Today I want to talk about overwhelm. What it really is and how to transform it into empowerment.
There is this wonderful vintage commercial from the 70’s for Calgon bubble bath. A woman is at her wits end with images of all the things stressing her out flashing around her “the dog, the telephone, the doorbell, the baby” then she brings her hands up to her head saying, “Calgon, take me away!”
I used to get overwhelmed like that a lot, and I still do once in a while. I’m not enlightened, but I am able just to snap out of it a lot easier now.
What am I doing differently? I can narrow it down to two shifts that interrupted this negative pattern:
1. I put my own needs first
2. I have healthy boundaries around my time and my energy
Overwhelm isn’t a problem, it’s a symptom. Your body is letting you know you are not listening to what YOU need. It’s an internal alarm saying “you have overcommitted” or “you’re not taking care of yourself,” “you need to ask for help.” Something along those lines.
Most women tend to put everyone else’s needs above their own. We inherited this survival behavior from our ancestors who lived through times when it was dangerous to be a woman. This is still the case in parts of the world, but times are changing. This old survival pattern is no longer useful. In fact, living in survival mode limits our ability to thrive.
When you say yes when you really mean no, you are giving your power away. Literally. If you pay attention, you can actually feel your mood shift and the energy drain out of your body. As you can imagine, you are then not bringing the highest version of yourself to whatever you have agreed to. So really, you are not serving yourself or anyone else by saying yes when you mean no. Over time, you will naturally get resentful because you have put yourself in a position of feeling obligated to something you don’t want to do. This is when overwhelm shows up. Because now you’re thinking about all the things you could be doing with your time, but you can’t because now you are committed to something else.
So how do you take your power back? It starts with stopping to consider your own needs and desires before saying yes to anything else. This simple act of self-love is empowering.
This takes A LOT of practice and I am still not perfect at it by any means. At first you may have to graciously back out of things you have already committed to. And you will probably disappoint people. This is all part of the process of taking your life back. If you have been a people pleaser for a long time, the thought of disappointing people might feel horrifying. But I promise, if they love you, they’ll get over it. If they don’t, well, that’s on them.
A wonderful, simple example of this in my life just showed up, and I’m sharing here with permission.
My good friend left me a message in the morning about the plans we had made for that evening. I could tell from her voice that something was off. So I got her on the phone and she told me she was overwhelmed with everything she had to do that day. I told her to give me the list. The first thing she mentioned was a baby shower for a colleague that she clearly did not want to attend. It was right in the middle of the day and was going to make everything else stressful. I stopped her right there to ask one simple question. Why are you going to that party when you clearly don’t want to? Which turned out to be the perfect question because she hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility of not attending.
As the idea of excusing herself from the party was offered, everything shifted. Her voice immediately changed from exhausted and stressed to empowered and happy. She reclaimed her power by choosing again. That’s what happens when you stop to consider what you need and then prioritize your needs above others.
We all need to be reminded of this frequently, especially if you’re juggling a lot, like a career, a family, kids. It’s so easy to fall into tending to the next thing without stopping to check in with your own needs and desires first.
I still catch myself saying yes to someone without thinking, and then I’ll back track and say something like, “wait, before I fully commit, let me check my schedule and I’ll get back to you.” I try to remind myself to pause to check in with myself before committing. This is self-love. This is empowerment.
I used to believe that thinking of myself first was “selfish”. What I know now is that by taking care of my own needs first, I can show up to serve where I am needed with a full cup! Everyone wins!!
Over-giving to the point of resentment and exhaustion is not serving anyone, trust me. I heard this quote once, years ago, at an Al-Anon meeting, “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves”. This hit me so hard because as a mom, I was so used to doing everything for my kid, to the point of enabling. Turns out, all I was teaching her was to be dependent on me.
These days I have pretty healthy boundaries around my time and I find that the people in my life don’t begrudge me for it, they respect me for it.
The first signal I get that I am not honoring my own needs first, is that I feel irritated and subtly resentful. If I ignore my feelings and keep moving forward, I start to feel overwhelm coming on. That’s when I know I need to stop and reassess my priorities. And I may even need to talk it out with someone before I realize what I really need.
Learning how to put your own needs first takes time, I recommend baby steps. and once you get the hang of it, it’s still a life-long commitment
If you are feeling really overwhelmed, like your life has been hijacked, take a few steps back to consider what you need. and once you get some idea, think of one step you could take in the direction of having it.