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Overwhelm is not extinguishable (not that's a very good thing)

Mar 01, 2023

Something I’ve realised with increasing obviousness (i.e. my mind is reminding me of it more and more frequently until I feel compelled to let these words spill onto this page to send to you) is that while overwhelm is both inevitable and optional (see my book or listen to my podcast for why) it is NOT extinguishable.

How does that make you feel? Disappointed? Like what's the point then Heidi? What's the point of looking at things differently, of feeling like there’s an easier way to live if in the end I never completely get rid of my overwhelm. Grrr.


Here’s why overwhelm not being completely extinguishable is a very good thing. A relief in fact. 


Now bear with me it took me a while to get here too. I initially thought that I was living without overwhelm because in general I am. I know the signs and when I'm paying attention I notice them quickly and do something about it instead of ploughing on through regardless.


In fact, I’m so far removed from where I was, unknowingly surfing the verge of burnout for pretty much the whole of my 40s, that the occasional bout of overwhelm pales into the inconsequential in comparison.


I no longer have days where I ache all over from sitting all day. My brain never feels like I’ve squished it into a wall of concrete. And although I’m still known for passionate viewpoints I’m rarely the unexpectedly (but looking back, sadly predictably) snappy partner. The inconvenient tear leakage is completely gone. My focus is no longer on how to keep the spinning plates spinning on top of the other spinning plates determined not to let anyone else down (just myself).

Those were some of the signs of overwhelm that I had no idea mattered. I thought they were just understandable consequences of a successful career. I would never have thought I was on the road to burnout. Never. 


I was highly productive with a full life I loved. I prioritised my selfcare, my relationships, my health. At least I thought I did. But it was really, really hard to hold it altogether.


I loved my job but it was killing me. I knew this but decided to problem solve it by hacking my productivity, scheduling in space for me. But I just became even better at getting things done so took on more and was relied upon more and more. And  my schedule became so packed, tight and rigid, that there was actually no room for me - I had just created a system that was even more focused on getting through, on holding it altogether, on keeping those damn plates spinning on those spinning plates.


Eventually I started to break. The inconvenient tear leakage became uncontrollable. Once I lost that position of respect the cracks just deepened. 


The road to burnout for me was hidden. It was like that metaphorical frog in boiling water. I had no idea. Because the overwhelm blocked the oncoming burnout from view. My nervous system had been hijacked by the constant fake emergencies that a pressured job creates.


Now I no longer blame myself. I blame overwhelm. I have learnt to take it seriously, to deal with it first. To clear the wood from the trees before trying to focus on anything.


So, today, when I say I live my life without overwhelm you can see why I would believe that I’d made it a thing of the past. I’ve worked hard to develop practices that support me - and they work. Things are so far removed from where I was 5 years ago - so completely unrecognisable.


And then it dawned on me that I was starting to judge myself whenever I went through an unexpected period of overwhelm. Like I ‘should’ be living completely without it. Walking my talk as a coach matters to me. 


But as my Zen teacher, Daizan Roshi taught me - never ‘should’ yourself. 


Overwhelm is an inevitable part of life. As Daizan explains at the end of his podcast interview - you don't meditate to silence the mind - the  mind’s activities are part of the dance of life. Why would you want to stop the dance of life?


And our minds are designed to be overwhelmed as a safety mechanism to prevent pausing and thinking through our options when that would get us killed. There are, nowadays, fortunately very few times when we are actually faced with a life threatening situation that requires this kind of ability to react without thought. And yet most of us are trying really hard to negotiate our lives from this state every single day. No wonder we’re exhausted.


You don't want to switch this emergency system off. It's there for a very good reason (to save your life). This is what causes the signs of overwhelm - from your inability to think straight, your embarrassing snappiness with your partner, your impatient grumpiness with your dog, your inability to leave work at work and enjoy your evening. I could go on but I'll stop there.


Overwhelm is still optional - it is very possible for you to learn how to make it so. This is what I coach clients to develop - a personalised way to move from the exhausting reactionary state of being that most of the world appears stuck in, to the responsive measured state. 


With commitment to simple daily practices overwhelm becomes optional. Notice the signs. Pause. Get out of overwhelm. Act. Sometimes it takes longer to realise but that's ok. It's all a practice. 


You don't need to aim for perfection because it doesn’t exist. Overwhelm is optional but it's not extinguishable - so you're off the hook. What a relief!


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