmill/Constant Striving. The sense of being forever in pursuit of a goal or set of goals.
  • “I Can Do it by Myself.” A behavior of extreme independence in almost every aspect of life.
  • Tired. Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion—often all at the same time.

All or some of these behaviors may be present in the context of a coaching engagement and may be especially pronounced among African American women senior executives.

To a coach, many of these behaviors may appear to be familiar themes that have been presented by other clients with similar behaviors. The key difference is that, for Black women, many of these behaviors are culturally embedded via our enslaved experience, are culturally expected, and are generationally learned and maintained.

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