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Overwhelm. That feeling that you can never catch up, that all those things you’re “supposed” to be doing will never get done.
Overwhelm comes up a lot with my coaching clients and recently it’s become a hot topic on the coaching bulletin board I subscribe to. It’s great seeing how other coaches define and deal with overwhelm, and, rather than try to rewrite what they’ve so beautifully written, I’ve included key points of the discussion below in their own words.
What drives overwhelm? According to Ben Dooley “Overwhelm is an ‘overwhelming’ issue with most of my clients of some sort. Physically overwhelmed or emotionally, overwhelmed in our time and schedule, overwhelmed in the demands made upon us, overwhelmed in our roles, overwhelmed in energy, and just about everything else.”
“And yes, I suspect that it’s in major part due to our societal beliefs and requirements,” Dooley continues. “Everything is getting faster and faster, we have to work more for less pay, we have to devote so much more time and energy to things in our lives just to keep a baseline.”
Andy Evans believes that it’s a symptom of the way we live today: “This goes right to the heart of modern urbanised and media driven societies. There are so many imperatives – go faster, do more, contact more people etc. etc. To really get to the heart of this it would be great to go for a big agenda of questioning all these imperatives. How necessary are they? What do they add to life? What do they add to happiness?”
“And at the same time discuss the whole idea of downsizing and simplifying life – what can go?” Andy writes. ”What could a simpler life bring in terms of health and happiness? But it’s a tragedy of modern ‘evolved’ societies that so many lives are trivialised by incessant and largely vacuous activities. As somebody remarked – ‘so much to talk about, so little to say’.”
Other coaches point out that overwhelm is a symptom of something deeper, according to Elizabeth Ellis it’s “some form of ‘insufficiency’ or ‘not enough’.” And Gail Gaspar believes that “overwhelm is an increasingly common struggle and its antidote is digging deeper to recognize what isn’t being said or acknowledged. It is about not feeling ‘enough’, about feeling ‘left out’, about the more, more, more that seems always out of grasp.”
“It is important to realize that OVERWHELM is not real,” Janet Valette writes. “It is a conversation that we have about the circumstances of our lives. Overwhelm is about what is happening all around the moment, what is coming up, what else there is to be doing, what didn’t happen in some other moment and how that means something. When one is truly in the moment, overwhelm is impossible.”
“I sense that people often default to what they call ‘overwhelm’ when they are not able to safely feel some of the bigger, deeper emotions that are present such as: fear, anger, rage, desperation, loneliness to name a few.” Valette continues. ”It is as if overwhelm is a more accepted place to be, rather than for people to express the more real feelings that are occurring. Can you imagine responding to someone’s question of “How are you doing?” by saying, ‘I’m feeling terrified!’”
Lydia Puhak sees overwhelm as a “symptom and a guide.” And, writes Ben Dooley, the best way to address it “is to recognize the pressure that’s building, and acknowledge the overall goal and end point, and then break it down to small simple steps. I’m talking about stupid simple steps. The difference between earning a million dollars and putting $.13 in your money jar. The difference between losing 50 pounds and cutting your dessert pie in half. The difference between running a marathon and just putting your running shoes on to go get the mail. the smaller the step, the easier it is to accomplish. And the easier it is to accomplish, the more gets accomplished. And the more that gets accomplished, the more proof accumulates that it “CAN” be done.”
Karl Albrecht works with his clients to identify a “bug list,” which he describes as a “simple itemization of all the things that are bugging them at the moment.” Albrecht writes that ”I’ve never found a person, however distressed, who could come up with as many as ten bugs, even stretching for relatively minor ones. Very often there are two or three really big issues, a couple of secondary ones, and some others that are just ‘nuisance’ level. Next step is to rate and prioritize the various bugs according to severity and/or urgency, or both. Next, I ask them to write beside each bug on the list, what the first one or two steps are that will start moving toward a solution.”
However, conquering overwhelm might be as simple as just taking time out of our busy schedule to relax a few minutes every day. Steve Mitten observes that ”The good news is that there is also some compelling research (Boyatzis) that shows that if someone only gets 10 minutes, twice a day, in any practice/activity that triggers the relaxation response, it can substantially reduce the impact of overwhelm/stress. (And there are a ton of common activities that have been shown to turn on the parasympathetic nerve system/relaxation response.)”
Or, maybe it’s just slowing down the speed of life and being in the moment. “I want to add my observation that a lot of what feels like “overwhelm” to me, and to my clients, turns out to be that voice in our heads that, as we are doing one thing, tries to keep track of all the things we are not doing in that moment.” writes Tasha Harmon. “And that not just keeps track of all that stuff, but tells us that we SHOULD be doing those other things, or, even if we shouldn’t exactly be doing them just now, we still need to not forget about them, and are we sure this is really what we want to be doing just now, and…
“I have been working with my clients (and in my own life, so I’ll phrase it that way) on allowing myself to focus on one thing at a time. Simply choosing, consciously, to prioritize the thing I am actually doing in the moment and releasing the background attention I too often pay to all the other things I could be doing instead creates a deep sense of calm, allows the flow state to emerge, and leaves me energized for taking on the next task once I complete the one I’m focusing on.”