This week I learned that when I’m in the middle of overwhelm, the last thing I want to be told by anyone is that I am indeed in the middle of overwhelm, no matter how well intentioned they are.
It’s been a demanding six months but I’ve been doing what we all do in times of stress; I’ve kept going. Grief, house moves, a new town, a new job, a broken nose… we all know that we’ve got to keep calm and carry on no matter what gets thrown at us. I’ve been getting through and past it, sometimes knowing that I was taking more steps back than forward but surely the amount of effort I was putting in had to mean that I was making progress?
So there I was in the gym on Monday morning, making excuses to my new trainer as to why I hadn’t been doing my homework and he kindly suggested that I was overwhelmed. Don’t imagine for one moment that I heard the kindness, the criticism stung. I became defensive and did that thing that I always do, I got angry at the suggestion that I wasn’t coping. The funny thing about my anger is that my default is to aim it at myself, I seem to carry a bundle of imaginary sticks with me that I can take out to beat myself at the slightest provocation. The best part is that most of the time I don’t even realise that I’m doing it.
I didn’t want to hear that I was in overwhelm and failing at life when I was working so hard to cope. What I did hear was a crack in my defences and some part of me realised that it was time to stop, take a moment and take stock as to what was exactly going on inside my head. Thank goodness that we’ve all got that whisper of reason against whatever else is raging in our heads, if only we chose to listen to it more often.
I find that the experience of overwhelm is a bit like looking into a teenager’s messy bedroom, everything piled everywhere, no sense, no reason just stuff piled high. Everywhere you look there’s stuff, moving one piece is futile and just throws up a Jenga scenario - it’s like I’ve been closing the door for six months as it’s been piling ever higher.
So what did I do?
Well I stayed angry at myself for the first 24 hours, that helped….. not. In retrospect, 24 hours is quicker than my usual downward spiral for which I should be grateful. The anger subsided into panic over what to do, easier to recognise, although equally debilitating. Experience has taught me that only way out of free fall is to take a moment and focus on my breathing…in…out…in…out… everything slowed, I received a glimpse of clarity to see my next step.
I did that brave thing, I reached out and asked for help, I phoned a friend, admitted that I was feeling vulnerable and needed help. I put the phone down happy in the fact that I’d been able to step out of myself for a moment and witness the overwhelm and panic - she had given me a plan.
Days 2 and 3, I lose sleep worrying about the plan until I realised it wasn’t my plan, it was someone’s else’s plan, it was what I should be doing, ought to be doing. We need our own plans, that personal ownership is the only thing that works for us otherwise it’s another thing to pile up in the teenager’s room.
So day 4, today, I get up early and try to forgive myself for not having done my mindfulness, my morning exercise routine, for not having eaten my nutritious breakfast. I focus on what I can do and in that moment I chose to switch off my phone and the internet connection, I chose to disconnect from the noise and give myself a fighting chance. Sitting in the silence at the kitchen table with my planner, I start at the page 6 months ago when it all fell apart and begin my list. Everything that I’ve missed, forgotten and everything that’s outstanding, I do the same with my emails and finish off with random thoughts - I fill 3 and a half pages.
Even as I start writing the panic begins to subside, being able to see it all in front of me in black and white, the teenager’s bedroom is suddenly sorted into piles. I see immediately that only 2 items are urgent and I categorise the others accordingly. Most of them have to be broken down into action points but that can wait because for now, I have my plan and even faced with the onerous task of getting it all done, I felt strangely calm.
I rewarded myself with some easy wins and got some non essential simple tasks done straight away, the first steps having been taken, that bedroom is on its way to getting cleared.
For the rest of the day, a cloud of clarity and productivity has swept in, at last I can let myself off the hook and for that I am truly thankful.
So if you’re wondering why your effort : productivity ratio isn’t currently working as well as expected you might want to consider the following:-
Self acceptance - It’s ok to feel angry but recognise the sticks and put them down when you can.
Breathe - detach from how you’re feeling, focus on your breathing and force yourself to stop and breathe…in…out…in…out…
Find someone who will ask you questions - get to the root of the matter and formulate your own plan.
Be kind to yourself - have some compassion and patience for yourself
Set some boundaries - choose a time and place and walk away from distractions, give yourself a chance.
Take a moment - Get your thoughts out of your head in whatever way suits you, write, type, record them. Find a way to consider them from a distance.
Celebrate - acknowledge any positive moments and congratulate yourself for any progress made.
And finally... be grateful that those teenage days are over.