Have you ever taken time to consider how you handle overwhelm? There are plenty of memes on the internet that make jokes about drinking or running away, but have you ever paid close attention to how your body reacts? As individuals, we all experience overwhelm a bit differently.
Overwhelm manifests in me in a few ways:
I have an insatiable desire to nap. Overwhelm has caused me to nap at strange times, which keeps me from sleeping at night. This causes me to drink more caffeine and anyone who has seen me on too much caffeine can share that it isn’t pretty.
I snap at the people closest to me, especially my kids. This one is superfun because snapping at those I love while overwhelmed comes with a guilt chaser. Bonus, right?
I am completely inefficient in all areas of my life. I get fewer things accomplished, what does get accomplished is done poorly and my confidence tanks. This often leads to beating myself up for not being able to get it all done, and all done well, a vicious cycle indeed.
With a reputation for being highly responsive, responding quickly to almost every correspondence (regardless of priority level) has been a bit of a calling card. I have become the ‘go-to’ for a lot of people in my life: Family, my staff, friends, friends of friends, neighbors and so on. I like helping people and I like being a resource. When I get overwhelmed, my responsiveness rate diminishes, and I end up hurting feelings, missing (internal) deadlines and I can sound abrasive or condescending in my speech.
One of my professors shared some wisdom when it comes to email: “I manage my emails, they don’t manage me. If it were an emergency it wouldn’t be in an email”.
This led me to wonder: Why am I feeling overwhelmed? Are there a lot of things for me to do? Yes. Do I have a full life with several responsibilities? Yes. Am I in danger? Are my kids in danger? Is ANYONE I know in the world right now, in danger? No. Not at all. Then what in the world am I freaking out about? Why am I so overwhelmed? What imaginary goal am I attempting to achieve?
If you’re reading this and have also found yourself freaking out over running out of paper clips, not being class mom or forgetting that the dog needs to go the groomer, here’s a little insight.
Charles Darwin performed an experiment regarding the “fight or flight” response we all experience when stressed or frightened. I’ll not get into all the details, but he wrote in his journal, “My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.” This statement came after he flinched when a snake lunged at him. The snake was behind a thick glass and could never get to him and yet, he flinched.
What makes you flinch? Are you afraid that you’ll be a bad mother? A bad boss? A bad spouse? A daughter? A bad sister? A bad friend?
I’m afraid of all of these things. I’m willing to say things like, “I’m a bad dancer” or “I curse too much.” These things are true and they’re easy things for me to admit. Admitting any of the others makes me feel like the snake has gotten through the glass.
So, how do we manage overwhelm? Just because we’re not injected with venom by a giant snake doesn’t mean that our responsibilities are unimportant. Here are some tips from someone who hates underperforming and has successful bouts mitigating overwhelm. It’s a journey, not a destination!
Review the key components of your life and pick out the 3 most important things in your life. I fully realize that the most important things in your life may not be things at all. Dedicate your efforts to giving these things your fullest attention. 20 mins of focused attention is far better than 2 hours of in-person, distracted, non-attention.
2. Identify the true need
As a parent, I have a naturally protective tendency regarding my children. But what am I protecting them from? My kids lead very safe lives. We have a neighborhood of trusted families, they attend good schools, there is very little crime. This is an immeasurable blessing and yet, I worry about them. I worry about the world treating them as I would. The truth is that the world is ugly and they will need to know how to navigate it. What my children truly need is my attention, not my protection. My time would be better spent talking to them. Making them feel loved, trusted, and valued rather than worrying. Worrying just wastes time and won’t serve them or me. Spending time with my children is the best way to prepare them for the world and what life brings. Bar None.
3. Prepare for what you can
“Well begun is half done.” Nothing gets me more overwhelmed than lack of preparation or a need for perfection. Whether you need to give a speech, pitch a client, talk to your son about his first fist fight or first girlfriend, prepare for it. Life is fun in its unpredictability. There are some things that you can anticipate coming and, for those things, do your best to prepare. I live and die by my calendar and I find that scheduling time, even for breaks, helps me manage overwhelm.
4. Learn the art of the delegation and to say “NO”.
Saying “No” is so simple, but it isn’t easy. I’m fully aware that I’m echoing some self-help authors, but it bears repeating. I’m going to put out a thought here and maybe some of you can identify with it. Have you ever agreed to attend an event, a dinner, a lunch meeting with someone you really care about and then regretted agreeing to it? Do you feel pangs of resentment? I have. The weird thing for me is that “yes” in those situations is a “yes” to the person, not necessarily the event. The event is taking up time I don’t have, but yet, I love the person who is associated with it. This should be a “no”.
This same concept goes for delegating. I often want to be at the forefront of everything. It’s not FOMO exactly, but more that I want to be supportive to my staff, my family, my friends. This is simply not possible 100% of the time. If I’m rushing through or not fully engaged, how is that supportive?
Not unlike saying “no”, it’s so simple. We do it every day and yet, the simple act of finding your breath, acknowledging it, feeling it and slowing your mind down enough to follow it, can truly be transformative. I use a breathing technique for myself and my children. My boys have gone so far as to tell me to pause for a breath. I’ve often heard people say they don’t know how to meditate. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Sit in your car and breathe. Before a presentation, giving a speech, talking to an angry client or your new mother in law, take 20 seconds and breathe intentionally. Not only can it help the feelings of overwhelm, you’ll be more capable of handling whatever challenge sits before you.
I’m not an expert on human nature or a productivity specialist. What I am is experienced. I’ve been there, sisters. I’ve been scared. Unsure. I’ve failed gloriously in countless way.
I’ve also tasted victory. I’ve kicked ass. I’ve been humbled by the beauty of the imperfect and marveled at what can be overcome and accomplished. It’s there for you too. If you take the time to look around and accept the messiness of it all, you’ll see that life was not meant to be conquered, but it can be managed and maybe more importantly lived with intention and presence.
By: Trish Saemann