What’s Under the Overwhelm

by Cathy on January 3, 2011

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Photo Courtesy of Pink Sherbert

Well, it’s 10 pm on Monday night–I bet you thought I wouldn’t show up.  Oh, you know I’m trying to keep my commitments.  I do have a small excuse for today’s lateness.  One of my blog posts was published as an article on Biznik.  You may remember the post from a couple of months ago but just in case you missed it, here’s the link to the article.

Anyway, here I am for 2011’s first installment of Taking My Own Medicine Mondays.

Today’s medicine:  What’s Underneath Overwhelm.

“I’m so sorry I haven’t gotten back to you for weeks, I’m just so swamped.”

If I hear myself say that one more time, I’m going to scream. Every night I think about everything I planned to do but didn’t and I feel bad about my growing list of people that I owe e-mails and phone calls to, not to mention the list of tasks that seems to get longer by the day.  I’m tired of feeling like no matter how many hours I work, it doesn’t make a dent.

I’m sick of feeling like I’m on a treadmill to nowhere

Overwhelm exists not because of how much there is to do, but because of how you feel about what you have to do.  Overwhelm enters the scene through a crack in the foundation.  It’s a subtle form of panic. I’ll never get it all done, there’s not enough time, it’s not going to be good enough…
Overwhelm in itself is not real, it’s just a distraction from something deeper.

Overwhelm is fueled by fear;  it’s paralyzing, and makes everything take longer than it needs to.
Overwhelm is a state of mind that exists independently from physical circumstance.  Believe it or not, there are people who have a lot to do in a short period of time and they don’t necessarily go into overwhelm because of it. Some of them are in the zone and they move from one task to the next, happily ticking off their list as they go.

I sat down with my overwhelm and had a little heart to heart.  Here’s what I found out:
Overwhelm is a cover for a deeper issue.   What’s under overwhelm is fear,  doubt in one’s own abilities and disconnection from loving kindness.  Overwhelm gets triggered when the internal drill sergeant steps out and starts shouting out directives.  When we make the decision to look at what we still have left to do, rather than what we’ve accomplished, we’re  stacking the deck against ourselves.  When that inner drill sergeant starts screaming your first reaction is to freeze.  How many times have you been in overwhelm where you feel paralyzed by the recurring thought:  “Where do I start?”

I finally asked myself, what will it take for me to look at and acknowledge everything I’ve done each day and let myself take ownership of that instead of being haunted by everything that’s still left to do.

My desire to feel good would have to be stronger than the desire (or reflex) to punish myself.  I’d have to switch my focus away from what’s not working to what is working.

I’d have to make the decision to practice radical self- love.

And what is that?

It’s not allowing yourself to be bullied.  It’s working with yourself, instead of against yourself.  It’s knowing that if there’s something you need to do but can’t get yourself to do–there’s a very good reason and it’s not that you’re lazy or stupid.  It’s questioning the resistance with non-judgmental curiosity to find out what it wants from you–to find out what you need to feel safe to proceed with the task.  It’s being open enough in the questioning to admit that maybe the task/project  isn’t really in line with who you are and won’t serve your larger purpose.  It’s curiosity without judgment.

Setting the Stage for Success

You can also eliminate overwhelm by setting yourself up for success.  Having unrealistic expectations of what you can accomplish in a day is a set up for failure.  Charlie Gilkey’s blog post about working at 85% capacity with 100% focus is a great way to help avoid failure or burnout or both.

Sometimes it means continuing to take baby steps toward the goal.  Sometimes it means that you have to take the leap already and stop waiting for the perfect moment, circumstance, whatever before you put yourself out there.  You know when there’s more work to do on something and you know when you’re being paralyzed by perfection.
The next time overwhelm rears its ugly head, know that it’s just fear in a different costume.  You can try and outrun it, ignore it, bury it under piles of papers or you can engage with it.  See what it’s come to ask of you. You might need to remember that it’s really not an emergency, that you are capable, or that there’s a really good reason why you can’t get it done on time.  Time is not the enemy, unexamined fear is.  And overwhelm is just a state of mind.

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  • Cathy,

    I resonate with so much of this and I especially liked when you said “I sat down with my overwhelm and had a little heart to heart. Here’s what I found out:” That, in itself, is such a wonderful approach.
    I never thought of doing that. and it's applicable to so many other things….. wonderful food for thought…..now……. I Must Take The Baby Step and Sit With My Own …Whatever….. and learn more about what's going on…..underneath…..


  • CathyWilke

    It's true–it's all about what's underneath. I wish you wonderful epiphanies when you sit down to have your conversation.

  • JC

    Great description of what we go through! Thank you for this insightful and wonderful post.

  • CathyWilke

    I'm glad it helped. Thanks for stopping by Jean.

  • Tina

    I appreciate the approach of engaging the conflicting parts (1. inner drill sergeant and 2. the part in us that resists the sergeant) with non-judgmental, interested curiosity to find out what they want for us… I think perhaps this step is the key to transformation that is often skipped. You nailed it on the head. Thanks Cathy!

  • Adolgetta

    Cathy, As always, your observations are timely. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. Appreciated. Alx

  • Ellen

    Cathy –

    Thanks for the insights – and for identifying the “overwhelm” concept and so perfectly!


  • Ravenkeyes

    I love this so much and will keep it as a treasure to refer back to when I go into overwhelm! Thank you, Cathy!

  • Ritz

    Wow! Great post! It's so true about fear stopping us from reaching our goals. Thanks for all your great insight and practical advice, Cathy!

  • judy

    Yup – I’ll be printing this one and also re-reading this…if I’m not too swamped!  Seriously, it is a tremendous insight to my unique “fight or flight” response.  It’s not that I am tired of fighting…it’s more like I run from my confrontation of fear.  Hence, as you put it, my “overwhelm”. 
    Thanks for giving us all the permission to ‘let up’ on ourselves a bit!

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