For sensitive people, getting overwhelmed is a familiar experience, though we each have our different ways of dealing with it. I habitually kick into overdrive. My invisible contract says, “When the going gets tough, put your head down and work harder.”
I’m aware I’m not alone here. Working hard is a socially sanctioned coping strategy. And sensitive people are particularly prone to it because we are so conscientious: we’d rather persevere to a point of exhaustion than lower our standards or let other people down. I’ve run myself into the ground countless times this way, and only recently found a way to stop when l I finally uncovered the beliefs that were driving me. Do these sound familiar?
1—“I can get everything done, if I just work hard enough.”
2—”Once I get everything done, (and only then) I can finally relax!”
Relaxing sounds great. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the problems here. First of all, let’s face it: you can’t be alive without having an unfinished “to-do” list. To put it baldly, you’d have to be dead to be done with everything. (I can’t tell you how proud I was of myself when I figured this out. But then, I’m no rocket scientist.)
And secondly, who says you can’t relax until everything is done? That’s a crazy rule, in itself, and it sounds even crazier knowing you can only be done when you are dead.
So let me ask you this: what is your default coping mechanism for overwhelm? Perhaps you put your head down and work harder, like I tend to do. Or perhaps you climb back into bed, or eat a bag of Doritos, or obsessively make lists, or binge on Orange is the New Black.
Take a minute to get clear on this, because the first step towards restoring your sanity will be to slow down enough to notice you are overwhelmed, and to catch yourself before you go into your habitual response. This isn’t easy. But with the right information and a clear intent, you can do it.
The fact is, sensitive people do get overwhelmed more easily than other people, because we take in more information from our environment and process it in a more granular way. In addition to this general tendency, two additional factors determine our level of overwhelm. One is the speed with which information or experiences come at us. The other is the sheer volume or intensity of stimulation we are fielding. So, to reduce overwhelm, we’ve somehow got to slow down our experience of events so we can process them.
The first step is to catch yourself, as described above. The second step is deceptively simple: notice the overwhelm.
You might be thinking, “Are you kidding? How can I NOT notice this overwhelm?!” Indeed. But there is a difference between being in a mind state, and consciously noting that mind state. To consciously note that you are overwhelmed, say to yourself, “Wow, I am really overwhelmed right now!” Even this simple statement may bring you some relief.
Next, say, “I’m sensing I am really overwhelmed right now.” When you add “I’m sensing”, you are using what Focusers call “presence language”. You are engaging in meta-level thinking: that is, you are becoming aware of your own thinking.
And now you are close to true relief from your overwhelm, because meta-level thinking is a core element of Loving Adult Presence. And Loving Adult Presence is the best antidote to overwhelm.
Why? Because when we get overwhelmed, it is most often because our inner six-year-old is in the driver’s seat. This poor child has no business being behind the wheel of a car, and s/he knows it. No wonder s/he feels overwhelmed. Only when you, the adult, take over the driving, can your inner six-year-old relax.
2—Pause and check in
Let’s say you’ve succeeded in consciously noticing you are overwhelmed. And you’ve put yourself back into the driver’s seat. Now, as a result, your inner kid (or kids) have begun to calm down. But there is still the external trigger of the overwhelm: your to-do list, or whatever it is that is coming at you “too much, too fast”. We need to turn back towards all that.
But first, I suggest you take a precautionary step. Once again, pause. And this time, take a good 30 seconds to sense inside (the body takes longer than the mind to respond to a request.) Ask yourself, “How is it to be me, right now, with all this going on?” You will be tempted, at this point, to return to your habitual coping strategy. Resist this urge. Instead, assert your Loving Adult Presence by acknowledging what is happening.
3—Take an inventory—from your body
Now you are ready to address the external sources of your overwhelm—but from Loving Adult Presence. You will approach the raging river of overwhelm, but rather than jump into it, you will keep your feet grounded solidly grounded on the bank.
From this place of awareness, you can take an inventory of stressors. But don’t do this from your head. Instead, invite your body to show you what it is most concerned about, right now.
Once again, give your body a good 30 seconds to come up with the thing that is bothering it the most right now. When an answer comes, jot it down on a piece of paper. Then wait again until the next item arises in your awareness.
Resist the tendency to hurry. If you get impatient, and arbitrarily pick an item, you’ll be back in the river before you know it. But if you let your body sort out your list for you, you’ll notice yourself calming down more and more. Patiently repeat, “What wants my attention next?” Then wait. Along the way, something unexpected may happen:
Let your body surprise you
Sometimes we think we are overwhelmed because of all the stuff we have to do, when in reality, there is a different reason. Specifically, you may be overaroused because you have too many unprocessed experiences bouncing around in you. Deep processing is not merely a preference for sensitive people: it is a need. And when that need goes unmet, the constant demands of life can start to feel overwhelming.
I experienced this phenomenon myself in a recent Focusing partnership session. I felt like a chicken running around with its head cut off, rushing back and forth between half a dozen stressful topics, getting even more stressed trying to decide which one to Focus on.
Then I remembered I could take an overwhelm inventory. So I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, took a breath, and invited my body to show me what wanted my attention first. What came completely surprised me. I heard my body was saying, “Please can we take time to savor how good it feels to have completed teaching a successful series of classes last night?”
What a revelation. I had been sure the overwhelm had been caused by my list of external stressors and to-do items. Instead, I discovered a need to celebrate. My joyful experience of the class, in its unprocessed state, was causing a surprisingly high level of overarousal in me.
Once I took time to celebrate, my rushing river of overwhelm shrank to a pleasantly babbling brook. Had I begun as usual, by mentally listing everything that was causing me overwhelm, the topic of the class would never have come up.
The key is to move into Loving Adult Presence first.
If you’re intrigued about Focusing, let me know: I’m taking names for a Focusing 1 for Sensitive People course starting soon. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to be on the list.