Seven Ways I Deal with Overwhelm Before it Deals with Me (or, “Nobody cares, Grandma!”)

A couple of months ago I sent out a survey to my email list members,
to help in my own brainstorming about what directions to head next.

In response to a question about blog content, one person made a comment
that regularly pricks my thoughts. She said,

“Maybe you could post that you too get overwhelmed
from time to time … if you do. Surely you do?”
 ·······   Yes, I surely do!   ·······

For the past two days I’ve set aside time to write a blog post and an email newsletter. I’ve actually made the time to do it! But then I can’t write. Cannot. I chase ideas around my cluttered brain and find nothing cohesive. I look dumbly at photos I’ve uploaded and sentences I’ve struggled to form.

I recognize this. It is not a case of an elusive muse. No, it’s paralysis. And it is brought on by a sense of overwhelm which cloaks everything I try to do with its dark, slogging weight. It comes when there are too many expectations (usually self-made!), too many idea trails to follow, too many things coming at me at once.

Two powerful triggers of overwhelm for me are 1) travel, and 2) the holidays. And what do you know? They are both presently operative, with all their happy bells on!* I love travel and I love the holidays, but they throw the beloved evenness of my days out the window. Amen, anybody?

Yesterday, after staring at the computer screen blankly for a long time, I finally gave up and cleaned house. (Which is one of the things that has badly needed doing, and people are coming over tomorrow.) A huge perk of house-cleaning is that it lifts my spirits and clears mental space. Maybe that’s the reason I can write today?

As I cleaned I thought about the strategies I use to beat back a sense of overwhelm so it cannot get the best of me. I identified seven. In most cases they boil down to some wise words I learned from a little girl a long time ago…

One Christmastime, when my oldest daughter was six, she stood on a chair at the kitchen counter helping my mom decorate cookies. Her curly, unkempt red hair was pushed back by an ill-fitting plastic tortoiseshell headband which continually slid forward onto her forehead. My mom kept trying to fix it, but my daughter wasn’t having it. With far more wisdom than she could understand, my daughter declared, “Nobody cares, Grandma!”

This line has gone down in our family lore and is still quoted frequently, whether the object of the assertion is a grandmother or not. Watch how it works in the first four of my list of seven. These are things I do when I am feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Lower my expectations for whatever is the task at hand. Although my heart was clamoring for a thorough fall house-cleaning yesterday, I chose a few important particulars. Maybe I’ll get to others before 2019. (“And anyway, nobody cares, Grandma.”)
  2. Drop judgment of myself for my limitations. Yesterday I was grieving the fact that I didn’t pack a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child, let alone make a blanket for it (which is what I really, really wanted to do again). So I let myself feel sad for a bit, then I went to the Samaritan’s Purse site and ordered a shoe box right there. You can still do this too! Deadline is November 19. (“You got a box out! That’s what matters, Grandma!”)
  3. Set low goals for what I can accomplish by Christmas. Handmade gifts may not be done on time or even at all. I preach the following to myself regularly: “Nobody knows what your intentions were but you. Others will likely love whatever you give as a gift. Don’t turn it in to something to fret about. (“Cuz nobody cares, Grandma!”)
  4. Recognize that the feelings of stress are simply a feeling, that no-one else can feel mine (they’re inside only me), and many of the things I think I need to do are cared about by only me. Do I need to cook dinner from scratch tonight? Do I need to dust the blades of that ceiling fan before people arrive? (“Really, nobody cares, Grandma.”)
  5. Flip the switch in my mind to think about the things I have been able to do: Have a great conversation with a friend. Fold the laundry and put it away. Teach an online class (!!).
  6. Be conscious of the present moment and enjoy what I’m doing. When I practice this it’s actually a lot of fun. Turn on loud music or listen to a podcast while I clean. Pour a short glass of wine while I cook.
  7. For the to-dos that are necessary, I do best when I address them one-by-one and tune-out the rest of the noisy list in my head. This keeps me calm and speeds up each little job. Many don’t take but a few minutes!

What are YOUR techniques when overwhelm strikes? Please share!

*Last weekend I returned from southern California where I stayed with my mom for a week. One evening we were stunned by this glorious sunset. (Can you find the sliver of ocean in pics 3 and 4? Far right.) The photo below is what I was met by back at home in northern Illinois.

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