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The Hidden Culprit Behind Women's Mental Health Challenges – Human Giver Syndrome Explored

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As a woman, how often do you notice yourself feeling guilty? Overwhelmed? On the brink of burnout? You are not alone. We are right there with you, silently suffering, without the language to express the full picture of our experience (if we dare to speak out at all).

Living in today's society presents an ongoing struggle to allocate our limited time and energy effectively. Should we dedicate ourselves to advancing our careers, nurturing our relationships, caring for children or aging parents, chasing impossible-to-reach beauty standards, managing our households, becoming community leaders, serving as emotional regulators at home or in the workplace, or prioritizing self-care?

The constant tug-of-war between competing demands—all of which we’re expected to do perfectly, with a smile, and while looking pretty— inevitably leads to a central question: is our purpose in life to become our full, authentic, actualized selves? Or is it to sacrifice our time, ambitions, and desires to serve and support others?

Many women would respond that we are called to do both: live for ourselves and for others. Yet no matter how hard we try to achieve this balance, there is fallout: when we choose to focus on and take of ourselves, we are seen as selfish; when we choose to suppress our personal pursuits to care for others, we are celebrated for making a selfless choice and in turn suffer silently. There is no way to win.

As a therapist specializing in women's mental health, I believe there is a term every woman should know, as it represents the core issues most profoundly impacting women's mental health and well-being: the pressures of societal expectations on women to do it all and be it all, resulting in stress, guilt, and burnout. This term is “Human Giver Syndrome.”

What is Human Giver Syndrome?

"Human Giver Syndrome" (HGS), is a concept coined by philosopher Kate Mann in her 2017 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny and discussed heavily in Emily and Amelia Nagoski's book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle and podcast Feminist Survival Project 2020.

The concept of Human Giver Syndrome depicts a social structure where one class of people—the "human givers"—are expected to devote all aspects of themselves: their time, bodies, attention, mental, physical, and emotional energy in service of others. In contrast, the role of the other class of people—"human beings”—is to receive the support provided by the givers to assist them in achieving their own personal growth and fulfillment.

While this dynamic may seem extreme and reminiscent of a dystopian society, it is a reality that women, often cast in the role of human givers, experience on a daily basis within our patriarchal systems.

Despite progress in women's rights and efforts to combat gender-based oppression, these systems persist, ingrained deeply in our society and psyche. Women are (sort of) considered real people who have rights, dreams, and aspirations, but our individual needs often take a backseat to expectations that prioritize our roles as nurturers, wives, friends, and caregivers, aka: Human Givers.

How is Human Giver Syndrome Perpetuated?

Silence, Shame, and Social Punishment

Have you ever noticed what happens to women who prioritize their own aspirations over conforming to the traditional roles of a nurturing wife, endlessly giving mother, or submissive employee? When they resist the expectations of being a "human giver," they face various forms of backlash. At best, they might be pitied for deviating from our supposed calling (particularly when it comes to motherhood). At worst, they are openly criticized and silenced. Here are a few examples:

  • Negative Perceptions & Expectations of Longer Hours at Work: Career women who are childless by choice in high-profile roles are labeled "cold" and underpaid compared to men. They struggle in dating due to perceptions of being intimidating or not suitable for marriage. They're pressured to work longer hours and take on extra tasks, undervaluing their free time if not spent serving others.

  • Unequal Division of Household Chores & Mental Load: Women bear most of the domestic labor load—even when they work outside of the home—leaving them exhausted. If they seek help, they carry the mental load of tracking and delegating tasks, so they are always to blame when chores are left undone.

  • Difficulty Setting Boundaries & Emotional Labor: Women in heteronormative relationships are expected to take on the majority of emotional labor, ensuring that the male partner feels supported and understood. She might suppress her own emotions to maintain harmony in the relationship and has trouble setting boundaries because society has taught her that asserting her own needs and desires could jeopardize the relationship, leading to a cycle of self-neglect and emotional exhaustion. When a male partner is willing to work on the emotional connection with a female partner, the female partner is put in charge of vetting therapists and coordinating couples counseling. If she doesn't complete this task, therapy often doesn't happen due to the silent expectation that this is her job to coordinate.

The Role of Men & Women with Internalized Misogyny

Because Human Giver Syndrome is deeply ingrained in societal structures, it is perpetuated by both men and women. We are not “blaming” men here . . . it is all of us!

Men may perpetuate HGS, consciously or unconsciously, by expecting women to fulfill the traditional role of nurturers and caregivers. This reinforcement can manifest in various aspects of life, from the workplace to intimate relationships, where women are often expected to manage emotional labor, domestic responsibilities, and even sacrifice their career ambitions for the benefit of the family. True, it's "not all men." But it is enough men—even good men who identify as allies and feminists—that have often-invisible gender biases that allow HGS to survive as part of society.

Women can also contribute to this cycle by reinforcing their own ingrained misogyny. Women who have internalized societal norms and expectations may inadvertently uphold and reinforce these patterns within their social circles and may hold beliefs that enduring sacrifices and adhering to traditional gender roles is not only a personal choice but also a standard by which other women should abide. In many cases, this is seen as the morally right thing to do and can be intertwined with religious doctrine that can lead to trauma when deconstructed.

To combat HGS, women must reflect on their behaviors that manifest as judgment toward other women challenging gender norms. Breaking free of HGS requires challenging patriarchal structures and internalized beliefs, fostering an equitable environment for women to thrive.

Internalized Punishment & Negative Self Talk

What happens when no one is around to reinforce gender-based expectations by shaming women who dare to speak out or expand beyond the role others are comfortable with them fulfilling? We punish ourselves . . . and, unfortunately, each other.

Women experience depression, anxiety, and eating disorders at twice the rate of men, and a key element of these mental health concerns is negative self-talk. In the therapy room, women often admit to trying to motivate themselves by speaking more harshly to themselves than they'd ever dream of doing so to another person. Self-talk such as "you're so lazy for letting the house get so unclean," "everyone else can do this, what's my problem," and "I'm too fat to deserve dinner" are pervasive. When women talk to themselves like this all day, every day, a core belief is formed: they are "not good enough."

The more deeply women believe they are not good enough, the more their negative self-talk grows. Negative self-talk manifests into other self-harming behaviors and the cycle of punishment is complete.

The Toll of Human Giver Syndrome on Women's Mental Health

Human Giver Syndrome takes a heavy toll on women's health, as it negatively impacts their physical, mental, and emotional well-being as they navigate the intricate web of societal expectations. This starts with women experiencing higher rates of trauma resulting from gender-based violence and discrimination which then leads to disproportionately higher rates of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Burnout, characterized by emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion from prolonged stress and overwork is also a risk factor stemming from HGS. Women's perpetual demands to juggle multiple roles—caregiver, professional, partner—contribute to chronic stress, potentially leading to symptoms like extreme fatigue, irritability, a diminished sense of personal accomplishment, and a perpetual sense of overwhelm.

Women internalize societal expectations that are impossible to meet, which produces feelings of inadequacy and a persistent belief that their value is contingent upon their ability to fulfill the roles of caregiver and nurturer. When personal goals and desires conflict with societal expectations, women's self-esteem and self-concept is profoundly impacted, often leading to women meeting criteria for several mental health disorders associated with eating and appearance.

Additionally, The gender pay gap and the glass ceiling are related to HGS because they are expected to serve others and not demand anything in return. Financial inequalities exacerbate the mental health challenges faced by women because they have to work harder to achieve less. Addressing HGS necessitates dismantling these systemic barriers and fostering environments that recognize and support the multifaceted lives of women, prioritizing their mental well-being as an integral part of a more equitable society.

Her Time Therapy is a group mental health practice specialized in providing online counseling for women struggling with burnout, anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, and relationship issues in colorado. Feminist psychotherapy for women online.

How Therapy Can Help Women Break Free from Human Giver Syndrome and Burnout

Contrary to what our patriarchal society has done its best to teach us, women (including trans women and those who are nonbinary) are, in fact, fully-fledged human beings. Despite our biological or expressed gender, we all thrive, individually and as a community, when we are supported and encouraged to express our full humanity.

Therapy can be crucial for women facing HGS and its mental health effects. Feminist counseling, like what we offer at Her Time Therapy, guides you in understanding and overcoming these challenges.

Our therapists can help you explore root causes, challenge internalized beliefs, and develop coping strategies in a supportive environment. Skilled in women's mental health, we can help unravel the connection between burnout, low self-esteem, and HGS, empowering you to assert your needs and break free from its constraints.

If you're ready to embark on a journey of self-discovery and work with a therapist who will provide practical strategies to manage stress, set boundaries, and cultivate a healthier self-concept, contact us for a free consultation today!

Call/Text (720) 255-1667 | | 

Want to learn more about human giver syndrome and how to overcome it?

Read our follow-up post, Empower Yourself: Five Strategies to Overcome Human Giver Syndrome and Reduce Burnout which will help you identify if you're struggling from HGS and provide you with five actionable ways to break out of the HGS cycle that causes burnout and low self-esteem.

meagan clark is a women's mental health therapist in colorado | colorado counselor offering psychotherapy for trauma, grief, anxiety, and burnout online in colorado

About the Author

Meagan Clark, MA LPC NCC BC-TMH is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Founder and Clinical Director of Her Time Therapy, PLLC, a group therapy practice specializing in teletherapy for women. She received her Master of Arts degree in School and Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Adams State University and is a Board Certified Telemental Health Provider and Nationally Certified Counselor. As a psychotherapist, Meagan specializes in working with female-identifying teens and adults who suffer from trauma, relationship issues, anxiety, and grief. She is also a Certified Holistic Cancer coach and specializes in supporting cancer patients and caregivers struggling with compassion fatigue. Meagan believes strongly in the empowering nature of integrative and feminist therapy to give women the knowledge and tools they need to navigate gender-based oppression, increase resiliency, and empower themselves to create a life they love.

*Disclaimer: This blog does not provide medical advice and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed health provider before undertaking a new treatment or health care regimen. 

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