When we feel overwhelmed, what is actually happening?
Very rarely is there actual overwhelm happening right now (say, you just stubbed your toe, the dog is vomiting, and there is an earthquake happening).
What is usually the case is that your thoughts are spiraling into future worries, and we call the resulting feeling overwhelm.
And to be fair, it does feel overwhelming to your nervous system. It’s very uncomfortable to think about all the tasks you have yet to do, relationships that need tending, and ambitions that are waiting their turn in the wings.
Add to this the goggles of self-expectations, possible people-pleasing behavior, and our old friend perfectionism that we habitually look through, and there is a lot going on. It puts us in a sympathetic (flight, freeze, or fright) state. in other words, we get uptight and anxious.
Our first impulse is to try and get away from the uncomfortable feelings, usually by distracting and soothing ourselves with media, food, or small tasks that don't move us forward in a substantial way. That would be great if it helped, but all it does is postpone the discomfort, which usually gets more intense the longer we procrastinate (procrastination and overwhelm are closely related, but that's another post).
Let's do an experiment to help diffuse this feeling we created with our thoughts.
Hang on- did you get the message of that last sentence?
Our thoughts create our feelings.
Our past experiences create our habitual thought patterns. That is why we often feel stuck, AND why we have the ability to change our thinking by practicing new behaviors.
Over my years of coaching mindset, I have noticed that before we practice changing our habitual thoughts, we feel intimidated, scared, and like we might not be able to do it.
In fact, we would rather do anything else at all than change our internal dialogue
After we practice changing our habitual thoughts, we wonder why we were so worried and self-doubting.
In other words, it turns out to be easier than we thought (ha!) it would be.
The key to changing your thoughts? Accepting them.
Accept the thoughts by accepting that they’re part of who you are and have been created by your past experiences. See if you can have the thought, acknowledge it, and go on to do what you want to do anyway.
I feel afraid of rejection and I am going to ask for what I want anyway.
I feel clumsy and I am going to sign up for a dance class.
I feel broken and I am going to stay in my relationship.
I feel critical of my body and I am going swimming.
I feel unconfident and I am going to work on my business.
Accepting our feelings and acting anyway is an important skill to practice because we will have negative thoughts from time to time for our entire lives. I have been practicing healthy self-talk and being calm inside for going on 28 years, and I still have self-defeating thoughts sometimes. It's part of being human.
Thankfully, our thoughts do not define us. Our actions do much more so.
As Joanne Dahl, Ph.D. says:
"Your thoughts are not rules that dictate what is possible for you."
Your thoughts are simply thoughts. They are literally unsubstantial. You get to choose whether you take action on them or not. It is through taking action on a thought that they become realized, concrete, and part of your tangible reality.
This idea inspires me. I love knowing that there is a space between having a thought and letting it change what we do. That we have a choice to act upon our thoughts or not. And that it is the taking of action that empowers our thoughts to shape our lives. It seriously gives me tingles.
Let's recap our experiment:
An uncomfortable thought happens.
Take a breath. Or five.
Accept that your thoughts are being created by your past experience and are part of you.
Remember: your thoughts do not dictate what is possible for you.
Look at the external situation and decide: what is the next right action you can take?
This works out extra well if your decision is guided by what really matters to you (your core values).
Take any size (none are too small. Really.) of an action step in the direction of the next right thing.
When you take this approach to dealing with uncomfortable feelings, you are practicing making good decisions. Making good decisions is the quickest path to a life with less regret.
It all starts with a few deep breaths.