August 23, 2006

Questioning Overwhelm

A few years ago in Psychology Today magazine, there was an article accompanied by a marvelously evocative illustration of a man sitting at a desk completely covered with yellow sticky notes. If the mere thought of this makes you want to head for the hills or reach for your favorite addictive substance, you're not alone. Whatever your job, be it parent, student, small business owner or captain of industry, you have likely experienced overwhelm at one time or another in your life and work. Some of us, as we watch the email on the desktop or the dust bunnies under the bed pile up, live with overwhelm every day.

The good news is that overwhelm is not a reality but rather a sequence of thoughts that may or may not correspond to the truth. See if any of these thoughts are familiar to you...

"I'll never get it all done."
"There's too much pressure."
"There's not enough time."
"I don't have enough energy for this."
"I can't say no to that invitation, I have an obligation to attend."
"No one has time to help me."
"I must be really incompetent."
"I can't take this anymore."

To-do lists, setting priorities, memory boosting exercises, color-coded files, pop-up computer reminders...we can master all of the practical self-management techniques in the world, but if we don't examine the root of the feeling of overwhelm, we can be totally organized and on top of everything and still feel like the living dead. It is not the tasks at hand that exhaust and confuse us, but our thoughts about them.

When you are absolutely sure that you are overwhelmed, it may serve you to find a belief behind your stress, write it down and hold that thought up against the four questions of The Work of Byron Katie:

1. Is it true?
"I'll never get it done." "Never" is a strong word. Is this judgment accurate? Can you know what will happen in the future?

2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
"Absolutely not" is how you feel in the moment, perhaps. And can you think of a time in your life or career when you were under the gun and were sure you could not come through...and you did?

3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
When I believe "I'll never get it done," it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The thought itself is so overwhelming that it overwhelms everything. I get very little done, even the easy stuff, because I'm obsessing on the "impossible." When I do this, everything continues to pile up and I'm left with a huge mess and a hugely messy brain filled with other energy-zapping beliefs such as "I'm a failure," or unrealistic pronouncements such as "This shouldn't be so difficult," or resentments like "Other people don't have to do as much as I do." I tell you truly, none of these thoughts has ever contributed to my productivity! To paraphrase Descartes: "I think I can't, therefore I can't."

4. Who would you be without this thought?
I would do what's in front of me...return the first phone call, wash the first dish, open the letter on the the top of the pile, dust one piece of furniture at a time, write the article one word at a time. Once I get started on those "impossible" tasks, often I'm surprised to discover that they seem to get themselves done. There's a momentum that operates in spite of my learned opinion that the job at hand is overwhelming.

Turn the thought around.
"I'll never get it done" reverses to "I'll always get it done." Could this be as true or truer? It has been just as true in my experience.

If you've taken the trip with me so far, I invite you to keep going. Find three genuine examples from your own life of how you've moved through apparent overwhelm, in spite of adverse circumstances and crippling beliefs.

Do this inner Work, as Byron Katie says, not with an agenda to "fix" the situation, but for the love of truth. If you think you don't have time to do The Work when you already have so much to do, question that! What consumes more of your time and energy: examining your beliefs, or letting them run your life?

Deepening Transformational Inquiry: The One On Top

1. "Deal with the one on top."

Not enough time to do it all? You could be right, so address the one project or concern that gives you the most anxiety...even if it's not the one that is due first. It could be that your thoughts about "the one on top" are preventing you from efficiently handling everything else. Once you make a dent in that particular "must do," you may find yourself freer to deal with other responsibilities.

2. "Clean up your mess."
A messy mind equals a messy life. Look around you. Are your environment, your relationships and your body in good working order? "I don't have time to go through my files/go to the gym/go to the dentist/get the copy machine fixed/have that long-overdue holiday lunch with the department/plan a much-needed weekend getaway with my wife." It could be that you don't have time NOT to do those things..or you don't have the luxury to ignore that which is screaming for your attention and taking away valuable mental energy.

3. "XYZ"--eXamine Your Zingers.

What are the self-defeating thoughts that keep you from fulfilling your intentions? Write them down and question yourself about them honestly.

Perhaps your issue is, "I can't concentrate." Let's concentrate on that issue. Is it true that you can't concentrate? Can you find ways that you do successfully concentrate? (Helping your child with her homework, reading and answering your e-mail, preparing a special meal.) Can you find a time in your life when it was easy to concentrate, prior to this belief? What was it like? How did you deal with distractions? What were you doing at the time to take care of yourself? How do you treat yourself, your family, friends, employees or clients when you think the thought "I can't concentrate" and you believe it? Notice how resistance begets more resistance.

How would you function right now if you did not believe this thought, "I can't concentrate?" What would you do first? How would you approach the "to do"list differently than you have up until now? How would that feel to you?

©2006 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.

August 3, 2006

Barometric Pressure

If you've ever heard a weather report, you know that a barometer is a device used to measure atmospheric pressure, which determines if it's going to be a "nice" day or not. The word "barometer" is also used for anything that indicates fluctuations of all sorts. A poll is a barometer of public opinion, for example, while test scores are a barometer of knowledge.

Our friends, families, partners, clients, supervisors, employees, colleagues and every other sentient being in the galaxy are our "belief barometers." They show us exactly how we treat people and how we, ourselves expect to be treated. In the course of a day, we interact with others (if only in our minds) and the interaction results in a feeling. In the case of an uncomfortable feeling, the feeling is a signal (and sometimes a warning siren) that something is off-kilter in our thinking.

When the belief-barometric pressure is high, it's time to examine our thoughts. For example, you may experience a certain business associate as intractable. Good! This means your belief-barometer is in working order.

What is the erroneous belief you are attaching to? It may be, "She should not bat away every suggestion I make."

There are at least three ways to apply inquiry to this belief statement.

1. She should not bat away suggestions.
2. She bats away every suggestion I make.
3. People should listen to me.

If we're looking at "She should not bat away suggestions," the first question to ask "Is it true that she should not bat away suggestions?" What is the reality of it? She is batting them away, according to you, whether or not you believe she ought to be doing it. What can you do now? If you think she should accept your suggestions gratefully and with grace, you are at war with her and with the truth of what is happening now. Consider what this war affects the way you conduct business. How do you treat her, your clients, your vendors, your direct reports or your boss when you think they should not have opinions of their own? How do you approach them in meetings or on conference calls? Do you expect that they will resist? And what is your protective response when you have that expectation? What armor do you wear?

Another way in: "She bats away every suggestion I make." Is that really true? Every single suggestion? Can you find an instance where she listened to you? Conversely, can you remember a time that you did not follow her suggestion? How about the suggestion that she would like a different suggestion than the one you provided? We think it's easy for others to follow our suggestions, and yet, when this standard is reversed...not so easy!

"People should listen to me." As Byron Katie might ask, "On what planet!?" Dogs bark, cats meow and sometimes people appear not to listen. How do you treat your clients, your assistant, your spouse, your kids when you hold this belief? Does it feel a little arrogant...a bit uncomfortable, even when you are the victor?

People who don't listen are a most excellent barometer. If we're annoyed, they let us know that it's time to check the pressure gauge inside of us. When it's foul weather inside, we can do The Work of looking at the relationship honestly. And once the inner elements are in tune, we can continue to communicate and interact with other people from a clear perspective. At least one of us will be listening...the one who truly needs to.

Deepening Transformational Inquiry: Watching Your Belief Barometer

1. We've seen how other people are barometers of our own beliefs. This week, take note when you feel reactive towards others. What is the "underlying belief" beneath the feeling of discomfort, annoyance, or anger? "I want..." "I need..." "they should..." "they shouldn't..." "they are..." "they aren't..." "I refuse to..."

2. "If I think they need to change, I need to change." Think of someone you work with or live with who could use your advice. Write an "if...then my life would be much better" statement about this person. Example:

"If so-and-so did thus and such, then..." what would you have? Make a list and question each statement thoroughly. For example, "If Sheila took my advice, she would triple her business this year, and then I would have a satisfied client, more contracts, etc." Can you absolutely know that Sheila would triple her business? Is it true that, even if her business tripled, she'd be happier with you, and you with her? Can you absolutely know that increasing her revenues would bring you more clients?

3. "It only takes one for closure." Examine your toughest work or life relationship with an open mind. Ask yourself what your part is in any misfires or misunderstandings (It might be a whole lot, or less than 1%; can you find it?) You may even want to tell them what you found out about you and ask how you can make it right between you. Does it feel more expansive inside of you to let them -- and you -- off the hook?

©2006 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.