Forget super and try for good enough

July 28, 1996|By Susan Reimer

SUPERWOMAN is dead. And Cathleen Gray, therapist and lecturer, thinks she died of exhaustion.

Superwoman did it all for so long -- she got up at 4 a.m. so she could start doing it early and stayed up late to finish doing it -- that she finally just dropped over dead.

An autopsy revealed Superwoman had worked her fingers to the bone, walked her legs off, run herself ragged and worried herself sick until finally she was dead tired. Then she was just dead.

"The work is never done," says Gray, who also teaches in the department of social work at Catholic University in Washington. "Most women I know have taken on a profession not as a substitute for staying at home but as an add-on to their home responsibilities.

"And we have continued to feel judged by how we keep that home. Whether it is clean, whether it is organized, whether dinner is on the table, how we entertain. We feel judged in a way that men don't feel judged."

Who are these judges that torment us with their opinion of us? A vague group Gray calls "all other women." Our neighbors, our friends, our sisters, our mothers? Perhaps. Or perhaps we are judging us by some internal standard placed there by all these other women.

"We have been socialized since we were little girls to allow ourselves to be valued by our house," says Gray. Even when we take on a profession or a job, we try to live by the standards set by women of another time.

"We still feel responsible, and every reaction after that is a reaction to being judged," saysGray. "We have never been able to accept the 'good enough.' "

What Gray sees among her clients -- and in herself, she easily admits -- is more than a refusal to delegate, to let go.

What she sees is women raising their hands to volunteer before they are even asked.

"When a need is stated, we take it on. Some job will be mentioned, and we will think it is ours to do.

"We don't do what men do, which is ask first if it needs to be done, and, second, do I want to do it?"

Each of the responsibilities we take on, each of the jobs we assume we must do if it is to get done, each of these tasks is worthy of our time when taken by itself.

But put them all together, and we have a calendar scribbled to the margins and a head filled with anger and resentment.

"The women of my generation are angry and dissatisfied and full of disappointment," says Gray, speaking of her friends as well as her clients.

"We have to stop assuming that every problem that comes along is on our list. We are overly responsible. We think we are the only ones who know the right way. So we take it on, and when we get overloaded, we feel angry."

Gray suggests that women "learn the fine art of disappointing someone.

"Which of the many things that have to get done today will I let go of, knowing that I will have to disappoint someone in some way every single day?" she asks.

Gray preaches a philosophy of "good enough" and a life of balance. A life that combines reduced standards and little self-indulgences to counter the giving and the doing for others.

"Cooking soup, getting my hair cut. The little things we do for ourselves, for a life in balance, are often the first things we give up, and then we are mad at everyone around us.

"Make a list of things that soothe you, and make sure you are doing one of those things every day," she says.

Gray stops in the middle of this advice and laughs at herself.

"Make a list of how not to be a Superwoman," she says. "Then tear it up, along with the list of things to do today."

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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