SARA IS ONE OF THOSE WOMEN WHO ‘HAS IT ALL’. At age 34, she has a husband, a child and a career she is good at. She has a car, a home, good friends, close family. She has travelled all over the world, she has studied when she has wanted to, she has partied till dawn. She has gone through her life ticking off achievements and dreams on her imaginary clipboard with the zealous glee of an elf at Christmas.

And yet, like many high-achieving, life-mastering women in their 30s, she feels kind of flat. In fact, she feels worse than flat. She feels dissatisfied. Why? Because now she has finally got to the end of her to-do list, she's struggling to manage it all and she feels like she is simply not enjoying it.

SELF-IMPOSED STANDARDS

Sara says, "Some days I feel like I am handling it and like I've got everything under control. But other days I feel like there's so much I need to do that I'll never manage it all. I never finish the day feeling like I got everything done."

For Sara, it's not just the endless pile of domestic chores that hangs over her head, but the things she thinks a woman who is on top of the ‘having-it-all’ game should be doing - making papier mâché planets with her child, for example. Going on dates with her husband. Exercising, pursuing interesting hobbies, making more frequent trips to the nail salon. Family camping trips to the desert - which she says she's been meaning to do all winter, but now can’t see when they’ll find time. The list of 'shoulds' is endless.

Many women living in the UAE are familiar with Sara's list - whether they work or not, whether they are parents are not. We walk around with this prescribed notion of 'perfect living' in our mental back pocket, checking ourselves against it at regular intervals throughout the day and, more often than not, finding our reality is a million miles away from perfect. We know we are lucky, we know we 'should' be satisfied, and yet we find ourselves lacking.

This list is the carrot being dangled in front of our eyes, keeping us going when we get tired and want to collapse on the sofa like a teenager. And yet it is also the whip with which we flog ourselves when we skive off our ongoing quest for perfection.

But where on earth did it come from?

TALKIN 'BOUT OUR GENERATION

In an interview in corporate journal McKinsey Quarterly, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, mother of two and author of career guidance bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, says, "We were raised in my generation with 'You can do anything.' We didn't have the example of trying to do both career and families and it not working. We didn't worry about this at all. I never thought about whether or not I could balance the kids. It just never occurred to me."

Later she says, "No one can have it all. That language is the worst thing that's happened for the women's movement. You know, no one even bothers to apply it to men. It's really pressure on women."

It's refreshing to hear this powerhouse of achievement, who seems to personify the phrase 'having it all’, speaking out against the myth. She's not the only one. Highly successful women the world over are putting their hands in the air and 'fessing up to the ugly truth: you can have it all, but at the cost of your (and possibly your family's) happiness.

Debora Spar, ex-Harvard professor who is now the president of Barnard College (a women-only university in the US), says, "We need to recall that feminism was about freeing women, it was about liberating women. And if all we've done is made ourselves miserable, exhausted and guilty all the time, we've lost the plot."

Read more: 'Dear stay-at-home mum in Dubai...'

BETA FEMALES

Bryony Gordon, working mum, writer and author, says she is a Beta Woman - Beta standing for Busy, Exhausted, Topsy-turvy, All over the place. She says, "Beta Woman long ago stopped trying to juggle balls; she spends her time cleaning them off the floor. Her life is - for want of a better phrase, because the kid had me up at 3am - sublimely standard... We've had enough of being told we can have it all. The reality is that we are simply doing it all."

This description of having it all sounds much like our girl Sara who doesn't have time even to find out what hobby she would like to do, let alone find the time to actually do it. Sara says, "If I just had one role to play, I'd kick the hell out of it. But as it is, instead of being able to achieve potential in one area - work, motherhood, relationship, social life - I am failing in all of them. It's very overwhelming."

THE 'O' WORD

Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at mental health clinic The LightHouse Arabia (www.lighthousearabia.com), says Sara's use of the word 'overwhelming' is a warning signal in itself. But it is not uncommon, she says, for women to feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and underwhelmed by their joy. Dr Afridi calls this condition 'caregiver burnout'.

"We are the first generation of women experiencing this 'having it all' phenomena," she says, "and we have a lot to prove. Also we feel we not only have to achieve it, but we have to maintain it and be role models for other women and for the next generation. So you can't quit, or admit you're not enjoying it... It's hard to come out as a successful, strong woman and say, 'Actually, I don't want it all any more'."

According to Dr Afridi, the solution is to be more realistic with our definition of 'all'. She says, "Women who are trying to have it all think they have all the energy in the world - that their energy is infinite. But it's not. We need to prioritise and some important things simply may not feature on our new list, and that's OK. Women need to learn how to negotiate with themselves and accept that there will always be a cost."

For the woman who has spent her life believing it is possible to fit work, kids, husband, friends, exercise and starting her own business into a 24-hour period, admitting you can't feels a lot like defeat. But Dr Afridi says just because you are capable, it doesn't mean you should. "People think I have it all, but I don't," she confides. "I don't have much of a social life and I don't exercise as much as I used to. Would I like to? Sure. But I know I can't do everything. I'm too tired. I need to save my energy for my work and family. Being able to do it all doesn't mean you have to. It's hard to choose between two things you love... but keeping yourself healthy has to be your top priority and that includes your mental health. You can't be mentally well if you're overwhelmed by your daily life."

SAVE YOU FROM YOU

One of the main issues with the sort of caregiver burnout Dr Afridi is talking about is that it is self-inflicted. Nobody forces us to sign up for that Crossfit class, or to help a friend move house, or to squeeze a play date into our one free morning of the month. The problem with us 'having it all-ers' is that when we see a gap of available time, we quickly fill it with something and then wonder why we end each day feeling wiped out and frazzled.

According to Dr Afridi, it is this lack of free time that sucks all the joy out of our day/week/month/year. She likens it to piling food on to a dinner plate and advises people to leave a little room on the plate - a little space in their mind, or on their calendar - so they have time to take a moment and enjoy the life they are living.

While these difficulties are of course utterly first-world problems (and it can be hard to feel sorry for the well-heeled woman bemoaning her excess of opportunities), caregiver burnout can lead to conditions such as fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression, all of which can have serious health consequences.

It might be time to take a good, hard look at your life and reassess your priorities, says Dr Afridi. "So few people are actually taking the time to enjoy their lives. People don't stop in the moment to enjoy it. They feel if they aren't doing something, they are useless. That if they aren't running all the time, they won't get anywhere. But the opposite is true... Prioritise what's really important and save some space in your life for stillness. That's where the joy will seep in."

Read more: 'Are you suffering from UAE burnout?'