JOY woman 5393 x 4073 300 dpi Thinkstock dv1055047If you don’t have a friend just like Ayanna Allen, then you might be like Ayanna yourself. A dermatologist with a thriving Atlanta-based practice, Allen appears to have everything a woman could want. At 39, she’s strong, beautiful, confident, successful and blessed with a daughter, Mya. But she is virtually overwhelmed by her multiple responsibilities to family, friends and community. In part, because of her upbringing in the South and teachings from growing up in the church, her understanding of what it means to have a significant presence in others’ lives, paralleled with a type-A personality, motivates her to keep on keeping on, no matter how she feels.

But at times she admits, “It’s only through God’s grace that I make it from day to day. It’s really a challenge to do everything … and do it well.”

When she does slow down for a moment of personal reflection, she’s preoccupied with thoughts that she somehow has not done enough. Instead of loving herself and congratulating herself for her many assets, she internalizes guilt and shame, and minimizes her best self. She unwittingly damages her self-esteem and saps her emotional strength.

Allen, like so many of us, has lost her connection to the source of power that lies deep within each of us: resiliency, centered on a healthy love of self. She is deeply invested in her relationships with others, but she has lost touch with her relationship with herself.

Being deeply in touch with your true needs and living a balanced life is the key to great mental health, happiness and better overall health.

Finding Your Center

In counseling women about how to create more fulfilling and peaceful lives, I tell them it begins with learning to accept and celebrate your unique beauty. While many of have learned to let go of the Superwoman Syndrome, many of us are still trying to please all of the people, nearly all of the time, with little consideration of our own needs.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? Research suggests that black women are often confronted with a constellation of multiple issues that can engender stress, such as balancing work and home demands, handling difficult life circumstances, managing personal relationships, nurturing identity development and creating a purpose in life that motivates them toward positive goals and an orientation for achievement and success.

For many middle-class black women the concept of “leaving others behind” by enjoying success also brings waves of guilt that may increase our risk of developing anxiety and depression. Many of us are also drained by a constant battle against negative stereotypes. You know the story — we are too angry, too promiscuous, too headstrong.

Instead of focusing on the negative, look around you at the many black women that are simply making a positive impact on the world — Melissa Harris-Perry, Iyanla Vanzant, Terrie Williams, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice to name a few. Many of us are also carrying hurts from the past, living with unresolved traumas from abuse or exposure to crime. In many ways, our culture supports us, but in some families, secrets fester and build negativity and resentment for those who have experienced traumatic situations. In the face of all of this, there’s one sure path to joy. It may be a cliché, but the trick is learning to become your own best friend.

Love yourself. It’s easy to say, but what does it really mean? First, stop beating yourself up for any imperfections. Focus on what you do well, and acknowledge one of your positive traits each day.

Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Take a deep breath; step back from the panic. Try not to overreact or obsess on the problem. Look at things carefully. In most cases, once we become calm, we realize things are not as bad as they seem.

Eliminate negative influences from your life! Decide to surround yourself with positive people and positive programming. If you are stuck in a toxic relationship or a job you can’t leave, avoid internalizing negative cues from your environment. Find other sources of happiness.

Enjoy life. Pamper yourself, hang with good friends and engage in activities that energize, inspire and uplift you. Try to find a reason to laugh out loud every day.

Commit to adding balance to your life. Learn to integrate work and play when possible and treat your body with respect.

Be aware of personal strengths. Take an inventory of your strengths, consider, “When am I at my best?” “What am I usually doing, and how does it make me feel?” Continue to cultivate your best attributes that make you feel confident, and incorporate these into your daily life as much as you can.

Free yourself from “shoulds.” Live your life on the basis of what is possible for you and what feels right to you instead of what you or others think you should do. Don’t let other people distract you from identifying and fulfilling your own needs, abilities, interests and personal goals.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself first. This is not being selfish; it’s basic self-care. Recognize and take care of your own needs and wants first. Identify what really fulfills you — not just immediate gratification. Respecting your deeper needs will increase your sense of worth and well-being.

Set achievable goals. Establish goals on the basis of what you can realistically achieve, and then work step by step to develop your potential.

Experience success. Seek out and put yourself in situations in which the probability of success is high. Look for projects that stretch — but don’t overwhelm — your abilities. Imagine yourself succeeding. Whatever you accomplish, let yourself acknowledge and experience success and good feelings about it.

Risk happiness. New experiences are learning experiences, which can build self-confidence. Expect to make mistakes as part of the process; don’t be disappointed if you don’t do it perfectly. Feel good about trying something new, making progress and increasing your competence.

Solve problems. Don’t avoid problems. Face them and identify ways to cope.

Get help when you need it. Don’t fall prey to cultural taboos against seeking mental-health care. Seeking care from a psychologist or psychiatrist is a great first step to addressing mental and emotional problems head on.