In a 2018 New York Times op-ed, “The Strong and Stressed Black Woman,” Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, wrote about the roadblocks that keep Black women from receiving mental health care. She expands on the piece in Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (Amistad, July), an “excellent debut,” PW said, that “effectively pulls back the curtain on the emotional and health barriers Black women face to suggest practical strategies for change.” Here, the author discusses the ways in which her book “opens up the conversation for us to let go of the things we’ve been taught that aren’t serving us, and create new models of healing and wellness.”
How do you address self-care within the context of systemic change?
As a researcher, I appreciate the ways that systemic factors perpetuate being unwell. The book does not focus on systemic changes, however—it approaches self-care from the perspective of the individual steps that we can take, with a recognition that the workplace, neighborhoods, racial violence, and economic disparities also play into these poor mental health outcomes that a lot of people are experiencing. It’s about Black women’s mental health, challenging the burdens that we take on, challenging the ways that we talk about our mental health, the ways that we exude energy and show up in the world.
Why bring a personal lens to your research interests?
I am a Black woman and I’m susceptible to the ideals of the “strong Black woman” and not talking about emotional suffering. This book challenged me to contend with what I promote to others and what I show of myself. The light bulb moment was in the conversations I had with my mom, who answered my many questions about my grandmother, grandfather, and her early dating relationships. Through these conversations I learned about her challenges in dating, feeling undesirable and like “nobody wanted me,” and desperately wanting to be married and have a family and not being able to make that happen. When I heard my mother talk about these experiences for the first time, I heard her say out loud many things I had felt and experienced, but that we’d never before talked about. It was like the generational cycle of relationship challenges was playing out right before my eyes.
How do you want readers to use your book?
I hope it provides an opportunity for people to reflect on the emotional challenges that they might be experiencing and the different factors that are contributing to that. So often we look past our emotions and just push through. When we’re not paying attention to our pain and suffering, and the conditions that contribute to our distress, that’s fertile ground for us to be mentally unwell. Mindful awareness is slowing down and asking yourself, how am I feeling right now? What sensations am I experiencing in my body? If there is discomfort or distress, what’s contributing to that? What do I need to do to take care of myself right now? What might bring me joy, peace, comfort, or pleasure in this moment? This awakening and confrontation is a necessary part of healing and growth. Being mindfully aware is inviting ourselves to wake up and be fully present in the world, to confront our truth, whatever that may be.