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Black Girls Don’t Panic: Mental Health in the Workplace

I remember my final semester of doctoral study, a professor of mine said, “You can do everything in the workplace, but be all of yourself”. I knew as a black woman that what she meant was that I had to be very careful about what I shared and when and where I shared it, in professional settings. Black women are among the most educated, talented, and experienced professionals across prominent industries. For years, we have managed and continue to manage, our lives, the lives of others, and the infrastructure that supports so many businesses, organizations, and communities. We are required to out perform colleagues and over deliver on responsibilities. We are likewise required to remain professional in the face of adversity, hatred, harassment, micro and macro aggressions, all while being underpaid and unappreciated. To make matters worse, we are not allowed to panic. Did you know that? Have you ever experienced it? Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

In the last several months, I’ve accepted new job offers, relocated across the country, and started THREE new jobs. That’s right, THREE. As an accountable woman, I recognize that part of this has more to do with my inability to professionally settle and the life-work balance that I require of myself. As a seasoned professional, I have a desire to align professional and personal purpose, while making good money, without requiring the sacrifice of personal and family time. That balance is my largest non-negotiable. So, when I find myself in spaces that dishonor that non-negotiable, I navigate out of them. With that being said, the largest indicator of a dishonorable workplace, is dishonorable people.

Disrespect is closely connected to dishonor. Disrespect surfaces in a number of ways. For me, in my latest professional venture, it surfaced as a lack of boundaries, passive-aggressive communication, disregard for my personal and familial needs, and lack of communication. As I navigated some personal challenges, I was not given the space to grieve, adjust, or the freedom to navigate the situation in the way that white counterparts often do. Professionally, I make zero excuses for the fact that I am juggling 1,00,000 things at a time. I always have. But what became effortless multitasking soon felt like drowning. I felt like I was attempting to juggle balls with my hands tied behind my back. I was literally and figuratively sick. I didn’t have the capacity to navigate all the things life was throwing at me. Up to that point, I thought I worked in a space I would often consider a professional unicorn. I was wrong.

Professional work spaces often prioritize the needs, wants, desires, and norms of men. I’d go a step further to add that even women who operate as men in that they are not the primary caregivers for their children, function as family breadwinners, and in leadership capacities, tend to not lead with the same empathy, concern, or grace as those in lower-level positions who are more nurturing. While I navigated the situation as best I could, my 15+ years in higher education told me that it was time to remove myself from the equation. I grew more and more frustrated. I grew more and more anxious. I was sad and not operating as my best self and I did not feel psychologically safe enough to share why. This led to a series of panic attacks that until now, I’ve never talked about. Even as a mental health counselor, life coach, and student affairs professional, I didn’t recognize what was happening initially. I was hyper-focused on appearing competent, keeping private, and being strong. I pushed my needs, as pressing as they were, to the back of my mind and continued prioritizing everyone else and everything else. Work included. Though it was never acknowledged or appreciated. I thought if I just worked harder, dug deeper, it would all pass. Then I received a call that changed everything for me. The person on the other end of the phone was concerned about my health. They were concerned about the stress and the anxiety that I was experiencing and they advised me to shift to a healthier place before it was too late. So, I did.

My experience was met with confusion dressed up as concern. It was met with distrust dressed up as discipline and it was overwhelming. I didn’t feel valued. I didn’t feel respected. I had colleagues ask why I was being treated the way that I was. They were apologetic, but likewise felt a level of anxiety and fear as it related to what was quickly becoming a toxic work environment. I knew something they didn’t know though, that as a black woman, at a predominantly white campus, my experience was not uncommon. I also knew that as a black woman, reporting to a white executive, there was very little I could do but exit the workplace gracefully. I submitted my resignation letter and it was met with tears, ridicule, and bitterness. Still, it was the best professional decision I have ever made. It reaffirmed for me something that has served me well all these years and that is, when our trust is in He who can’t fail, we won’t, don’t, can’t. I thought about what might be next for me. How I might continue to support my family and elevate as a professional. I wanted to land well and be happy. As a spiritual person, God’s design for my life reigns supreme and the level of faith I have in Him allows me to be free from worry and fear. I know that He, God, is capable of anything. I know that I am not. I don’t rely on myself or concern myself with landing well because God is my pilot. He is the best pilot there is. So when we’re speaking of safe landings, I know that iIf He can’t do it, it won’t be done.

After leaving this role, I wasn’t sure what I would do next. As a practitioner, I knew very well that I had no shortage of options, but I wanted something meaningful, something purposeful, and something that allowed me a level of professional autonomy I hadn’t experienced in my last role. It’s hard to take direction from people who have never been where you want to go. So, there were three things I did that helped me to get to where I wanted to be.

  1. I had to be patient. For me, patience is always coupled with prayer because I am not a patient person, but also because I don’t just want to wait, I want to wait well. I think how we wait is more important than whether we wait or not. I was patient and prayerful.
  2. I was intentional. I didn’t apply for or consider jobs that didn’t meet my standards. I wasn’t going to settle again. I knew what I wanted and even though my livelihood depended on it, I said “no” to everything that wasn’t what I wanted.
  3. I was uncomfortable. I think we tend to think that transitions for other people are not as hard as they are for us. Transitions in general are hard, though. This was a hard transition for me. I had so many personal feelings about the situation and the people involved. Further, I have been gainfully employed since I was 15 years old. Being without income isn’t something I am used to. However, the discomfort was a gift. It led me back to myself and back to the things that matter most to me. It helped me reshape my outlook and refocus my attention to where I wanted to go versus where I was.

Perspective is a powerful tool. How you view, consider, process, and navigate things is often shaped by perspective. Navigating professional spaces as a black woman, that weren’t created for me may always prove challenging. But I am of the mind that it doesn’t always have to be. I now serve in a role and professional environment that is clearly imperfect, but leaning in to the challenging work of centering equity. We’re relying on professionals who are purposed for this work and have found All of us Together Co. to be an incredible partner in this effort.

If you are a person navigating an unhealthy workspace, I invite you to connect with me for guidance, counseling, and coaching to help you better navigate the space and/or prepare to leave it altogether. I am reminded everyday that each day is a gift. One that I don’t want to spend afraid of exploring, afraid of failing, afraid of leaning in, and afraid of panicking. I want to do, be, feel, whole. I deserve to and you do too.

Dr. Marquisha Frost

certified life-coach + counselor + consultant

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