Inger Burnett-Zeigler ’02 Advocates for Black Women’s Self-Care

Clinical psychologist warns of the costs of addressing the needs of others to the exclusion of one’s own mental and physical health

A portrait of Inger Burnett-Ziegler seated.
Inger Burnet-Zeigler has published a self-help book aimed at encouraging Black women to prioritize their own wellness. (Photo provided)

“Many—myself included—wear the badge of Strong Black Woman with honor,” clinical psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler ’02 wrote in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. “We are proud of our tenaciousness and never let the world see us crack. But we are suffering silently with the mental and physical health consequences of carrying the burden of family, work, and community responsibilities, compounded by personal experiences of trauma and loss, all in an environment of pervasive racial and gender discrimination.”

That essay, headlined “The Strong and Stressed Black Woman,” has now been expanded into Burnett-Zeigler’s first book.

Published in late June by Amistad (an imprint of HarperCollins), Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen addresses the mental and emotional challenges facing Black women—with examples drawn not only from the author’s friends, family, and patients, but also her own life. A psychology major on the Hill, Burnett-Zeigler earned a PhD from Northwestern; in addition to her clinical practice, she’s an associate professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

In your book, you write, “My strength is my vulnerability.” What do you mean by that?

Our strength allows us to be resilient, to repeatedly face and overcome difficult situations; that’s the positive side. On the other hand, being a strong Black woman has meant not attending to our emotional and physical needs, sacrificing the self in service of others, and having some unhealthy coping behaviors.

What I offer is that we can be both. We can be strong, resilient, and accomplished, we can be caregivers to our families, and also hold space for ourselves. We can talk about depression and anxiety, speak about family trauma, and set boundaries. Traditionally, we’ve avoided and denied those painful spaces—and that perpetuates the cycle.

The cover of "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen"
Said Publishers Weekly of Burnett-Zeigler’s book: “This thorough analysis effectively pulls back the curtain on the emotional and health barriers Black women face to suggest practical strategies for change.”

Why devote your first book to this issue?

Across the socioeconomic spectrum, Black women experience a disproportionate burden of stress related to finances, employment, racism, discrimination, childhood trauma, and intimate partner violence. That impacts not only mental health but also physical health, but there hasn’t been a lot of conversation around it; culturally, we Black women are oriented to push through, to survive, to get things done, to care for our families, to show up at work, to present ourselves as having it all together. So I wanted to raise awareness, not only for society at large, but also to invite us as Black women to reflect on our needs; to prioritize self-care; to understand what depression, anxiety, and trauma look like, and then give some insights into how we can heal.

Many therapists have firm boundaries against talking about themselves. Why did you share your experiences, like family history and romantic relationships?

It was my own reckoning with being a strong Black woman and being able to be vulnerable. This is something I advocate as a therapist, and I wanted to model it. I know there are a lot of other Black women like me, who externally are accomplished and seem to have it all together, but behind closed doors are dealing with a lot of issues and are afraid to talk about them.

There’s an opportunity for real, tangible, institutional shifts toward equity and justice.

You describe a long-standing stigma in the Black community against mental healthcare, as well as mistrust of the medical system in general. Is that changing?

I do think a shift is happening. Popular figures—like Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, Serena Williams, and Beyoncé—are talking about stress, depression, and postpartum depression, and that opens up the conversation for others. But mistrust of the mental health system is still real.

I’ve heard people say, “Is this information going to be used to lock me up, to make me lose my job, to take my children away?” In a society where people regularly confront racism, sexism, and discrimination, they’re afraid of the consequences of being vulnerable. That’s a reason why it’s critical to have more diverse representation in providers—it’s key to rebuilding that trust.

As one of the relatively few Black women in clinical psychology, are you overwhelmed by demand for your services?

Absolutely, and it’s the same for all my colleagues. It’s heartbreaking when people seek help and providers don’t have space. It further highlights the need for more services in under-resourced communities and for more diverse, culturally competent providers.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

That they’re not alone. So many people whom I’ve worked with in therapy are experiencing intense suffering that they haven’t felt safe to talk about. That silence and secrecy keeps them feeling like they’re the only ones going through this. I want them to know that there’s a community of people who not only share their experience, but can offer them support. I want people to recognize how stress and trauma have impacted them. And I hope the book will plant the seeds for people to think about new ways that they can take care of themselves and live joyous, fulfilling, healthy, lives.

Your book has come out in the midst of a racial reckoning in this country. How do you feel about the fact that it’s been published at this moment?

The conversations that are prevalent now—about how racism impacts the lives of Black people—have been at the forefront of my mind for a long time. Clinically, I see even more trauma now, particularly racial trauma. Intense discussions in the workplace, the violence that’s shown in the media—they’re exacerbating the trauma that so many Black people have experienced. A lot of people are feeling even more overwhelmed and triggered—and angry, because this is something we’ve been dealing with every day. That said, there’s some hopefulness. There’s an opportunity for real, tangible, institutional shifts toward equity and justice. I hope this moment is sustained.

Published October 5, 2021


Comments

  1. Natasha Blackshear, Class of 1993

    Dr. Ziegler, thank you for writing such a book. Based on this article, I just ordered it. It seems to me, a book that is very much needed.

  2. Jahnay, Class of 2023

    Dr.Zeigler, you are truly an inspiration. Thank you for making space for this conversation.

  3. Christina Horsford

    Dr. Burnett-Zeigler,
    Thank you for writing and for validating many of our experiences. We need to embrace our strengths and also address mental health in our communities. Well done! I’ll buy your book. Take care.

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