Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women
“provides both practical and clinical advice with an emphasis on improving Black Women’s emotional and physical health through trauma resolution, exercise, mindfulness, support systems, self-compassion, setting boundaries, and seeking joy.”
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen is ripe for our times. As our country undergoes a wrenching racial reckoning, Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a Black licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, takes us deep into the historical roots and culture that have shaped the psyches of Black women. Part memoir, social psychology text, and self-help manual, this book is nothing less than a call to therapy for Black women. Although it is written for them and addresses their unique circumstances, it also speaks to the psychological and emotional oppression suffered by all women.
The book details the “childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, relationship baggage, pregnancy trauma, absentee fathers, and mother child-separations” that Black women have endured. It explains the need to challenge “the tradition of secret keeping in our [the Black] community and its relationship to intergenerational patterns and cycles that perpetuate suffering.” Then it moves on to address how Black women can “make new choices for what they want for themselves and to live long, healthier lives.”
The author explains how the essence of Black femininity rests on the deeply ingrained need to be strong—as a provider, homemaker, and caretaker. A Black woman has to always be her best, hide her vulnerability, put others’ needs before her own, and set aside her desires and dreams. This pressure makes it difficult for her to say no and may cause her to develop a savior complex, believing that if she doesn’t do it—whatever it is—it won’t get done. Even when she is frightened and feels she will never be enough, she walks with her head held high and appears confident and proud.
Because of these contradictions, Black women detach from their intrinsic wants and emotions and view their own needs as weakness. Burnett-Zeigler’s aim is to gradually and gently dismantle this façade. She does so by teaching them that life is for more than suffering; helping them “create a healthy balance between strength and vulnerability”; and encouraging them to disengage from self-sacrifice, co-dependency and trauma bonding and, to instead take care of themselves for a change.
Burnett-Zeigler spares us none of the pain and struggles she and her female forebearers suffered. Her grandmother exemplified the strong prototype she writes about, leaving her husband in 1951 and moving from Alabama to Chicago. She supported herself and young daughter by working as a seamstress while attending junior college at night and then going on to receive a bachelor’s degree and buy her own home. As is typical for Black Women, to succeed against the odds, she had to shut off her feelings which meant denying her own needs and refusing to ask for help.
The author’s mother took up with abusive men, including a husband she divorced. She eventually settled down with a married family man who gave her a daughter, Dr. Burnett-Zeigler. Although her grandmother and mother taught her to be strong by their words and deeds, they failed to teach her how to cope with her intense emotions that began in adolescence due, in part, to her non-traditional household and a father whom she felt she did not belong to. The most poignant part of the book describes the author’s broken engagement, long-term relationship with an abuser, bouts of depression and anxiety, struggle to understand herself through therapy, and eventual emotional healing and post-traumatic growth.
The book details the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, from Black female slaves being raped by their masters and forced to raise their children to their own offspring being sold off against their will. Backed up by statistics, we learn about the blatant discriminatory practices embedded in our culture as well as the micro-aggressions perpetrated against Black women today which have left them hypervigilant and insecure, angry and frightened. The author examines the societal and family traumas that Black women suffer—sexual abuse, job and housing discrimination, poverty, poor health care, childhood neglect and abandonment, and too often falling through the cracks of our ostensibly supportive educational and social service institutions.
Burnett-Zeigler’s goal is to show Black women how mental health counseling can help them heal and transform themselves in ways they have yet to imagine. Examples from her sessions illustrate what really happens in therapy—the questions she asks, the answers she gives, and the discussions between therapist and client which promote enlightenment and change. Using vignettes and case studies of friends, acquaintances, clients and celebrities, she makes Black women’s problems—and progress—come alive. She includes reflective questions, teaches about the abuse cycle and other aspects of psychology, and provides both practical and clinical advice with an emphasis on improving Black Women’s emotional and physical health through trauma resolution, exercise, mindfulness, support systems, self-compassion, setting boundaries, and seeking joy.