Grab pen and paper and finish this sentence: “Right now, I’m completely overwhelmed by….”
If you’re like me, and most people, overwhelm is far too familiar. (Your list might go on… and on… and on…)
My annual overwhelm used to be Christmas. A cliché, I know – but let me set the scene…
I’m married to a woman known as the Christmas Angel. (Yes, it’s even her email address.) She wears Christmas socks every day of the year, our Christmas tree went up on 9th November (she’d have preferred October), and I swear she bends time during this festive season because the quantity – and quality – of the presents she gets her loved ones is unprecedented.
For the ten years we’ve been together, I’ve been trying to keep up with her. I’d see her scribbling into her Christmas present book (yes, a whole A4 notebook) and feel a wave of panic that the three ideas on my back-of-an-envelope list were woefully inadequate. We’d compare diaries to talk through arrangements with family, food and decorations and it’d feel like I couldn’t breathe.
Starting to sound familiar?
We’re all overwhelmed by something
I went for lunch with my beloved 90-year old grandma. When the pizza arrived, she stared at her plate in horror. “It’s too big!”, she exclaimed. “I’ll never be able to eat all this!”
I took an online business course earlier this year. There were about 6,000 participants. At first, I tried to keep up with all the comments on our shared online forum, until I realised it was humanly impossible. F.O.M.O. (“fear of missing out”) kicked in.
My friend finds big gatherings overwhelming. She attends a big exhibit like a Mind Body Spirit festival and invariably posts a Facebook status afterwards, saying how unbearably intense it was, and how she couldn’t take it.
Wherever in your life you identify overwhelm, notice how you feel it, both physically and emotionally.
Who owns your overwhelm?
When the world closes in on us during overwhelm, it’s easy to blame others. It’s the fault of my partner, the pizza chef, the business course facilitator, the festival organiser. They’ve given us too much. We can’t take it. They’ve set the expectations too high, they’ve made us feel overwhelmed.
Want to know the truth? They’re just offering us something – and often, it’s something really lovely. They’re not force-feeding us, either with information or food. They’re not making us endure an experience. It’s up to us to take control and decide how much of the goodness we can comfortably digest.
In each of these cases, it’s time to revisit the story we tell ourselves about what we have to do. It’s time to adjust our own self-expectations.
During my coach training, I remember reading in the course manual: “Overwhelm is a choice.” I resisted that at first, disagreed… and then, when I accepted it, it felt such a relief.
It’s a relief to own our own overwhelm – and then find a remedy.
Acknowledge, then act
Once you’ve acknowledged that your overwhelm is yours and it’s because of the stories, rules and expectations you have, it’s time to choose new stories, rules and expectations. Then, you can take action based on these new stories. What do you need to do to mitigate the overwhelm?
Over the years, I’ve acknowledged that my partner and I approach Christmas differently. Thanks to her frequent reassurances that being together and joyful is what matters, I’ve been able to drop the idea that I have to match her giving, and feel content that we’ll have a different number of presents under the tree.
My beloved grandma can acknowledge that her tummy is smaller than the pizza chef expects. At the start of a meal, she now asks for half the pizza to be placed immediately into a take-away container; her new (and very cool) story is: “When I go for pizza, I’m buying enough for lunch and dinner!”
On the business course, I can acknowledge that I’m missing huge chunks of interaction, and that I’ll only connect with a tiny percentage of my fellow participants, and that’s okay. I can make my way through the modules calmly and thoroughly, trusting I’m in the right place and learning plenty.
My friend can acknowledge that she’s sensitive to crowded spaces and can pre-empt this and decide in advance to take frequent fresh air breaks or leave the event early.
Over to you
1) Where do you feel most overwhelmed? What does that feel like – physically and emotionally?
2) What’s the story you’re running that’s producing the overwhelm? (“I need to keep up”, “I need to eat all this”, “I need to stay till the end”, “I need to perform at 100%”.)
3) What’s a new story, rule or expectation that would free you from this overwhelm? What do you need to accept?
4) What empowered, at-choice action can you take from this new perspective?
I’d love to hear from you, so leave a comment below, let us know.
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© Corrina Gordon-Barnes 2013