This week I entertained an uncomfortable house guest: The Overwhelm Critter.
The Overwhelm Critter is my personification of that part of me that feels it’s her DUTY to protect me from situations that might require change, or hard work, or the potential of feeling like (or actually BEING) a beginner. (I wrote more about her and two other common critters in this little free book.)
My Overwhelm Critter has it in her head that any such situation is inherently bad, and has perfected the art of highlighting, in relation to any such situation, tons of details at once – each one like a flashing, singing, spinning neon sign – so that the Big Picture of whatever it is I’m looking at appears to be WAY TOO MUCH for me to handle, and therefore something I can dismiss as Not What I Will Give Attention To Right Now.
On a REALLY good day of work, my Overwhelm Critter has me tucked safely into bed with a pillow over my head.
On more average ones, she has me avoiding doing what my heart wants to do, and instead doing things like check email constantly, surf the web mindlessly, or go slightly numb and blurry-eyed when in conversation with others who feel passionately about whatever it is my critter wants to protect me from.
I share this because I think encounters with the Overwhelm Critter are part of the human experience and rooted – like any self-protective behavior – in fear.
And fear is what I’m here to name. I’m here to name it and find ways to healthfully move through and beyond the control it exerts over us so that our living – MY living – can be rooted in something more enlivening.
So I’m here to tout TRUST, too, as the bridge from feeling overwhelmed to feeling more at ease and more capable of weighing input thoughtfully and seeing it nestled into a broader context of where I want my values and goals and ambitions to lead me.
So let’s get super practical.
I got overwhelmed this week by the realization, brought on by conversations with a friend whose livelihood requires her to know such things, that my efforts to buy and consume food that’s healthy for my family and our planet is only the beginning of the distance I could go in pursuit of such things.
I’m already well outside the norm of U.S. culture on such things, so this felt like a punch in the gut. Ice water poured over my head.
You guys, the food in this country is really, really messed up. And the cosmetics industry, too.
So my Overwhelm Critter jumped right in and spun each fact so brightly and blinkingly that sunglasses weren’t protection enough from the lot of them.
And as I sat there, reeling, she whispered in my ear:
- You’re already trying to manage gluten and lactose sensitivities in your home. Now you’ve got to cut out most of your go-to gluten/lactose-free products? Really? REALLY??
- You’re working more than part-time, being full-time with young kids, and barely keeping the house picked up and the toilets sort of clean. Where can you possibly find time to look for even cleaner cosmetics and food products or stores that sell them…let alone PRICE things so that you find affordable options…or prepare foods that take more time to prepare?
- The sky is totally falling, Kristin. You know that, don’t you? Everyone’s eating crap and absorbing crap through their skin and the only “winners” are Monsanto and the pharmaceutical companies that treat all the problems these systems create.
- DOOM!! GLOOM!! KABOOOM!!!!!
Can you imagine how possible it is, in the face of an onslaught like that, to feel joy, or levity, or the slightest bit energized to take positive action?
Right. Not very.
So here’s what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting this for people burdened by food concerns or environmental concerns or concerns about the media their kids take in or the education system.
And I’m suggesting these in relation to any overwhelm at all.
These very steps have transformed my inner AND outer lives this week.
1. Pull back, in your mind’s eye, from whatever it is you’re overwhelmed about, and do the (sometimes challenging) work of situating it in a broader context.
If you’re overwhelmed about the food or cosmetics industries, pull back far enough to recognize how many companies exist right now that are making it their business to care about the ingredients they use and the impact these have on our planet…or to educate so more do. Note the tide of awareness across our country turning. No matter what you do or don’t do about these issues, the tide is turning.
If you’re overwhelmed by the care you’re needing to give a dear one who’s aging or sick, pull back far enough to see this season in the broader context of both of your lives. Remember other seasons you’ve experienced. Become aware of how many other folks are in similar boats and the supports – online and in-person and in books – that exist to ease some of the burden of this. Try to get out of the forest to see this broader landscape.
The effect of this pulling-back won’t be to magically make things easy. But it does typically pop an inadvertent illusion that “the sky is falling everywhere”, or “the sky is mainly falling on me”. Both carry their own kind of burden.
2. Take stock of whether this issue you’re overwhelmed about is a torch that’s yours to carry.
In your heart of hearts, are you feeling called to be an activist around this issue?
Is this school, for example, a school that you want to help orchestrate change within?
Is this friend or relative your responsibility to help?
Can you imagine the outlines of a business or non-profit that has your heart and experiences at its core that can address this thing that has your Critter so in fits?
Whether or not this is your torch won’t necessarily mean the difference between doing something about it or doing nothing at all (even non-torch issues are things we can take action around), but it does shift where you set your sites, and can dramatically diminish the dissonance that arise when you recognize a problem and aren’t clear whether it’s your role to do anything significant about it.
3. Identify small (these can be teensy tiny) steps you can take over time to respond to this issue.
If you’ve gotten clear that this isn’t your torch to carry, these steps won’t have the purpose of creating world change. These steps will be more about honoring a value that you hold, or honoring a wish from your heart.
If you’ve gotten clear that this IS your torch to carry, these steps will have bigger goals in mind.
In both cases, the point here is to consciously turn off the spinning, blinking, neon-flashingness of all the angles and details of this issue (which your Overwhelm Critter has so dutifully turned on) and break this thing down into little, bite-sized pieces that don’t intimidate you so much.
I realize, for example, that I can get rid of the Canola oil in my pantry and quite easily buy a healthier alternative at one of the stores I already frequent. No grand restructuring of every aspect of my diet required.
There are surely 20 more steps I could identify that I could not freak out about if I did one each week (or even month, if that timeline is better).
My country’s broken food industry is not my torch to carry – I feel super clear about this – so my steps will have to do with putting my values around food into action, raising my own and my family’s awareness, and – here’s a really important one – soothing the parts of me that are in knots about this issue.
If this isn’t my torch to carry, and being mired in a sky-is-falling mentality only hinders my capacity to shine my light (i.e. do the things that ARE my work to do), I need to revisit #1 above, and find small, soothing steps to get me out of my lizard-brain reactiveness and into a calmer state.
Upping my intake of leafy greens, getting more sleep for a few days, taking time to journal and unwind before bed, limiting the conversations I have with people whose torch this is to carry: these are the sorts of things that predictably shift me out of lizard-brain fear (I talk more these moves in this video interview).
My guess is that all of the above apply, in some way, to those who say their overwhelming thing is indeed their torch to carry.
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Steps like these create bridges from our places of fear and impotence – which are contagious states of mind – to places of greater confidence and ease. They give us footing on trust, which is contagious, too, and help create a more hospitable world for all of us to inhabit.