The Architect of Overwhelm
I have had very mixed feelings about writing this article. Should you decide to read on, you may notice the implication that we often have choice about our overwhelm.
I want to come right out and say that overwhelm is not something that can be strictly “controlled”: a central tenant of mindfulness and many meditation practices is noticing and letting go of whatever emotion arises—neither banishing, nor encouraging it further. So I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t experience certain emotional states, like overwhelm, and that we are somehow wrong if we do.
I also wish to be clear that certain circumstances are overwhelming by their very nature: childhood trauma, violence, war, poverty, racism, discrimination and catastrophic life circumstances, are just a few examples. There are many more. And some of us just have complicated life situations which are not purely “controllable.”
But, as evidenced by my decision to write this article, I decided to do so anyway because it reflects my personal truth; if you happen to relate to it, I’m delighted, but in no way am I implying that you should. And, despite my own childhood trauma, whose effects I continue to work with, I have an enormous amount of privilege as a white, cis, mostly able-bodied, financially stable therapist.
As those who read my articles know, I write a lot about the counselling process, which is something that continues to light my fire, even after a decade. But sometimes I like to get personal, and I have often reflected on why I would depart from my favourite topic (counselling!) and bring it home to what I am working on internally. A few reasons come to mind:
- Something or things have happened in my daily life which had a deep impact.
- The impact has prompted curiosity: a desire to understand more.
- I learn a lot through writing; many past and present clients know that I am a fan of journalling for both self-understanding and self-expression, and article-writing is a form of this for me.
- I want to increase personal accountability for making changes in the area I’m exploring by writing it out and making it public.
- I want to challenge the traditional power structure of therapy, which historically has placed counsellors in an expert, secretive, authoritative and emotionally distant role in relation to their clients. LINK Counsellors are people too with struggles no different than the clients they serve.
- Most times writing cheers me up and increases my motivation to work on myself.
Like many people, the never-seeming-to-end COVID-19 pandemic has been overwhelming. While “we’re all in this together” was an-often touted phrase at the beginning of the pandemic, this experience has shown me that we are all in it, but in our own unique ways. I have had the honour of offering counselling support to clients during the pandemic, and many have rightly commented that I am fortunate to be working, while others have acknowledged that being this busy, must bring its own set of challenges; both of these statements are true.
For many years, I have employed a “nose to the grindstone” approach which has included:
- Barreling down and pushing myself to continue beyond the point of fatigue.
- Tuning out from body signals telling me to stop.
- Historically, not being particularly active, which reduces regular communication with my body.
- Operating from old trauma scripts telling me that I will be worthless if I don’t continue, or conversely, scripts that tell me that overwhelm is natural because it’s what I grew up with.
- Unconsciously using busyness as an avoidance tactic to circumvent dealing with personal issues.
And Then Something Happened
While I can’t say that the Something caused a 180 in the way that I am looking at overwhelm, it certainly was a shock to the system. And I like to think that I was ready for this helpful shock, because I had been taking some steps to prime myself for it.
The gist of what occurred was that I received an email from an important person in my life who called me out for not living up to a commitment that I had signed up for, which required regular participation, that I was not initiating. And it got “worse” in that after agreeing that I was remiss in my commitment, but blaming overwhelm, I received feedback that I was making choices in my life that were contributing to this overwhelm.
As this was over email, and because I have deep trust in this person and their motivation to help, not hurt, I had time to really consider this feedback and actually marvel in the depth, yet simplicity, of this message.
In fact, I was quite startled by how basic this message is, and so similar to things that I have said to clients over the years around simplifying and trying not to take on too many things at once. But, I was seeing things in a very different light, almost as if I had a new set of eyes.
What I Noticed
- I frequently take on too much because I like the idea or principle of being able to accomplish more things.
- I gain a false sense of self-esteem by taking on more things than are good for my nervous system.
- I take on things because I think my self worth will suffer if I don’t.
- I enjoy challenging myself but have a hard time understanding where the fun ends and the overwhelm begins.
- I am locked into a particular idea that “must” be completed or else I will feel bad if if don’t, even it it means a ton of extra steps (a classic example is using food before its expiry date, or else I am a wasteful person).
- I worry that people won’t like me if I don’t do ‘all the things,’ succumbing at times to people pleasing, even if I’m not being asked to people-please.
- Having a lot going on can be a “handy” way of avoiding the things—both inside and outside of myself—that I don’t want to deal with.
What I’ve Been Doing About It
So, after internalizing what was said to me and bringing it into my meditation practice for further contemplation, and being the practical person I am, I had to take action that was going to work for me personally. But a pre-requisite for this was being mindful of my expectations, including my tendency towards perfectionism, and asking these parts of myself to step back, whenever possible, so that I could show up for myself.
So far, I have been:
- Believing that in many circumstances, I have a role to play in how much overwhelm I am experiencing: am I making choices or participating in things that might be contributing?
- When overwhelm arises, looking at it as a helpful clue by trying to break it down to a series of “breadcrumbs”, which, if I follow the trail, will lead me to the source. Once there, is this something that I can cut out or modify?
- Being super-kind to the parts of me who think that I will be a “bad person” if I don’t ‘do the things.’ Can I comfort and encourage, rather than critique? Can I find other things to help soothe me?
- Stay reasonably active so that I can be more attuned to my body’s early-warning signals, hinting that overwhelm is on the horizon if I don’t make changes now.
- Learn from the things that overwhelm me and use this self-knowledge to inform future decision-making.
- Recognize that self-care is an important part of life and that for me, it doesn’t really have to do with whether I “deserve” it, but rather it being what I need to operate in my daily life.
- Understand that the decisions I make now will have an impact on my future self.
What I Notice Now
While I am definitely a work in progress, there have been some changes, such as:
- Having a lower threshold for “packing it in”, as my body is saying no sooner and I am listening.
- Finding that I have more time than I ever expected, even having the occasional moment of boredom as I wonder what I am going to do next.
- Having less background “static” in my life which distracts me from other important things. Since technology is a frequent contributor to background mental static for me personally, I unsubscribed from several dozen email lists, have reaffirmed my commitment to no push notifications, and have also been storing my devices when not in use.
- Finding joy in slowing things down: seeing opportunities for doing things differently or taking extra time or care with something that I may have rushed through previously.
- Increased awareness of emotional states because of less distractions, which is actually not necessarily easy. Prioritizing my meditation practice also helps with this.
- Having more fun with the things I do choose to do for leisure since leisure is no longer being subjected to multitasking.
And I would like to end on an important point. It is normal to need support when overwhelmed. Please ask for help and reach out to a trusted friend, family member, crisis service, or counsellor.
Interested in getting my articles delivered to your inbox once a month? Sign up to my newsletter, The Listening Ear.