We’re not specific about what exactly it means when we say “I’m overwhelmed.”
In this way, overwhelm is kind of like a stifling blanket of vagueness. We keep spinning in it, saying things like, “I just want to stop being overwhelmed” or “I feel so overwhelmed I can’t move forward.”
That’s the trick (and sometimes the gift) of overwhelm — it keeps us in the dark about what’s really going on with us. It keeps us spinning, obsessing, fighting, or zoning out.
Sometimes it is effective, when we realize we’re overwhelmed, to cut right through the “overwhelm story” and ask ourselves how we want to feel. And then, when we know how we want to feel, we can ask ourselves what would help us feel that way.
Sometimes, though, it’s more helpful to actually pull apart the overwhelm — to look at it as a mass that is made up of a number of components, and get really specific about those components.
What we call “overwhelm” is, in many ways, an attempt to focus on too much at once. So if we pull apart the elements of it, we can start to see what it is made up of. We can start to remove focus from pieces of it, and focus only on what we choose to focus on.
For example, as I mentioned in my last post, I have a move on the horizon, but I don’t know exactly where or when I’ll be moving. I am dying for more clarity around this move — the uncertainty, on some days, feels like it’s driving me crazy!
What I noticed a few days ago is that even though I have this fairly giant thing on my horizon, which is requiring a certain amount of focus and energy (looking at finances, neighborhoods, apartments, storage possibilities), I’d been demanding of myself that I focus on other “big things” as well. And my attention had become scattered and paper-thin.
So yesterday, I let go of a freelance project I’d taken on because it seemed like a good opportunity.
What I found was that even though my mind couldn’t pass up the opportunity, it was actually a terrible time to bring in another thing to take energy and focus from me, especially when it was a thing that didn’t totally light me up.
When I let go of the project, I also felt the overwhelm whoosh out of my body. From this place of more lightness and peace, my move and the elements surrounding it feel so much more doable.
Here are a few ways to get specific about what’s really going on if you’re feeling overwhelmed:
* Instead of saying, “I’m overwhelmed,” say, “I’m sensing overwhelm within me.”
This will create separation between you and the feeling of overwhelm. (You are not the feeling!) Then see what comes up. What happens when you recognize that you are bigger than the feeling of overwhelm?
* Give yourself ten minutes to write down what you’re feeling overwhelmed about.
Do this stream-of-consciousness — don’t try to “get it right.” (And don’t go on for longer than ten minutes — set a timer if you must.)
Then, read over what you’ve written. Notice what jumps out at you. Is there something here that you’re giving a lot of attention to that doesn’t warrant it? Is there anything you wrote down that you can just drop? Does it truly all have equal priority? (My guess is no!)
It can help to consult your “future self” here. If you were to ask you-five-years-from-now which of these issues is important, what does “future you” have to say?
* Bring your focus to your body.
What does your body feel like right now, while you’re in this space of overwhelm? Is it tightness in your abdomen, a clenched jaw, a headache? Shallow breathing? As you breathe, notice what thoughts bubble up for you with these body sensations.
The thought I had was, “If I don’t do this project, I’ll regret it.” I asked myself if this thought was true. What felt more true was, “If I DO this project, I’ll regret it.” That felt more true because doing the project was adding to my to-do list during an already stressful time, rather than taking away stress by giving me an opportunity! And that made it easier to let go.
* Ask yourself if perfectionism plays a role in your overwhelm.
Frequently, the idea that we have to “do it all well” triggers overwhelm because on some level we know it’s not possible or worthwhile. This creates a conflict — part of our attention is on “doing it all well” and part of our attention is on that nagging knowledge that we can’t do it all well.
If you had permission to show up for all parts of your life with C+ rather than A+ effort, how would that change your feeling of overwhelm? Is it possible that showing up in and of itself is enough?
What helps you break down this thing we call “overwhelm”? I’d love to hear what works for you.
And, if you’re struggling with overwhelm on an ongoing basis, you may want to check out my Stellar Self-Care (for Sensitive Creatives) program. You can learn more about that, and my other offerings, here.