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How Trying to 'Have It All' Impacts Your Mental Health

As children, some people wanted to be movie stars and queens of the universe, to have pet unicorns and cloaks of invisibility — we could have it all because all we needed was the power of our imaginations. Now that we’re older, having it all looks a lot different. We balance the spinning plates of work, work and more work; elderly parents and/or children; pets; partners or the lack thereof. All this while holding our breath waiting for something to fall. 

This perpetual tension of keeping everything upright and moving isn’t just stressful in that harried Everymom sorta way the advertisements for everything from paper towels to grocery home delivery companies would have us believe — it can have significant consequences for our mental health. 

Why does this happen?

“When someone is trying to ‘have it all’ — which could mean the biggest house on the block, the corner office, the nicest car in the neighborhood and so on — it can impact their mental health because they are playing this perpetual game of chasing things,” Dr. Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, tells SheKnows. 

Masand sees this perpetual pursuit of the better, bigger, bolder life as physically and emotionally destructive. “Once [someone] achieves whatever they were after, they soon want more and start chasing other things,” he adds. “This can lead to stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, constant worry, digestive problems and [other ailments].” He advises people to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses and be grateful for what they have. 

How can we deal with this?

Needless to say, putting this much pressure on yourself can lead to some serious anxiety.

Sara Stanizai, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Prospect Therapy, works to help high achievers deal with their anxiety issues. “’Having it all’ is [a] personal definition for many people,” she tells SheKnows. “The truth is people can have as much as they want; they just need to prioritize. When people fail to be realistic about their bandwidth (which can happen for a number of reasons), that’s when ‘having it all’ feels impossible.” 

Some of the root causes of a more destructive have-it-all mentality in the high achievers can stem from internalizing the expectations of an overly demanding or perfectionist partner, parent or friend; personal feelings of inadequacy; or not having their needs met in childhood or in early, formative relationships, Stanizai explains. This creates a sense that they and they alone are responsible for meeting all their needs (and other people’s as well). 

What does this mean for women?

Women can be particularly vulnerable to “have-it-all-itis” because our cultural expectations for gender roles haven’t evolved as much as we’d like to believe. Koorosh Rassekh, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Evo Health and Wellness, sees an explicitly gendered component to this problem. 

“Women now have access to opportunities that were not available in the past — and that’s a good thing … [however], the world we live in makes it common for men not to step up and support them,” he tells SheKnows. 

Rassekh sees this inequity, in which women are taking on more responsibilities and men’s roles have largely not changed, contributing to stress for women. He notes that stress can manifest in many ways in the body, including by causing anxiety, which can lead to addiction as well as dissatisfaction in relationships and illness and can even exacerbate existing health conditions. Rassekh suggests women look for the broader systemic issues that keep them locked in the cycle of competitiveness and build resilience against shame. 

“Sometimes, trying to have it all leaves you with too little of everything,” Dr. Matthew Goldenberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, tells SheKnows. Goldenberg says he has observed more burnout in women health care providers than in male health care providers, largely because of the internal tug-of-war between work and home. 

“Many of my female professional patients come from relatively progressive and modern families where both partners work,” he says. “However, if the baby is up in the middle of the night or the kiddo is sick at school, they often want Mom. Mom might be in the middle of a surgical case or seeing 30 patients. That pull to be in two places at once, to be a good mother, a good wife, a good friend and good to oneself, I believe hits women much more strongly.” 

Goldenberg advises that women try to assess what is truly important to them and give themselves permission to de-prioritize everything else. 

That house in the best school district or the promotion that comes with a fancy title and whole lot of zeroes might be a lot more attainable than a unicorn (even if they’re a lot less cool), but that doesn’t mean that we should forfeit our mental and physical health and well-being to obtain them. 

We should look at what we need to be happy and comfortable in life and realize that we’ll never live up to the Superwoman who leaps tall buildings inside our minds. We should figure out what the small stuff is and like the trite-but-true slogan says, “Don’t sweat it.”  

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