It’s really easy to talk about being overwhelmed when you’re overwhelmed by hard things – but it’s harder to talk about overwhelm when all things are GOOD.
When left unchecked, our first response to Goodness-Overwhelm can be to complain or self-sabotage to subconsciously “balance things out” (kind of like how we hold ourselves back when we think we’re only allowed to have one “thing” we’re good at…). You might even feel selfish or guilty about being overwhelmed in the first place. If I can’t handle the good, am I even WORTHY of it?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, especially if the things making you overwhelmed are GOOD things, here are six simple strategies – three internal, three external – to help you proactively persevere through whatever whirlwind you’re facing.
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I’ve always been a sucker for late 90s, early 2000s rom-coms. The soundtracks! The star power! The good person getting the job and winning the man!
(there’s always the man. more on that in a sec.)
I still love me a good rom-com for sentimental reasons. But the most clichéd ones? They’re now rough to watch.Many require you to majorly suspend your disbelief as you watch a completely problematic and unrealistic situation magically work itself out, and many (at least many of the early ones) reinforced a trope created in decades prior that looking, acting, and responding in a very particular way will get you what you want and deserve in life.
My main issue with rom coms when I watch them now, however, is this:
In many of these so-called “girl powered” movies, the storyline follows women positioning themselves as experts in a field, but somehow, they’re unable to tackle the problems they’re so good at solving when those problems hit the closest to home (dating expert, advice columnist, wedding planner…you get the gist). That’s usually when the man – or someone else – comes in and saves her or shows her the light. It’s rare that we’re shown how to move forward fearlessly when shit gets real, and how to do it on our own. And the message is that when darkness or hardship looms, someone or something will swoop in to save us and make us feel worthwhile again.
We need a new model for what to do when it all feels like too much.
You can know your through-line, crush Casual Negativity, and be a pro at shifting your self-talk…when life is going pretty well overall. But what happens when the you-know-what hits the fan, and it keeps hitting the fan? What happens when you’re in major need of a WIN, and that win just isn’t coming your way?
Here are five strategies for when life won’t let up:
1.) Focus on getting to NOW-Normal instead of BACK-To-Normal.
When things suck, we want to make them not-suck. We want to “get back to normal” or “the way things were back then.” THEN, of course, being a time when there were limited obstacles and you felt in control. This is totally expected and totally natural.
However, normal NOW isn’t the same as normal THEN. You’ve got a new normal in the Now.
Instead of trying to force old habits into a new set of circumstances, focus on accepting this new normal – not trying to adjust to make things like “what they were,” but maximizing “how they ARE.” What might have been easy or routine for you before simply might not work as well for your lifestyle right now.
Making lifestyle choices and developing positive habits, then, become like a game. What WILL feel good? What WILL stick? Inthis episode of the WANTcast with Lynn Chen, she tells us that when her father died and she was too overcome with grief to do anything, she treated her life like she was recovering from amnesia. Trying things out, from foods to workouts, to see what resonated and what didn’t. ZERO pressure to stick with one thing, and ZERO ties to what once worked.
When life feels the most challenging, do like Lynn and do a scavenger hunt to find your Now-Normal. If something doesn’t really stick, you have full permission to move on. If there’s a spark there, try it again. And again. And again.
I am NOTHING for ANYONE if I am not GROUNDING for myself. And so when shit starts to hit the fan – or when everything, good or not-so-good, feels like it’s coming at me all at once – I schedule what’s called “white space.” It’s time that is all your own, that you don’t plan to fill and don’t schedule over. It’s both everything and nothingness.
It can be an hour. It can be three minutes. It doesn’t need to be formalized “meditation.” It doesn’t need to be productive OR unproductive. But I’ve learned that white space time, time that belongs to ME and ME ALONE, time that’s like the “white space” on a canvas – TBD, no paint, open to possibility – is a deal maker or breaker for me. If I don’t take time to reconnect to myself with no external stimuli or things to answer to, and don’t take time when I need it most, I end up going off the rails.
After I wrote about my Instgram bully, I had many people write to me privately about their experiences with harassment and, specifically, others telling them to feel compassion for their bully as a coping mechanism. And how fucking INFURIATING that can be. For me, it’s moments like these that remind me why I practice white-space-moments on the regular. So that when shit gets real…when I’m hurt, when I’m highly emotionally triggered…I can pause even for a SECOND and remember who the F I am and what the F I stand for.Without anyone telling me who I am or what I SHOULD BE. It’s in these moments, these seemingly-millisecond moments, I’m able to do the thing that’s most proactive, not reactive (see last point). That I’m able to be the way I know I’m meant to be, not the way someone else told me I should respond.
I practice those white-space moments not for the moments I’m necessarily in. But for the moments in the future when I’ll need them most. It’s sunglasses in the subway and walking back and forth outside before I go and join the party. It’s hiding in the bathroom before networking not because I’m scared but because I can’t bear to not be myself. It’s what I do when the stakes are low so I know where to go when the stakes are high. It’s not the most sexy or socially acceptable thing but it’s what keeps me going. It’s not easy work, but it sure is right.
4.) Nix the one-sided emotional labor and replace it with a two-sided emotional investment.
This one is maybe the most profound (and hardest) for me. Emotional labor is what it sounds like: doing the emotional work to make something function. It’s actually a good thing, but becomes dangerous when it is ridiculously one-sided…and in which case, it’s usually the women who are doing the work.
Emotional labor can look like being the one who is constantly dissecting your friend’s toxic relationships and convincing them to see the light (then they do it again and you do it again, and so on and so forth). Emotional labor can look like putting on a happy face for your partner and “being a light” for them as they continuously stew in their own troubles. Emotional labor can mean decoding the unspoken subtext at work so that everyone can actually get things done. Emotional labor is brushing off micro-aggressions because they’re “not really that big” and “not really worth it” andexcusing your bully in the name of “compassion.” Emotional labor is why it’s so exhausting to be a barista or a server or in the service/hospitality industry in any capacity: you’re soaking in the emotions of each and every customer, many of whom are taking their daily aggravations out on you. It’s your job to keep the peace and “put a smile on their face.”
If you’re in the service/hospitality industry, there are going to be parts of one-sided emotional labor that are unavoidable – you need to figure out your own personal boundaries, makes, and breaks. But let’s talk outside of those instances.
Emotional labor is taxing, and gives all your good stuff to others while leaving zilch for yourself. You can’t drink from an empty well, so to speak. And it’s when we’re feeling empty, depleted, and emotionally dehydrated that things turn really dark.
An emotional INVESTMENT, however, is different. By definition, an investment is “an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.” Start-ups present investors with data, proof points, and projections for a reason: to let them know their money isn’t going to waste and their investment won’t make them go bankrupt.
With an emotional investment, if you’re devoting your emotional time, effort, and energy to something, you’re going to see a return. Emotional investments might not be two-ways in the moment, but you’ve got proof points that when you need it, you’ll be getting that investment back in your direction. That’s why investors don’t just pour money into companies that sound cool, and why you shouldn’t invest in people who aren’t going to ever give back to you. That’s not being a friend. That’s being a savior, and dehydrating and bankrupting yourself of your most valuable assets.
When you’re feeling like the bad stuff won’t stop, immediately cut ties from one-sided emotional labor. This is the time your emotional investments should be making a return in the form of love, check-ins, and support while you slowly start to build up your emotional funds again. It’s not the time for you to mindlessly spend as you continue to overdraft.
5.) Ask yourself: is this decision PROACTIVE or REACTIVE?
When making decisions during tough, emotionally heavy times, I always ask, “Is this decision proactive, or reactive?” Its a practice that got me through a really horrible breakup in my 20s and it’s yet to fail me. Am I reacting to my situation and letting it dictate my actions, or am I proactively moving THROUGH the darkness, the fear, the anger, the confusion, the whatever-it-is, to make my way through to the other side? Here’s a post I wrote for some encouragement when it comes to taking and embracing the small steps that end up making a huge difference.
Above all, know that the know is not the forever. This is a moment in time – a chapter of your story. And while it’s just one chapter, how you choose to read it will inform how you view the other chapters to come.
The storm will pass and the dust will settle, and you’ll still be standing. But the great thing is, you won’t need saving, and you won’t need anyone to “show you the light.” You get to be the star, and you get to write your own success story.
Sometimes it can seem as if the world is out to get us; that when it rains it pours and when it’s sunny it’s blinding. General consensus was that 2016 was the former – and if you’re anything like me, the last month or so has been the latter.
It’s really easy to talk about being overwhelmed when you’re overwhelmed by hard things – but it’s harder to talk about overwhelm when all things are GOOD. Mainly because, well, our inner critic tells us there’s nothing to be overwhelmed about. Overwhelm, it says, is about NEGATIVITY. And there’s nothing negative happening here. Snap out of it.
I’m no stranger to enrolling myself into Camp Overwhelm, usually unknowingly. And many times, it happens when the most opportunities are at my feet. I end up feeling anxious, self-sabotage, and the cycle repeats. Or I just have a breakdown. Either or. (Insert half-smile emoji here.)
I’m getting better at it. The things that used to overwhelm me no longer do. I remind myself I’ve done this before, I’ll do it again, and this is just another one for the list. But as a self-proclaimed go-getter, I sometimes back myself into a corner of so much good I don’t know what to do with it. My mind instantly starts up with the negative self-talk. Jeez Katie. First world problems. You’re overwhelmed because you’ve got so much opportunity. Be grateful, why don’t you?? The voice gets louder and louder and I sink into shame from feeling like my overwhelm means I’m not appreciative or happy. Which, of course, makes me a whole lot less happy.
Part of the reason we get overwhelmed when too many good things happen is that we try to give everything our full attention all at once. Think of it like an overcharged phone or camera battery circa 1990something: just like if you’d leave your device plugged in for too long it would overheat, when we live life in a constant state of bouncing from one high-high to the next, we burn out.
But the bigger problem, and reason why a plethora of positivity can swiftly turn negative – is because negativity is the language we’re using all too often on a day to day basis. It’s so easy to creep into negative talk in positive moments – so easy, in fact, that you might not realize you’ve gotten into the habit of it until good things come your way. It’s the language we use, the way that we bond, the tool we break out when we feel alone or scared or hurt or unsure or even just ambivalent. We can’t expect to truly understand and accept the good moments if we haven’t been practicing the language.
When left unchecked, our first response to Goodness-Overwhelm can be to complain or retreat intoself-sabotagey behaviorsto subconsciously “balance things out” (kind of like how we hold ourselves back when we think we’re only allowed to have one “thing” we’re good at…). You might even feel selfish or guilty about being overwhelmed in the first place. If I can’t handle the good, am I even WORTHY of it?
I always used to wonder why soonlyweds got so -zilla’d out over wedding planning, and now I understand why: when so much good comes your way, you sometimes don’t know where to start. When you’re faced with an impending new beginning – whether it be a marriage or move or career opportunity – the giddy anticipation combined with the things you need to (nay, WANT to) do can bring out the best and most grateful person in you…or the most anxious and insecure. Moreover, if you haven’t been actively keeping your language in check, internally and externally, the good can feel foreign. You’re going from one extreme to the other – and are in unfamiliar territory without even knowing it.
I’m not going to get into the multitudes of ways you can manage your negative self-talk – that’s what this site is for. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, especially if the things making you overwhelmed are GOOD things, here are six simple strategies – three internal, three external – to help you proactively persevere through whatever whirlwind you’re facing:
• INTERNAL: SEPARATE THE EMOTION FROM THE SITUATION. The same rules apply when you’re dealing with overwhelm for positive reasons and negative or tedious reasons – because whether it’s a plethora of happy or aggravating things to focus your attention on, it’s still producing the same reaction. The difference is that when you’re overwhelmed with negative stuff, you’re more likely to force yourself to go a positive, proactive place. When you’re overwhelmed with positive stuff, it’s easier to pile on the guilt or negativity. Overwhelm isn’t a positive or negative thing – it’s just an emotional reaction to a situation at hand.
• INTERNAL: GET HONEST. Sometimes, overwhelm comes from the sheer amount of things occurring all at once…but sometimes, it goes a lot deeper. If you’ve got a lot on your plate, it’s time to skip to the next step. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed because you don’t think you deserve goodness or are afraid you’ll be disappointed, it’s time to recognize that. Are you overwhelmed because of the quantity of good things themselves – or because you don’t think you deserve them? Or do you secretly think it’s all too good to be true, and you might lose whatever has come your way? My friend Jen likes to say that “You can’t kill a good thing” – meaning that if something comes your way that is good, it’s yours for the keeping. Still skeptical? Read up on how to tackleGhost Worries.
• INTERNAL: GET GRATEFUL. Oh jeez, you’re probably thinking. Another article on the internet telling me to be grateful for all the things I have. Hear me out for a sec. When I say “grateful,” I don’t mean flipping a switch to the warm and fuzzies. We cannot wait for gratitude to come. We must actively wedge the language of gratitude into our consciousness. And that doesn’t always feel warm and fuzzy. Gratitude starts by stepping outside your emotions and pragmatically recognizing the good things in our lives, which are all around you. Self-sabotage comes in when the positive things in our lives simply become tasks to check off a to-do list or burdens we feel we need to carry – basically, when we lose touch with how wonderful these individual instances actually are. Practice seeing wonderful things, even if it feels forced or contrived or doesn’t feel all that wonderful in the moment. Learning a new language isn’t about conversing right away – it’s about repeating single words over and over until they become second nature.
• EXTERNAL: PRIORITIZE. After you’ve gotten real, gotten honest with yourself, and made gratitude a priority, get to prioritizing. Often times when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we’ll make decisions based on short-term relief instead of long-term success. Look at your day or week and compile a list of top to-dos. What is most important? What is most urgent? The things that are both important and urgent go at the top – they’re the things that matter most. What’s purely urgent (and not important) is usually reactionary and stress-inducing – skip them for now. We usually place so much importance on urgency we forget what is truly top-of-the-list material. Depending on your day, choose 3-5 top priority items, then draw a line and list the rest of your to-dos below that. Resist the urge to cross the line yourself (see below) until all the both-important-and-urgent items are taken care of.
Most importantly, do not be afraid to say no to as much as you need to. This might seem easy when your to-do list is filled with awesome things – but for some reason, we tend to over-extend ourselves OUT of that state of happy bliss way too often. When we’re overwhelmed and can’t see straight, we forget that the ability to say “no” and move forward, or just let certain things happen – not being a walking “yes” or people pleaser 24/7 – is the true sign of a leader who has things under control. And ps, who is able to enjoy the good things as they come her way.
• EXTERNAL: PICK YOUR PARTNERS. If you’ve ever read any sort of self-helpy article about busy-ness or overwhelm, you’ve probably learned by now to ask for help when you’ve got a lot to do. And it’s been repeated over and over again because it’s true: you simply cannot tackle every single thing in your life alone. Delegating tasks to others works. Loosening the reins of control over those things you don’t need to have a firm grasp upon (but need to get done) helps save your sanity and also forms a sense of camaraderie. A few suggestions: enlist those closest to you, visit TaskRabbit.com, and delegate at work so that you’re not leaving the office screaming every day.
But another important yet unexpected tip is to pick your celebration partners. Know who in your life you can call to talk you down from an anxious ledge and celebrate with you. Overwhelm is simply imbalance within a single individual. Help isn’t just needed when you’re in crisis mode – it’s needed when you’re celebrating, too. Whether it’s a friend or your significant other, know who you can turn to for support, laughter, high-fives, or pep talks when you feel your cup is about to runneth over.
• EXTERNAL: TAKE YOUR TIME TO POWER THROUGH. All the positivity, planning, perspective, prioritizing, and partnering are nothing if there are not proactive steps made in a forward direction. Like the Nike ads say, just do it. But do it consciously. Treat the moment with the respect it deserves, not as a task you need to check off a list but a meaningful moment that is one of a kind. Take what I call “mental pictures” as you go, stopping to notice and note the details of when and where and how you are in the moment. Then take another step. Then another. Then another. It’s a tricky feat to balance savoring the moment and actually getting things done, but when achieved, it’s a surefire way to kick overwhelm to the curb.
When we’re overwhelmed, it can sometimes seem like the world is pitted against us, preventing us from accomplishing anything or feeling like we’re being the person we know we want to be. But you’ll find that once you start to show the world you’ve got things handled, once you start going, you start to realize that the sunshine is yours for the keeping.
WANT YOURSELF: Have you ever had so many good things happen at once that you ended up feeling overwhelmed and anxious? How did you keep yourself in check and shift yourself out of a negative mindset? I’d LOVE to hear in the comments below…