“I’m overwhelmed.” It’s one of the things I love about her. So direct. So to the point. So honest about the overwhelm. In the moments following, I felt every ounce of her overwhelm in my bones. My thoughts raced with a response.
“How can I help?”
“What do you need?”
“What can you do about it?”
Luckily, my words behaved differently than my thoughts. I invited her to share more, and together we found a small but helpful solution.
Overwhelm is a completely common experience and at no point are we going to find a magic formula to find this feeling. However, in our day to day life, we do not have to remain beholden to the chaos.
We are too busy. We say yes to everything that comes our way when we want to avoid missing out. But what would we really be missing? There must be a better way for those of us who love the active, engaged, busy lifestyle. We must learn to strike a balance between completely at rest and completely overwhelmed. Finding balance is not about finding a straight line of equal attention between work and play. Balance is learning about what you need more of, and running full tilt in pursuit of what brings you to life.
But it’s not only the extroverted non-stoppers that experience overwhelm. Overwhelm discriminates against no person. The introverted; the overthinkers. At some point, everyone engages overwhelm as if we can truly think our way out of the complexity we’ve found ourselves engulfed within. Overwhelm is not a matter of tasks to accomplish, but of perspective.
When we are overwhelmed, we go into autopilot. We may feel stuck in our roles or decisions, trapped with no way out. We last out at others, apologizing but still feeling the intensity of our reactions. Maybe we shut down and just try to mute the world. This is when the basest version of ourselves leans into self-protection and all the intentional, internal work we’ve done fades away as forgotten.
But did life happen to us? Are we victims of our circumstances or victors? In the middle of all this overwhelm, are we busy attempting to control the world around us or control the quality of our lives, regardless of the world around us?
Even in the pursuit of mental restoration, we can become overwhelmed. At the beginning of 2020 (before the pandemic was a true reality for Americans), I started the year in a pit of despair. My attempts to climb out included multiple self-help guru workbooks, printables, and so damn many lists. As if I could mentally escape by organizing my way through. But in overwhelm, we typically can’t organize our way out of a mowed-down corn maze. Because the overwhelm is not about the jobs we must accomplish.
Tackling the overwhelm is always going to include some mitigation of the task list. One of my favorite ways to do this is to look at my schedule on Sunday evenings and start slashing away. If I don’t see enough margin in the week ahead, I know I will be an unbearable monster to my family and others. Trust me: It is better for me to reschedule our consultation than be unable to focus during our conversation.
The other tools to combat overwhelm include simplifying the amount of noise in your day. If you’re a podcast listener, maybe only pick one or two a day. Are you a writer? Create more content than you consume. If you’re a parent… good luck. I’m with you, and it’s almost always overwhelming. But it’s equal parts incredible as well, so I think it’s a fair trade.
But my absolute favorite tool to combat the overwhelm is not external. Eliminating that locked-in-your-chest feeling of breath means engaging your inner child. Not in a woo-woo way. But from the perspective of one looking for a friend. Overwhelm is not bad – it’s just information. Like smoke leads us to the source of the fire, overwhelm informs our brain that our lives are acting a little too much like kindling.
What if you dropped the ball? What if you cancelled the meeting? Sometimes I’ve followed through on events or jobs I resented because I believed without my commitment, they would fall to pieces. Fun fact: Very few of us are actually that “important” to the minutiae. In the most loving way possible, we must embrace the idea that the world will continue when we stop engaging with it. Does that mean we’re not important as humans? Of course not. But we have an inflated sense of ego that often disallows us from acting from a position of humility first. If we become obsessed with disappointing others or identifying as a lynchpin, we won’t notice the seeds of overwhelm taking root at our feet.
I find the seasons of overwhelm in my life to be the most prominent when I am living outside of my values. The vision I have for my life should be the reason I commit to anything: Careers, volunteering, having more children. We have a responsibility first to honor our vision by weighing the Yes and No responses with equanimity. If we can practice approaching each opportunity with humility and vision for what may come, we can refrain from exerting control and instead allow transformation to occur. Our lives are transformed not only by what we do, but also by what we do not do.
Evaluate the obligations in your story. Are you inline with your values? Do the things that take your time and attention away from the main thing fuel the long term intention of your life? If they all factor in and seem “on brand” for your current mission, are there pieces of the vision that could use a break for a season?
Personally, I have a lot on my plate. I’m an emcee for a women’s group, co-host a podcast, write online for a number of publications, and have a family. That’s leaving out a lot of details, too. But when I get the chance to get my paddle board in the water, I’m layering on the sunblock faster than you can blink. Why? Does paddle boarding fuel the vision for my life or align with my values? Absolutely. In my life, balance looks like seasons. I am fuelled by production, leading, writing, speaking, and more. But paddle boarding is a place where I simply cannot retain anything I produce. I can speak, sing, cry, talk, or lay quietly on the board – and record nothing. Whatever comes of that time is mine. Overwhelm has no place at the table when I’m serving my vision and holding myself in a humble but high regard.
There are a number of ways we can refine our vision, find our values, and give them all names to keep our focus. Rather than spend 3000 words extolling the methodologies that have helped me, I want to empower you to do your own work. Name your values. Name the future you want. Call yourself by the name you want to carry into every interaction. Today, I chose to call myself “sanguine.” It means cheerful, hopeful, confident, and assured. Cheery, even. Is this my constant state? Decidedly not. However, when I recognize the beauty in the word and the alignment with its definition and the values I hold close, I see it is absolutely a name I want for myself.
Do you love your vision – your values? Do you love your future, as it looks right now? Unknown, yes. But with some blurry, lumpy framework ahead. You have an idea of where you’re going, even if it is miniscule and far away. If the ideas and obligations ahead overwhelm you, then it is time for you to take permission to slow down or even stop. Ask some of those “what if” questions to help you determine if something you’ve committed to is ready for a seasonal break (like a podcast) or to be altogether left behind.
Maybe you struggle to determine how you could possibly pull away or retract your commitment. It’s not always about “letting your yes be yes.” I’ve said yes, meant no, followed through and made sure everyone knew how awful it was to participate. It’s a terrible place to be! If this sounds like you, then grab someone you trust and let them dream on your behalf. I tell you the truth: Through this very action, the greatest dreams and adventures in my life have come from seemingly impossible circumstances. Those close to us should know our hearts, our values, and the purpose with which we are saying yes to our obligations. They can help us uncover any unmade or “mindless” decisions that need to be addressed. Let’s invite their wisdom into the calculation of what brings balance to our lives instead of chasing down more “experts.” After all, the experts only know what worked well for them. And in the meantime, let’s be understanding of our shortcomings. We’re not experts, but we are humans. If we’ve made it through today without biting anyone, then I’d say we’re doing a pretty good job.