If someone were to describe the kind of life most of us lead to a truth-seeker living 100 years ago, I really do believe the person would feel a mixture of horror and pity along with their curiosity about what the future holds.
Many aspects of life are better. We live longer, we have fewer (or at least not as enforced) conventions, medical breakthroughs like vaccinations and artificial limbs and neurosurgery help us heal and thrive in incredible ways, technology has changed how we communicate and participate with each other on a global scale, creating new opportunities for connection, growth and effective change.
It’s all pretty awesome, and I’m grateful for all of it. Of course, the planet is in horrifying shape due to over-consumption and pollution. People are polarized and hateful and use the internet to spew that hate. And the pace of life is not only light-speed compared with that of a century ago, but ever-increasing, requiring us to constantly adapt to more, faster, better without a lot of room to rest, recharge or process.
It’s just so easy to become overwhelmed with the day-to-day. It doesn’t matter if you’re retired or just starting out at your first job, if you love your work or barely tolerate it, if your days are full of meetings or social events or childcare or nothing at all. Overwhelm happens to nearly everyone, students and yoga teachers and entrepreneurs and writers and doctors and office clerks, those who work 20 or 40 or 80 hours a week and those who don’t. Overwhelm isn’t simply caused by doing too much, though that can be a huge part of it. External forces like increasing demands at work, stressful relationships, financial difficulties and class workloads certainly impact how relaxed, calm, centered and capable we feel.
Those are actually the easier things to pinpoint as causing overwhelm. That isn’t to say it’s easy to address them or the anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion and suffering they can cause us, but rather that, whether they creep up slowly or land with sudden violence, it isn’t all that hard to identify them. Our schedule is absolutely full, we have no time to think or eat lunch, the kids are driving us crazy, homework is taking hours every night, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to pay the bills. We struggle, and feel like the tides are rising until we can heave ourselves out of it—or until they overtake us completely, and our health breaks down.
The overwhelm that’s more insidious is one that has few external causes, and is rather created by internal conflicts, repressed emotions or other forces affecting us from the inside out. Without any particular change in my day-to-day, I’ll find myself less inspired by the things that usually inspire me, more inclined to chafe against certain tasks that aren’t hard, but feel hard, and longing for a day alone to just do nothing at all. Not a sick day, but one where I read, or think, or wander around the house looking at things and don’t accomplish anything worth noting. This is very different from my normal state of mind, when I not only enjoy but thrive in little tasks and productivity, feeling satisfied and confident in what I’ve done and want to do.
I believe that sometimes we just need more fallow times for no reason at all, when we’re less productive and social, less inclined to take action of any kind, and more inclined to let time pass in quiet idleness. We need those down times to recharge, to process, to release, to simply be—ideally away from the addictive, mind-draining distraction of technology. We might accomplish or DO less externally, but that doesn’t mean we’re not productive internally, using our energy for less obvious things. Anything that feels draining, sapping, uninteresting or just too damn hard can be shelved for a different season, when we’re in more of an outward doing mode.
If there is a cause for internal overwhelm, it can be things like repressed emotion that simply won’t stay repressed any longer, or working through transitions as we process changes happening in our lives (and happening far more frequently than they did 50 or 100 years ago). Repressed emotion requires us to feel what we’ve avoided feeling, while transitions require that we go through the steps of letting go of an ending, adjusting in a neutral period and committing to a new beginning. (Transitions by William Bridges is my source for this, a brilliant and compassionate resource.) Changes like new jobs, marriage, divorce, parenthood, illness, retirement, job loss and death often set off a long series of transformations in our lives as well as in ourselves, which simply won’t be ignored—and then simply entering different stages of life transforms and challenges us, even though nothing on the outside is different.
And, just with external forces, we can be experiencing more than one internal conflict or issue at a time, creating different domino effects throughout our life or psyche.
Whether brought on by internal or external forces or both, so often overwhelm is affecting us before we understand what’s happening, taking its toll on our health and well-being, our relationships, our jobs, our creativity. And then at some point it goes so far that we simply can’t ignore it any longer. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, we finally recognize it and can acknowledge it to ourselves and to others—and that’s where our work begins.
Only we can own our overwhelm, and only we can be the catalysts for reclaiming our balance. Sure, we can try to simply adapt to it and survive with the increased stress, shorter temper and high anxiety, but ultimately that’s not going to work. The whole point of overwhelm is that it’s a symptom that what’s going on simply isn’t sustainable, and can’t be addressed in the usual way.
That doesn’t mean we necessarily need to quit our jobs or school, walk away from our debt, leave our partners or some other dramatic act—though of course taking dramatic action might be exactly what we need, we’re the only person who can determine that. But it does mean that we need to shift our thinking and attitude about ourselves in order to effectively deal with the external and internal forces that are causing us to suffer and struggle.
Even if we’re still working productively at office jobs and taking care of families and teaching classes, we may need a few weeks to slack off a little, to let ourselves off the hook when it comes to extracurriculars, social media updates or social plans, to avoid stressful situations and give ourselves lots of compassion and understanding. We may need to take sick leave, or plan a vacation, or drop a class. We may need to say “no” more than we say “yes,” at least for a while—or forever. We may need to start therapy, start meditating, or stop spending. We may need a weekend to binge watch Game of Thrones in our pajamas with the phone on silent, only leaving the house to stock up on ice cream and frozen pizza. We may need to tell our kids they can’t be in both soccer and softball, tell our boss that we’re having a hard time and really need their support, tell our partner we need a week of takeout dinners, tell a friend that we can’t help them move. We may need to take some serious action on our finances, take more walks during the day, take a break from a relationship, take medication, or take a nap.
We may simply need to be more aware of ourselves and what we’re feeling—to honor a role that we’ve outgrown or new direction our ambitions are taking, honestly face how we feel about a job, family member, friend or partner, allow ourselves to grieve or be done with grieving, or finally feel a deep and long-suppressed anger toward someone from our past. Nothing outward may need to shift at all, and yet the inward shift will free us to greater alignment and balance.
It could be the biggest change we’ve ever made, or the smallest of small adjustments—but the point is, only we know what the right action, or inaction, is to take. And only we can take it.
I gave myself a day off this week to do one important early errand and then go home and do very little. I read, dozed, wandered around the backyard, jogged a mile on the treadmill. At some point I felt like starting laundry and did so, made a casserole I’ve been craving for dinner. The time went quickly and quietly. I moved through it with a sense of ease and gratitude, and felt much more centered by evening. I’m not sure why I needed that day, but I listened to myself and honored that need, and it helped me recharge whatever needed recharging.
Overwhelm isn’t something you fight or can overcome by simply “powering through.” Powering through is why we’re overwhelmed in the first place. Accepting that it’s here, and that things can’t continue in the same way they have, is the only way through it.