The Space Between: How to Manage Overwhelm with Mindful Awareness
These days, a lot of us are overwhelmed and struggling to cope. Fortunately, there is something we can do about managing our experience and it begins with how we perceive ourselves, as opposed to how we schedule our time.
Our overwhelm may stem from one or multiple sources: the latest local and/or global catastrophe at hand, trying to keep up in an increasingly competitive and expensive world, dealing with ongoing personal and professional situations. It can be difficult to take care of our minds and bodies under all of this stress and pressure.
Like many others, I’ve been searching for solutions to help ease the pressure and provide relief from overwhelm, because it can range from being unpleasant to potentially dangerous – as in, maybe our minds will reach some kind of limit or our bodies will break down under the constant strain. With my background in mindfulness training, people often ask me to share mindfulness tips that can help them deal with their overwhelm. Mindfulness has certainly helped me, even though it’s not a quick fix.
Mindfulness is about accepting what is, without resistance or judgment. So in the case of overwhelm, it’s about accepting our thoughts and feelings of “too much” while actively letting go of thoughts of trying to change or fix anything. This can be a tricky task given that most of us have been raised to approach every challenge as a problem to solve. Like any new habit, it requires practice.
Mindfulness is about coming to terms with “what is”, and all that we think and feel in this moment. In that effort of acknowledging “what is” without trying to fix or change it, we create space between the self that is experiencing overwhelm and the self that is witnessing our experience of being overwhelmed. The latter self is the one we want to get to know more, and befriend; the self that can step back and observe our experience of being overwhelmed, and just as importantly, be compassionate and non-judgmental towards our overwhelmed selves – meaning that we recognize the real impacts of our rapidly changing social and corporate environments and don’t blame ourselves for being overwhelmed as a result.
When we can step back, observe, and connect with our compassionate selves in the moment, then we are able to get some relief. We’re no longer caught up in our experience but rather we’re observing it from a calm, objective distance. In this newly created space, we are able to gain new perspective. We may even begin to see new possibilities and opportunities for making different choices.
In “Business Leadership: Nourishing the Soul of the Leader,” Andre L. Delbecq writes that “The leadership challenge is to find ways to be present to the complexities yet retain inner calmness and presence. Leaders I have worked with who are successful in this often turn to the spiritual disciplines for inward centering amid outward complexity.” These disciplines can include meditation, prayer, written reflection or journaling, mindful walking, to name a few. Below I share a 3-step approach for mindfully accepting what is, connecting to the compassionate self-observer, and taking necessary action to manage overwhelm in the moment.
- Become aware. First, notice what’s going on in your mind and body. Name it without fear that it will get bigger if you do (it may for an instant, and then it will lose its power under the light of your conscious awareness). Say it loud, write it down, draw a picture, express it through movement, whatever works best for you. Name what’s going on for you in this moment.
- Connect with your compassionate self-observer. Give yourself a hug, put a hand on your heart, look at a picture of yourself as a child – whatever helps you connect with a compassionate witness to your experience. Your compassionate self doesn’t judge you in your experience, nor does it judge any self-blaming thoughts you may be having. It simply witnesses your experience in the moment without becoming attached to any thoughts and feelings your overwhelmed self may be having.
- Speak up. Tell somebody about what you’re going through. Ask for their support, even if it’s just to listen. Say no when you normally say yes. Say yes when you normally say no. Tell someone that you’re nervous about climate change or the coronavirus. Explain how you’re feeling in response to something someone has said or done to you that may have triggered your sense of overwhelm – say it directly to them if you’re ready, or say it to a neutral party first. Speaking up is the unlocking mechanism, to unlock the person that is trapped inside the stigma of overwhelm and make it okay to feel and think this way because it’s real and you are having these reactions.
Admitting that we’re overwhelmed may seem scary and even shameful in a society that has long admired stoicism in the face of challenge, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. It can take time to get used to admitting our overwhelm to ourselves first, and then to trusted others. Yet the more we can talk about it in safe spaces, the less scary it seems and the more open we become to our strengths in resilience, creating new perspective, self-care and support.
One of the most powerful ways we can adapt to a world that is changing quickly around us is to become mindfully aware of “what is” in the moment – what is going on and how we think and feel about it. Stepping back and becoming a compassionate witness to our experience in the ways listed above can provide the relief and support we truly need in order to respond constructively. And they don’t require a new calendar, just the moment you’re in now.
Curious about developing mindfulness to manage overwhelm and respond creatively? Check out details for my “Leading Mindfully” workshop, or connect with me to discover how the workshop can be customized for your organization.