As a recovering “overwhelm-a-holic,” I spent roughly 20 years as a charter member of the Cult of Busy. The resulting overwhelm affected my health, and my relationships, but I managed to escape the vicious cycle overwhelm creates. Today I passionately advocate for an end to overwhelm. It is not only not required for high achievement –in fact, it obstructs and derails success in most cases.
Many factors that are not a matter of personal choice can contribute to feeling overwhelm. Relationship issues, physical or mental health illness, a demanding job, poor nutrition, financial distress and insecurity, significant life changes, time constraints, death of a loved one, personal traumas such as abuse, and habitual lack of sleep can all trigger the state of overwhelm. Although feeling overwhelm in the face of these situations is not a choice, staying in it, and defining yourself by it, most definitely is.
There’s a saying, “Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” In other words, how we choose to perceive a given situation (not the fact of the situation’s existence) is 100% within our control. There are many legendary stories of individuals who endured – and triumphed over – circumstances that for many seem beyond intolerable. Nelson Mandela. Charlie Plumb. Erik Weihenmayer. Oprah Winfrey. For each of them, their personal victory was one of mind over circumstance.
While we are inspired by their stories, we rarely choose to emulate them. Instead, overwhelm has become the new normal for far more of us. As a matter of fact, we receive tremendous cultural validation for our overwhelm, since it s now seen as a badge of honor. The external luster overwhelm commands doesn’t stand up to intense scrutiny, however, when we look at it from a physical perspective.
Physical Symptoms of Overwhelm
Imagine if instead of telling others how overwhelmed we feel, we shared, “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety at the moment, with a growing sense of depression. I feel my cortisol peaking, my serotonin being depleted, my breathing is shallow, my heart rate is up, and my ability to make good decisions is suffering greatly.” We wouldn’t expect a lot of validation then. In fact, someone hearing that description of overwhelm would be likely to call 911. Yet, that’s an accurate description of the stress effect of overwhelm.
Overwhelm disrupts our sleep, and increases our appetite for sugary and fatty foods. Over time, overwhelm contributes to a lengthy list of diseases by weakening our immune system, and aggravating chronic conditions as well as being linked to stress related ailments. In short, overwhelm can literally kill us.
Before it kills us though, it makes us sick. It slows us down. It robs us of our creativity and our joy. No wonder employee attrition is at its highest level ever.
Not only that – we can’t think straight when we are overwhelmed. Our thought processes become distorted and fuzzy. Whatever stress behaviors we are more prone to – avoidance or argument, criticism, control, or self-judgment and victimization – come to the forefront. We become our worst self, not our best self.
Why We Choose Overwhelm
It seems life presents endless opportunity for overwhelm. Despite the potentially devastating emotional, mental and physical effects it creates, we still sign up for situations that demand more of us than we naturally have personal resources to handle.
Leaders guiding their organization to grow and elevate performance; marketers and technologists navigating strategies that are exploding in frequency, volume and complexity; and single parents trying to fill both traditional and non-traditional roles simultaneously – face ever-increasing pressure to do and be more. Work tends to be the focal point for most overwhelm, while family responsibilities feel like they are competing with work, and just pile on.
The reasons we elect to keep living in an attitude of overwhelm are based in our core beliefs. Core beliefs don’t create the competition – but they do create our perception of the competition (and our idea that they are, in fact, competition in the first place!).
6 Beliefs that Cause Overwhelm
Here are some of the beliefs that put us in a state of chronic, recurring overwhelm, and the shift that, when practiced, alters our experience of the situation:
BELIEF: I am not enough. The idea that in order to be successful at whatever I am attempting requires me to do the work of 2, 3, 4 or 5 people, is a belief that if I don’t, I will fail, disappoint, be rejected, or fired. Only some of that work is actually in my wheelhouse, and mediocrity will be the result – which only feeds the overwhelm. CURE: I am focusing on what I do best. The confidence that my unique ideas, vision, skills and talents are where I can affect the greatest impact and do the most good in the world. This is reinforced when individuals know and live in their core values and personal purpose on a daily basis.
BELIEF: There is not enough. Culturally, we live in a perpetual state of scarcity, lack and dissatisfaction. Money. Followers. Members. Growth. Profit. Influence. Visibility. Power. We are constantly comparing ourselves, or organizations and our relationships to others. The result is we feel superior or inferior (and sometimes, alternately, both). CURE: Gratitude creates more. Gratitude is not for sissies. On the contrary, it takes tremendous clarity and self-composure to remain grateful in the face of rejection, illness, loss, financial strain, market downturns, and conflict. Hardened business leaders may dismiss gratitude as inaction, but in fact, by shifting the focus from markets that are not performing to plan, to those that are, it is possible to see the solution for the entire enterprise. We naturally focus on what isn’t working instead of what is working, but when we shift our focus, we naturally create more of what is working.
BELIEF: Time is running out. Deadline pressures, our lifespans, opportunities and challenges that arise without warning, all fly at us. The sense that missing a chance is final and fatal is pervasive. Taking timely action would be natural, too, if it weren’t that these time-sensitive situations rarely happen in isolation, and often appear to compete fiercely with one another. Physical limits are quickly taxed.
CURE: Only do the next right thing. In order to take effective action, we must be crystal clear what our priorities are. As a spiritual discipline, it is enormously helpful to maintain awareness of what the BIG priorities in life are. If work is the big priority, relationships and self-care can suffer, as an example. But there can only ever be one “next right action” in a given moment, and that is measured against our priorities.
BELIEF: I am the only one who can do this. To be blunt: this is an attempt to be disproportionately in control. It also means that the person doing it alone winds up being the block to their own success and the success of their team. What’s missing is an ability to recruit, trust and allow others to participate in a faster, more effective process.
CURE: Ask for help and plan for help. Typically the reasoning behind not asking for help is either financial or time-constrained. What actually is happening is that the person not asking for help never built “help” into the plan in the first place, or made it a foundational requirement. Help is always available in a wide array of price points and speeds. The point is sustainability, not speed, except in the case of crisis management, and crises tend to occur when help was not in place to begin with.
BELIEF: I can take the abuse. Again, to be blunt, this is a victim mentality. The idea that we would actually damage our bodies, even temporarily, for a gain in power, recognition or wealth is a theme that runs through many professions – from sports to medical training. The bragging rights of all we suffered for our success is not only worthless at the end of our lives, it is absolutely unnecessary for personal fulfillment.
CURE: I will be an example of ease and grace. I often hear, “I can’t believe you do everything you do!” It is an invitation for me to share my trauma, so we can bond over our overwhelm. That’s an invitation I gladly accepted for decades. But it is also an opportunity for me to share how I have learned my limits today, and how grateful I am for the incredible support network I have developed (which I am continuing to grow daily!) as well as where I put my priorities, and how my creativity and sense of time has expanded as a result.
BELIEF: It’s their fault. Whether we are in a workplace that makes inordinate demands on us, or we have leaped into our own business that has an entirely new set of demands we didn’t anticipate, we tend to blame outside conditions for our overwhelm. The risk of financial ruin, unemployment, or other devastating result of “not pushing through” feels far more real than any mental, emotional or physical risk that has not manifested fully. Oh, we don’t like our overwhelm, but the alternative feels even worse.
CURE: I am responsible for my own choices. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do. Certainly there are results we would prefer to avoid, but at the end of the day, we have a wide array of choices in every situation, and if we are choosing overwhelm, it is vitally important we recognize it, and then make that decision consciously. The irony is that when we choose the overwhelm consciously, it automatically lessens as a result.
Studies have shown that while we feel our overwhelm intensely, when those of us claiming overwhelm tracked our time daily – we actually had 30-40 unstructured hours in our week. So, overwhelm is a state of mind – not a state of being. It is a state of mind we can try to escape through food, drugs, alcohol, surfing the internet, binge watching shows, shopping, gossiping, or distracting ourselves with endless tasks we prefer doing to the thing that feels too big to tackle. Many of us are drowning in these distractions to the point of addiction, because we have no idea how to manage the overwhelm.
To manage overwhelm, the first step is to acknowledge we have a choice, and then to consciously choose differently.,