We've all heard the "superhero" label applied to a variety of people - essential services workers during the pandemic being one recent group. It is really a form of flattery and appreciation but this metaphor can be a harmful mindset for people .
Modern superheros of every type are glorified for "saving the world" with their "superhuman strength", "superhuman abilities" ,or "superhuman origin". Superman's family died in the devastation and destruction of his home planet. Batman's family were murdered. Let's face it -- name a superhero and you will see an archetype of tragic relationships, terrible pain and emotional issues left unaddressed because the world must rely on them to save it. There aren't alternatives.
While glorified for their deeds, superheroes are not included in the daily lives of people. They are separated but revered as a higher standard. "Superman never made any money saving the world from Solomon Grundy", but in the mythical world of superhero lives, it isn't needed to survive. He isn't real and his personal sacrifice is not what is exposed.
Superhero syndrome shows it ugly nature in many ways one of which is when we feel guilty for taking a sick day. Our feelings of "I am abandoning my co-workers" or "they can't survive without me" mean that our self-care is dismissed .
It shows up when we struggle to delegate work to our team members for fear of it not being done "my way".
It shows up when we repeatedly leave our family relationships hanging to focus on work.
It shows up when we ignore our body's messages and find ourselves suddenly critically ill or damaged.
As the uber-individualist, the isolate superhero is cut off from healthy relationships because of the need the world has to be saved (yes even the superheros of X-Men are individuals more than a community-- just consider the broken relationships many of them have in their stories) and these relationships could be used against them by evildoers . They put their personal needs last and only use their nature for the benefit of others. It is glorified as a selfless act and through this selflessness , this self-erasure, they become heroes.
Great for a movie plot or a meme. In human life, this behaviour can lead to poor coping mechanisms, serious illness and ultimately burnout.
Humans are not superheroes and even labeling some as such allows the greater structural forces of our society to continue to underhire and overburden individual workers. Let's face it, most workplaces are not staffed above a minimum level and sicktime is tightly managed. In some places there isn't paid sick time so the disincentive to stay home when unwell is even greater. The message is "don't get sick" and if you do "work anyway". Even during this current pandemic, with all of the "if you are sick stay home" messaging, there is still the underlying pressure of knowing your team will likely work short, that your paycheque could suffer, or that your work will remain undone and will pile up until you get back.
We govern ourselves according to prevailing social norms, and if our norm is the superhero, we minimize our personal health, relationships, and outcomes for this "greater good". The mindset we instill in ourselves (and the one that is rewarded socially) is that we are indispensible , uniquely special, and if not present then there is a negative impact to our team, our company and ourselves.
In short our presence is valued more than our health.
People doing all kinds of work _should_ be praised for doing a good job and even held up as examples when, for a time, they go above and beyond the expectations of the daily work for the good of all. But then instead of flimsy and harmful titles like Superhero, how about we reward that behaviour with better time off, more emphasis on connections and relationships, flexible work schedules that honour family life and a metric that tracks wellbeing and happiness?
Do you find yourself being a superhero? What would encourage you to value your health and ditch the superhero cape?
Let's start there.
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