I had one of those days last week. In addition to the customary 8 hours of hard-grind in the office, I did the following things: a session on the gym treadmill at lunchtime, an optician’s appointment, a trip to the dry cleaner’s, dropped off/picked up my one-year-old daughter from her childminder’s house, bathed/fed/read to my daughter, checked my work email 8 times between 7pm and 11pm, called a friend whose birthday card I’d forgotten to post, cooked dinner, baked a cake to impress my mother who was visiting the next day, speed-read a novel for next week’s book club gathering, helped my husband with a work pitch, and, finally, painted my toenails ahead of a party the following night. I’m exhausted just writing it, so you can imagine how I felt when I finally flopped into bed at midnight, smudging my newly scarlet toenails on the duvet in the process. Then I went to sleep, woke up, and did it all again. I seem to have one of those days every day at the moment.
Sound familiar? If you try writing down everything you do in one day and it won’t fit onto a side of A4, then you, like me, are suffering from Wonder Woman Syndrome. Not only are we juggling the old chestnuts – fulfilling job and a great relationship/family, but our expectations now extend to a house that could cut it on the pages of Elle Deco, the body and wardrobe of an A-list celebrity, domestic goddess skills to rival Nigella Lawson’s, a Sex And The City-style social life and friendship circle… Oh, and let’s throw in a high-octane, talking-point hobby into the mix – maybe competing in triathlons or writing a book in our spare time.
Why do we put ourselves under such pressure to do so much, and be amazing at it all? Well, it’s not something our mothers, and their generation, have taught us. As 77-year-old novelist Fay Weldon puts it: “Being a “complete woman” today really is hard work. The trouble is, given so many choices, we try to do everything and end up exhausted. Back when I was raising my four children and working, expectations of motherhood and childhood were far lower. And now we have to please and even outshine each other. It’s much more tricky. Women have become so competitive with each other. It used to be accepted that only one in five women would be pretty, and the rest would just make the best of it. Now we’ve all got to look fabulous – hence the rise of fashion and plastic surgery.”
Essentially, we think all these things will make us happy. Ed Halliwell is co-author of new book The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less And Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive In A Stressed Out World. “It’s understandable that we’re striving for the things we are, but it’s the process that makes us unhappy. We think that if we get the right job, the right house, the right partner, the right clothes, we’ll be happy. And then there’s this all-pervasive anxiety because it’s not all making us as happy as we think we should be.” Ed’s prescription for this modern malaise, based on meditation techniques, is to ‘be’ more and ‘do’ less. It’s about paying attention and noticing what’s happening in your body, mind and environment – a mental process that’s impossible to undertake when we’re so busy being Wonder Woman. Halliwell’s Mindfulness Report, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation this year, shows that 68 percent of GPs think it would be helpful for their patients to practise mindfulness. Says Halliwell: “Wonder Woman is trying to have it all, but ending up having tiny bits of each aspect of life but none of them fully.”
The current economic and social climates have made it easy for Wonder Woman Syndrome to thrive. The recession has seen a backlash against overt consumerism and materialism – as a result we are obsessed with experiences, with doing worthwhile, enriching things. Looking around my female friends, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t training for a marathon, learning a new language at evening school, baking cupcakes at the weekend or swapping their week-on-a-Spanish beach holiday for an abstemious yoga retreat. The humble hobby has been elevated to a status symbol, part of Wonder Woman’s portfolio of achievements.
What’s more, our continuing fascination with celebrities and their golden lifestyles leads us to feel we should somehow compete. It’s a game we’re destined to lose of course – but who doesn’t feel under pressure to look good in a bikini, having spent all summer seeing photos of stunningly beautiful actresses, models and singers sunbathing on tropical beaches? It’s to the gym quick-sharp for us, then. Meanwhile, our social lives and friendship circles are mushrooming out of control, thanks to the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Recent Ofcom analysis shows that the average Briton now spends 50 per cent of their waking hours watching or using media. Our virtual lives are taking over our real lives. Then there’s the rise of ‘kidulthood’. Whereas we used to move happily from one life phase to the next, now we cling to the trappings of youth as we age. So while our mothers hung up their dancing shoes and gave up their jobs when they had children, our generation puts no age limit on traipsing around music festivals, trawling Topshop, and whatever else it takes to stay on top of cultural and fashion trends. No wonder we’re exhausted.
The consequences of our desire to do so much – and do it all so well – make for stark reading. An extensive study by the US National Bureau Of Economics last years showed that women in the US and the UK are unhappier now than they’ve been in 35 years (men’s happiness is also decreasing but at a slower rate). Depression rates are ever increasing – recent times have seen a slew of female journalists and celebrities writing about their battles with the illness, with NHS Information Centre statistics suggesting that 20 per cent of women suffer from depression or anxiety at some point in their lives. Leeds GP Dr Zoe Goodman says: “I’ve always seen stressed out women but the numbers seeking help are definitely increasing. They’re set up to fail – when you’re that busy, running at 100 per cent capacity, there’s no room for manoeuvre if something goes wrong – if your child is sick for example. Women come to me seeking antibiotics when sometimes I say to them you just need to stop.” Dr Goodman believes the link between women doing too much and drinking too much is clear cut. “Working women feel entitled to crack open a bottle of wine once they’ve made it through a working day.” Office of National Statistics figures last year showed 40 per cent of young women admitting they exceed recommended alcohol limits at least once a week, with cases of twenty and thirtysomethings with severe liver damage, caused by drinking, becoming increasingly prevalent – something that was unheard of a decade ago. It seems even Wonder Woman isn’t infallible.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Gaby Hinsliff, former Political Editor of The Observer who left last year to pursue a less hectic career as a freelance writer, is currently researching a book, Half A Wife, about the changing patterns of work and family life. She thinks a bit of Wonder Woman syndrome can be a good thing. “In my twenties, I took real pride in doing as much as I could. That period is about not limiting your options. I wanted to see and do as many different things as I could at the same time. Your twenties should be about absolutely packing in as much as possible – you’ve got the energy to try on lots of different parts of life for size.” Consultant psychologist Ingrid Collins is also cautiously in favour of Wonder Woman, as long as she knows her limits: “Striving is good as long as it doesn’t go beyond the limits of reason – as a human race we wouldn’t have got anywhere if we had had an idea of a better future. I wouldn’t suggest anyone should settle for less than their dreams. But keep those dreams realistic.”
While our quest for thrilling, fast-paced, multi-faceted lives and the choices that feminism has opened up for us are largely positive developments, there is a sense that we’re starting to question the notion of ‘having it all.’ This is quite a turnaround from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the era of the ‘superwoman’, when having it all was a sacrosanct concept. Actress Emma Thompson said recently: “It’s so false. Sometimes you’ll have some things, and sometimes you’ll have other things. And you do not need it all at once, it’s not good for you.” She may be onto something. By acknowledging and talking about the limits of multi-tasking and the desire for self-improvement, we’re doing womankind a favour by giving ourselves some breathing space. And it’s worth remembering that superheroes aren’t actually real – they’re the stuff of fiction and fantasy, almost always invented by a man. So, who fancies a leisurely lunch and a pedicure then?
The Test: have you got Wonder Woman syndrome?
Credit: Test compiled by Stylist’s life coach Lisa Merrick-Lawless
Circle the answer (a,b,c,d) that corresponds with your thoughts, beliefs and they way you live your life.
Q1. When it comes to having an exciting career, an amazing relationship, a stylish house, a great body and domestic goddess culinary skills I am:
a. Totally committed and will do whatever it takes – life is about grasping ever opportunity with both hands.
b. A believer and I try my best to juggle everything and achieve this
c. It is a nice philosophy but I’m not sure it’s realistic
d. Amazed that people think this is a good thing –it’s not for me
Q2 My virtual world is…
a. As busy as my real world, I am on Facebook and Twitter for a considerable amount of time, every day.
b. Something I like to keep up to speed with, it is important to me
c. Not that important, I dip in and out of it
d. Virtually non-existent, although I did look at my friend’s wedding photos on Facebook once.
Q3 Happiness is….
a. Something I don’t have time to think about. My life is busy and filled with interesting things, so I guess that means I’m happy.
b. What we all strive for, I sometimes forget this though in the midst of everything else
c. Important to me and I try and make time to think about my own happiness
d. The most important thing in life above everything else
Q4 In my spare time I….
a. What spare time? I am always working or doing something. Spare time is for lazy people.
b. Like to get the most out of life. I fill my time with hobbies like climbing, evening classes, baking and photography
c. Manage my time effectively so that I do things I find interesting.
d. Kick back and relax.
Q5 My ambitions are….
a. Too many to list. I plan on doing them all and doing them perfectly.
b. Very important to me, they make me who I am
c. To be the best that I can be at everything I do
d. Part of what I do, but not who I am
Q6 My boundaries (and ability to say no) are..
a. Virtually non-existent, I try to do everything for everyone all of the time – I don’t believe in the word ‘no’.
b. Clear in my own mind but I never seem to enforce them
c. Really important to me, I only do things that I want to do
d. Key to ensure I am in control of my own world
Q7 My stress levels are…
a. Through the roof. I worry about getting ill as a result, but I’m proud of being so busy.
b. High, I can forget to eat, take a break or go to the loo
c. At a useful level, they motivate me but don’t take over
d. Not something I ever really think about. I’m pretty laid back
Q8 I think that being a Wonder Woman is…
a. An accolade. And I’ve have worked hard to deserve it!
b. What we’re all striving for. It’s important for me to know I can do it
c. Great if you can manage it but I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea
d. A ridiculous idea that shows women confirming to societal pressure.
Get out the star-encrusted headband and start spinning in circles, you are the embodiment of Wonder Woman. You have strived for this and are probably very proud of yourself. But is it what you really want?
You have strong Wonder Woman tendencies but perhaps get frustrated sometimes that you’re not quite achieving as much as you think you should. Are you being too hard on yourself?
You display flashes of Wonder Woman-style behaviour, but you do question the validity of this as an over-arching goal in life. You are prioritise being happy over being busy.
You are more interested in a enjoying a wonderful life than being Wonder Woman, and steer clear of stressy over-achievers. A bit of pressure and competition can be motivating and rewarding though, so don’t get complacent.
PART 3 – How to combat Woman Woman Syndrome
Credit: Kerry Potter
1 Eat a mindful meal
Mindfulness is all about appreciating experiences and being fully in the moment. Train your brain to slow down and focus on the task in hand by eating a mindful meal. “Rather than wolfing a sandwich down at your desk at lunchtime, have lunch in a park or somewhere similarly quiet,” says Ed Halliwell. “Stop thinking about your meeting that afternoon or your terrible commute that morning, and instead focus on what you are eating – the flavours, the texture. Pay attention to every mouthful and savour it, enjoy it. Do one task like this and you’ll find it’s more far enjoyable than trying to do 20 things half-heartedly.”
2 Keep a gratitude diary
“Buy a beautiful notebook that you’ll cherish and keep it by your bedside,” says Marie-Claire Carlyle, author of How To Become A Money Magnet. “Each night before you go to sleep, write down 5 things you were grateful for that day – big and small things. Maybe you’re grateful for seeing a close friend who makes me feel great or for having lovely poached eggs on toast for breakfast. It makes you realize how lucky you are and gives you perspective. It trains your mind to look at what’s right, rather than what’s wrong.”
3 Read all about it
Browse Stylist’s recommended reading list. We like The Power Of No: Take Your Life Back With A Two-Letter Word by US writer Beth Wareham. It’ll help you stop taking on too much and it’ll make you laugh too. Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked is a collection of words from the wise – in this case veteran Daily Telegraph agony aunt, Lesley Garner. It’s an elegantly written ‘emotional first aid