What is overwhelm? For me this is a feeling that arises when I’m telling myself there’s ‘too much I have to do’. Along with that feeling there’s fear, shame and a distinct sense of disempowerment.
Some of you will be aware that I live in Somerset, UK, where there has been, and currently still is, a flood crisis. What I’ve noticed, watching the media footage online and listening to radio reports, are the emotional responses that are common in situations of overwhelm. The water has literally overflowed many people’s homes and businesses as well as local infrastructure: power and water supplies, education and health services etc. What has also been clear are the mind strategies common to those who have weathered this particular storm with less emotional fallout, regardless of how much they’ve lost in a material sense.
What can the emotional overwhelm of flooding, or any other similar crisis, teach us?
- To surrender to what is. This is a radical, profound acceptance of the stark facts as they present themselves. It’s about finding a more life-affirming alternative to denial (indeed it can show us where we’ve been in denial).
- That there are some simple truths we have not been attending to. For example, if we choose to live on a flood plain, at some point we will have to deal with the possibility of an influx of water.
- The Universe will have its way, whether we like it or not. An ‘Act of God’ is not Mother Earth taking revenge, but simply her mechanisms for self-regulation coming into play. We’re not the ones in control and need to learn to live in accordance with her, not resist her.
At the end of 1989, I had a personal experience of flooding. I had chosen to live in an old house which had its kitchen and bathroom built into the basement. Unfortunately (and what I later realised I had been in denial about…) the house was located in a town close to the River Thames and the basement was actually below the level of the rising river. Recalling the event, as I did recently, it occurred to me how apt the progress of this incident was as a metaphor for overwhelm.
Choosing to ignore the rain as it starting to become heavy and prolonged signified my lack of awareness of the motives I sometimes have for taking on responsibilities. The trickle of water that started to seep gently and quietly through the basement doors because we hadn’t installed adequate drainage, represented my unwillingness to say ‘no’ occasionally to the requests of others, which I now know is often a way to stave off the beginnings of overwhelm.
And then my utter disbelief as the floor disappeared under the floodwater symbolised only too graphically the realisation that sometimes what I’ve committed to only Superwoman at her magnificent best could accomplish.
What actions are there that we can take to prevent us feeling overwhelmed when we’re beset with personal crises?
- Leave space in your life for the urgent to happen. Deliberately do not fill the diary, but consciously leave some leeway for being present to the unexpected.
- Build and maintain a personal survival kit – an inner one and an outer one. An example of an inner survival kit might be breathing techniques to cope with stress. An outer one might contain candles, matches and fully charged torches for a power cut, for example.
- Check our motives before taking on additional responsibilities. E.g. ‘Am I doing this please someone else or win their approval?’
- Be willing to, and well rehearsed at, saying ‘no’ to others when their requests take you beyond your personal capacity or into areas that do not meet your needs.
- Be totally frank with yourself about your personal limits and boundaries – what you’re honestly happy and willing to take on.
What are your personal antidotes to overwhelm?