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.