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04 Dec 13

Overwhelmed? Read This

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…

Overwhelmed by christmas presents under the treeI’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.

Overwhelmed by a buffet heaving with food 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

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  1. Linda Anderson

    OMG, I so needed to read this right now – thanks, Corrina, for the wake-up call!

    Interestingly I’m noticing how much I am attached to my overwhelm – there’s a little part of me saying “Pleeease don’t take this away from me”. Why? “Because it means I actually might have to complete something, and that feels a bit scary.”

    I’m off on retreat for a couple of days at the end of this week – will be having a few more conversations with that little part :-)

    Loving the idea that overwhelm is a choice …’
    Linda Anderson´s last blog post ..School leftovers, anyone?

    1. Corrina

      Ah, gosh Linda – I am loving your honesty. Thank you. Let us know what you discover when you retreat :-)

  2. Laura

    1) Where do you feel most overwhelmed? What does that feel like – physically and emotionally?
    Year end angst. How did December come so quickly?

    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%”.)
    I haven’t achieved all the things I wanted to achieve. I should also look at the achievements of my year. I’ll power and focus now until I leave the country to start the x-mas holidays

    3) What’s a new story, rule or expectation that would free you from this overwhelm? What do you need to accept?
    What a big year of taking flight. You are on a journey and that journey is beautiful. I can really intentionally review and plan now. If I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to achieve by the 16th of December I still deserve to go on holiday.

    4) What empowered, at-choice action can you take from this new perspective?
    I am creating a review and preview exercise and article for myself and others and it will be done in time.
    Laura´s last blog post ..Awesome Autumn begins

    1. Corrina

      Laura – Celebrating your wonderful achievements this year. And may your holiday nourish and strengthen you for 2014 :-)

  3. Derek Hassack

    Another great post, Corrina, and very timely (of course).
    I find overwhelm is generally a head thing – if I THINK about what’s going on, everything I’ve got to do etc., then it’s all too much. But if I can get ‘out of my head’ and into my heart, from there I can see that what life is giving me (pizza/crowds/xmas etc) is actually a blessing. So it’s about trust and acceptance, rather than having to meet my own or anyone else’s expectations.
    It’s easier to act well (make the right choices) from a place of acceptance rather than resistance.
    Derek Hassack´s last blog post ..Books – are they good for you?

    1. Corrina

      Derek – It’s so wonderful to hear these come at the right time :-) I’m revisiting The Work by Byron Katie and I love how she helps us move beyond resistance into far more peaceful places. Blessings to you and yours.

  4. kryssie francis

    It’s great to see this post Corrina, overwhelm can happen all too easily; in my own past experience it quickly affects ability to think clearly & become the road to catastrophic burnout. Am re-starting self employment, the rules & regulations are not joined up and alongside paperwork take a lot of energy away. As a nation, we must be losing a lot of creativity by the way this has evolved a “life” where everything so complex.
    In my own situation, after burnout, loss of all & homelessness had happened, I did voluntary work in Egypt for 3 years. Returning to the UK in 2010 to re-establish here; I discover the Animal Act was changed and my work (animal self medication) is outlawed. I am not against animals being protected. Currently am just about surviving and aiming to be adapting & thriving! Love your posts, thanks :)

    1. Corrina

      Thank you for being here, Kryssie – and here’s to you thriving as you take up self-employment again. I can feel your passion and commitment.

  5. Rosie @1ManBandAccts

    I’m taking part in a telesummit in January and I am panicking with only 6 weeks to go! I have the content mostly written and I know it’s more about that I am recovering at the moment from having over-worked for the past 2 months, but it is hard to shift that feeling isn’t it?

    I’m going to put the feelings into a take away container for later. I do that with pizza and cake so why not overwhelm?
    Rosie @1ManBandAccts´s last blog post ..The Self Assessment Tax Return Toolkit

    1. Corrina

      Smiling at your take-away containers, Rosie :-) Yes, it can definitely be hard to shift from overwhelm/overwork so props to you for moving in that direction. Wish you all the best with the telesummit.

  6. Rosemarie

    My parents used to run a village shop. Each day after school I would help serve and stand patiently while some little soul with 10p to spend debated just which selection of penny chews they would have. (I was very small at the time of course!). But that’s the same overwhelm I experience on the web – so many exciting things to play with. Which one shall I play with first and while I’m doing that nothing else is getting done. Overwhelm rapidly develops. It’s hard to break away and accept you are not going to be able to “do” everything. But realising that if I stay playing, I will “do” (i.e. complete) nothing is a reminder.

    Is it an addiction? As you say, Linda, we don’t want to let go. But you have to in the end otherwise you get nowhere. I think this is a really tough one to crack, Corrina, and probably something we all have to keep working on. Lovely post that made me think about all those things :-)
    Rosemarie´s last blog post ..End of the November Challenge

      1. Rosemarie

        Glad it was useful Claire 😉 It’s funny how these things come back – I hadn’t thought about it that way before myself!

  7. Jane

    Thanks for this pertinent article! It feels like rising panic and a tightness in my chest when I see that I’ve taken on too much because I can’t say ‘no’ to things/don’t want to let people down, and that I’ve let other things slide while I concentrate on setting up my business.

    Because I want to be ‘in control’ of it all.

    So when the tears are pricking at my eyes I take a deep breath and sit. Sit with mindfulness and try to put all the stuff that’s running in my head aside. And to remember that I Am Enough; exactly as I am with all that feels broken and fearful. Then go out and meet that fear, to see what it feels like to say ‘no’ to it.
    Jane´s last blog post ..How to get unstuck when you’re feeling bogged down

    1. Corrina

      Jane – You ARE enough x

  8. Lisa McLoughlin

    Golly, overwhelm can so easily enter my life.

    I think it’s the sensitive, introverted side of me. It more often seems to be when I have to do a number of social things in one go that take me out of my comfort zone. I try and push through it but that leads to an unraveling disaster.

    I have learned to accept the overwhelm…but also not allow it to completely stop me being more social. It is a delicate balancing act though.

    Interesting, how my threshold for overwhelm socially has lowered since moving to London..

    I was told by a few people recently (apparently in my best interests) that I looked a bit casual/scruffy and that has affected me (much to the frustration of my self-compassionate perfectly imperfect accepting self) ;).
    Lisa McLoughlin´s last blog post ..Why giving thanks shouldn’t be reserved for the holiday season.

    1. Corrina

      Lisa – Ah, London town! I find I travel around far happier with a copy of The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand in my hand. It helps me avoid the overwhelm of rush-hour on the tube as I’m feeling my heart full of kindness for all around me, rather than – as my sister-in-law described whilst living in London and commuting when pregnant – “Rage… with the desire to kill”. 😉

  9. Esther Lemmens

    Well Corrina, once more it seems you wrote this post especially for me! 😉

    I kinda know overwhelm is a choice. I’m fine with that. The other thing is, it’s a good excuse. Not to procrastinate (any more), but to use as an excuse for not doing things such as socialising, which I just don’t feel up to right now. Not much anyway. So for me, maybe it feels like a valid excuse for saying ‘no’.

    Maybe I feel like I should be up for anything, and be able to handle anything. I know I can handle things, but right now I need to look out for myself and preserve my energy. So that’s what I’m doing, and I feel good about it.

    Esther Lemmens´s last blog post ..Zest for Design

    1. Corrina

      Esther – Yup, just for you :-) Love to you and kudos for preserving your energy. It took a nasty throat infection for me to do that for myself.

  10. claire

    Wow. Once again you hit the nail on the head.
    My point of overwhelm isn’t specifically Christmas, but it’s the new thing of having to send ‘thank you’ cards for everything -especially children’s birthday and xmas presents. I might only have two children, but that’s a huge expectation of thank yous for someone who just can’t keep up with it all. It makes my heart sink, my head hurt and I just feel terribly terribly guilty.
    So, stuff it. I’ve allowed myself to not only be overwhelmed by the task of doing it, but also by the thought of what other people will think and say when they don’t get one. From now on, I’ll say thank you as I always do, maybe send a text and kick the thank you cards out of my horizon. The people who know me understand already (because they get their cards about 6 months late anyway) and the people who don’t want to understand are just going to have to not understand.
    Phew. I feel much better already.
    thank you! (and just be super glad that you get more pressies than your partner – what’s not to love about that!)
    claire´s last blog post ..Surviving Christmas without trashing all the good work: part 1

    1. Corrina

      Claire – It sounds like you’re modelling sanity for your children.

  11. Leda Sammarco

    Very timely post. Thank you, Corrina. I find decision-making overwhelming as I procrastinate and become fearful about what to do, and go back and forth weighing up the pros and cons. Gosh, I’m feeling overwhelmed just writing about it! For me, I think the key is to focus on being in the present moment – a fear-free zone – and from there decide what to do or take some quiet time so I can hear what my intuition is saying. I think it’s also about respecting our own limits and realising that we can choose to be overwhelmed or not. I remember reading in Danielle LaPorte’s Book, ‘The Fire Starter Sessions’- ‘If something is on your plate, it’s because you said yes to it.’ So true!

    1. Corrina

      Ah, thank you for that quote from Danielle, Leda – a beautiful one. Enjoy spending time with your intuition… and as Clare Kerrison (improv teacher extraordinaire) says: “There is no wrong decision. There is no right decision. There is only the decision.”

  12. Jennifer

    I get overwhelmed sometimes when I feel there has been an injustice and I’m not standing up for myself, yet at the same time I’m trying to avoid conflict so there’s an inner tussle going on! There’s a sense of dread that somehow takes over me until I ‘face the fear’ directly and take the challenge that for some reason life is handing to me. The story I am running is ‘you have no rights’ and the rule I need to get me through it is ‘you are able to let it go but just have your say first and be clear where you stand.’ It’s probably apparent that this is an issue for me right this very moment after something that happened today!!

    1. Corrina

      Jennifer – Ah, sounds like this was a very fresh topic for you – and I’m so happy you can identify a new rule.

  13. Laura Thomas

    Thanks Corrina, this is a great post and highly relevant to me. Last week I was at The Business Show in London and this is like prime overwhelm territory for me. It was my third time though and I only went for one day and told myself that this was ok and I wouldn’t miss out. This was quite hard!

    This was a big step because back in June and Nov last year I maxed out the whole event, tried to attend every talk and stand to learn everything I could (which is impossible anyway). Then I wrote a long list of all the things I’d learnt and what actions I should be doing but I just got overwelmed by it all and ended up feeling that because I couldn’t do everything I was going to miss out and mess up. It was so bad one day at the show I think I actually cried!

    I need to accept that things will happen in their own way at the right time. I’m on a progressive journey towards doing this, training my mind. Likewise I’m part of a course with over a 1000 participants and so like you I need to accept I’m still learning if I don’t manage to read everything or comment.

    It was also really helpful reading everyone else’s experiences with this!
    Laura Thomas´s last blog post ..Sugar-free inspiration: meet Stephanie Fleming

    1. Corrina

      Laura – Isn’t there amazing wisdom in this community? Thank you for being part of it :-)

      One of our Passion to Profit participants once shared an amazing quote: “What is FOR you will not go BY you.” i.e. you cannot miss out on what you’re meant to do/have/experience.

      I’m so happy you’ve taken this big step away from the overwhelm of last year – congrats!

  14. Helene Poulakou

    House chores are a complete nightmare, and the one thing that drives me crazy even in minimal quantities!
    No way to escape them though, and I’ve let go of my perfectionist attitude in this area a long time ago. Could I please only cook, and have a jinn lantern for the rest of it? (sigh)
    Helene Poulakou´s last blog post ..Satyr’s Leisure

    1. Corrina

      Helene – Sigh indeed, when I hear the freedom of letting go.

      Jinn lantern on its way 😉

  15. Roxy.ahmed

    Thank you Corrina – this post is just what i needed to read write now, even though when i initially saw it i was thinking i am too blooming i overwhelm to have time to read another post! :-) But glad i did :-)

    I so resonated with FOMO – in the past i used to stress myself out trying to keep up with Facebook forums, but like you found it humanely impossible and since just deciding to take a step back and telling myself t in your own time and at your own pace – i feel such calm within myself.

    I think everytime you do something from the place of “I should” – thats a red flag waving telling you that you are trying too hard and not being true to yourself.. Thank you for the great post and great reminder x
    Roxy.ahmed´s last blog post ..Gratitude Is The New Black

    1. Corrina

      Roxy – “I should” is a red flag. Love it. Thank you :-)

  16. Devi

    Corrina, thank you for this post. I love the idea of FOMO. I need a computer that is not connected to the internet. I can’t believe I just thought of that!

    I did a one week media deprivation week (as suggested in The Artists Way At Work) back in October. I had done it before about 15 years ago and found it hard, but this time it was excrutiating. I totally failed. I found myself absent mindedly picking up my 7 year olds reading books and reading them cover to cover. I turned on the radio in the car or by my bed. And I even checked my emails once a day, despite having created an out of office reply telling people I wouldn’t.

    Despite that, it still did me a lot of good. Just taking the constant bombardment down several notches, after August and September being filled with high levels of work (fun and stimulating, but not sustainable). I think Xmas is going to be the same. A chance to take everything down to a simpler level. Remain mindful. Allow priorities for 2014 to tell me what they are, rather than worrying at everything constantly.

    Thanks for reminding me!
    Devi´s last blog post ..Book Review: Making A Living Without a Job by Barbara Winter

  17. Lisa Nichols (@TheBookMums)

    Opening day of B-School 2014 is the perfect time to share this post. I am re-taking it this year with two local buddies who have just signed up and we are already talking about overwhelm and it JUST went live!

    My overwhelm comes from being easily distracted by bright shiny objects. As soon as I start something, I see something else, and something else … I have come to the decision that this is my strength and I need a VA to throw these ideas over my shoulder to! I’ll let you know how THAT works out 😉


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