The Mask of Wellness: When Is It OK for Women to Say, "I Am Not Well"?

The Mask of Wellness: When Is It OK for Women to Say, “I Am Not Well”?


The great poet Langston Hughes, as he evoked the voice of black women, once wrote, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

This line stands out very strongly, as women–especially black women–strive to find the balance of workload and wellness. We often wonder, is there a balance? Can we reveal when we are not well? What are the consequences of showing my lack of wellness in this moment? Is concealing my pain, discomfort, or illness the best strategy for me right now?

Every day, professional women wake up and try to figure out how to be the best, perform the highest and score the most wins. At the same time, we strive to figure out what strategy works best when. Who is our ally? What biases and stereotypes are being placed on us in this moment? Then, we assess whether we are being valued, respected, and included based on our competence, character, and work ethic. Then, once we are finished thinking about all of that, we wonder, “Do I feel whole? Do I feel well?”

Unfortunately, when the answer to that final question is, “I am not well,” we instantly go into a state of panic and worry. Not panic and worry about our body, well-being, and health, but panic and worry about the consequences of NOT being well and “at our best” in our workplace environments.

The “mask of wellness” haunts SO many women–every day. All the time, professional women have to deal with the judgment, a critique that presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is currently dealing with, in regards to her health. We, as women, consistently overdo it and don’t take the time for our health (emotional, mental, and/or physical). This is due to the negative social and professional consequences of not being “on” and “well” at work. Women often smile through painful monthly periods, hide pregnancies, minimize being sick, refuse to take sick days, don’t take their full maternity leaves, and choose not to cancel meetings, even though we are not feeling well. This pattern of choices is often learned and passed on from mentors…and mothers.

All of it is related to the psychological and social worldviews that women are inferior and not capable of doing what a man can do, especially in the workplace. We then, subsequently, have a fear of confirming a negative stereotype of the “can’t handle the pressure woman”: this is called identity threat. Identity threat then creates a downward spiral of anxiety and distress.

The constant, cyclical, and generational battle of going through this process is tiring and taxing in an immeasurable way. However, women constantly armor up, put on the cape, tighten up the mask, and forge into battle, in “superwoman” fashion. But ladies, we must remember that our armor, cape, and mask doesn’t only protect and defend; it can also suffocate and silence us, at the same time.

When will the day come when a woman can say, “I am not well”? As we see with how presidential nominee Clinton’s illness is being handled, that day is a long way from now. Until that day comes, here are some strategies to manage “the mask of wellness” more smoothly and effectively.

Conduct Consistent “Pulse Checks”

Check in with your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being in a systematic way. Get into the ritual of scheduling doctor and therapist visits consistently.

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

This is not just for the plane, it is for your daily life. How are you going to BE your best, if you are not AT your best?

Don’t Self-Sabotage Your Own Self-Care

No matter what tasks need to be done and what people need to be helped, you have to put your wellness and care first. YOU MATTER!

Delegate and Collaborate

The habit of delegating to others, sharing responsibilities, and collaborating to find synergy is one that will add value and speak life into your wellness. We are not meant to do this thing called life alone! When you know that there is a support net to catch you, it is easier to let go.

Give Yourself Permission to FEEL and BE

It is time to be kind and patient with ourselves. Whether it is chronic stress, anxiety disorders, post-partum depression, fertility challenges, a stubborn pain, or that swelling that won’t go down, give yourself the opportunity to acknowledge it and make a plan to get to a space of wellness and peace.

As we take off our “masks of wellness” and formulate our personal balance between resilience and self-care, please remember these words that Langston Hughes closes his poem with:


“…don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now–

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”



What are ways that you will begin to shed your mask of wellness?  Share your comments below and tweet me your perspectives at @DrAtiraCharles.

Atira Charles, Ph.D., a New York native, is currently an assistant professor of management in the School of Business & Industry at Florida A&M University and Executive Director/Founder of The Mask Project. Charles’ research, consulting, coaching, and diversity training facilitation seeks to shed light on and further understand the unique narratives revolving around the manner in which individuals manage their differences while striving for professional and organizational success.