The Secret Simple Key to Overcoming Overwhelm

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  1. No one can tell me when I’m getting overwhelmed.

  2. Pretty much anyone can tell when I’m getting overwhelmed.

These two facts are in my mind the moment I open my eyes Tuesday morning. They have taken me more time to acknowledge than I would like to admit. And yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the things we would most like to deny are the things we most need to acknowledge next. Denying overwhelm has caused me to mess up more than I ever would have without the denial. I know for a fact it’s kept me pointlessly working long beyond what I would have otherwise. IMG_8560

I do know I’m the one who has to spur myself on to get to work and keep at it when I want to quit. No one else can do it. I won’t let them, or it simply won’t work. The simple secret to finishing no one had to tell me is the same for you–and I know because when it comes to our work, we’re all the same this way:

Our work is ours. 

How did any major accomplishment get finished? I know from Anne Lamott it had to simply be done “bird by bird,” but just like waking up this morning and knowing I had to get to work on the 18 things waiting for me after a long weekend, it doesn’t get done on someone else’s motivation. It’s my job to find my motivation.

A swift kick to “just do it” can work for a while, but eventually leads to burnout. I know from experience mustering it to muscle it only messes it up and mangles me. More often than not, the impulse to “just do it” denies what I’m feeling in the overwhelm and the real reason for the overwhelmed feeling. The old mind over matter trick is no trick at all, and trying to ignore it to simply cross things off the list is foolish and disintegrating. What I really need is to simply not look at the list.

What I really need is to acknowledge the feeling and consider what it’s trying to tell me. What I need is to slow down and pay attention, to integrate the fear and the excitement, the anxiety and the anticipation of finishing and celebrating. If I can do that and hold both of those and know that my greater good is here, in the stalling to get out of bed and as I get up slowly to begin the process of getting ready for the day. Process over product is the secret. I don’t have to overthink it, but if I can be present to the fatigue and disconnected sensations of all that remains unresolved from the week and the weekend, and the night before, I can forego the swift kick and the burnout that would follow, and experience the fuller experience, rather than relegating so much of it to unconsciousness, and rendering it unavailable and unrealized.

The truth no one has had to tell us, the simple secret to finishing anything difficult we might consider our true work, is that all of it is ours and meant for us to experience and grow from. We can’t numb ourselves to feeling difficult emotions without also numbing the ones we enjoy, nor can we effectively evaluate what should or should not be disorienting, disintegrating, or distancing us from our fuller selves. We don’t know why certain things affect us, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t control whether or not they will.

However, each of us does control what we will do about the things that affect us. And acknowledging what the emotions are in the midst of the overwhelm never feels good or particularly convenient, but whatever other ideas we had about our true work, this is it. Whatever we may have thought our work was for today, this being conscious and aware of our full feelings about it is our true work. 

And whatever we might call that–messy, frustrating, 100% inconvenient and completely unwelcome–when we don’t list that work first, we merely add one more impossibility to the list.

Can you trust there’s a reason you’re here and being asked to handle this? Regardless of whether you should be facing all that’s on that list, can you acknowledge there’s a higher purpose in it? Something beyond the drudgery and gripey feeling it gives you? Something you might even now be able to relabel a gift?

We don’t need anyone to tell us this is what we’re here for, whatever else we may have to face today. We don’t need proof there’s a very good reason for the place we find ourselves in–the proof is that we’re here. And if we are, it means God is God and he has his reasons. The question is, what would he have us do, learn, feel, say, know, share?

I get up, shower, dress, go down to find the kid who needs to get to school, drive her and drive back, get to my office and get out my list. It’s only Tuesday but it’s already overwhelming, and it’s already clear I’m going to have to adjust some things. But what can get done will get done, and I’ll trust the rest will find its fulfillment another way. One step at a time, one item at a time, all of this is manageable and meant for more than getting through it.

No muscling. No mangling. Just mercy, and more gifts to be received and given back in their proper way and time. And in the slow, deliberate facing of my feelings, and accepting them, and processing them, I’ll find my way to finish all I was given to do.

The list looks much more manageable from that perspective.

“To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond.” – Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product”

 

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