I confess that I’d never heard the word “overwhelm” used as a noun until a few years ago. The verb “to overwhelm,” sure, and the adjective “overwhelming,” of course. After a cursory look online as I write this blog, it still didn’t come up. I first blogged about the “O” word in January 2011 (see archives) and I hear it more now than I did back then.
Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of either the verb or the adjective. Both have way too many meanings for me and they’re all over the place. They include: bury, drown, completely defeat, trounce, vanquish, overpower, inundate, engulf, submerge, and feel intense or strong emotion. The closest definition in my mind is feeling like you have too many things to deal with, but if that’s the case, why not just say that?
Clients often tell me they’re overwhelmed or that life is overwhelming or that there’s too much overwhelm going on for their liking. My problem with their statements is that telling themselves that they’re feeling the “O” word makes them feel worse by generating anxiety. And they’re not overwhelmed at all. They’re busy or stressed. One client describes it to me as feeling pressure from herself or from the world.
The problem is that rather than saying that there’s a lot to do in life—a normal state of affairs—we’ve made the situation pathological. To me, it’s normal to have a to-do list and to feel a teensy bit of anxiety looking at it while also knowing that the world won’t end if you don’t get it done. It’s normal to feel tired at the end of the day because you’ve accomplished a lot. It’s normal to want time away from your task list to kick back and do whatever you enjoy for fun or relaxation. It’s also normal to occasionally feel heightened pressure to perform well, be two places at once, have a good amount resting on your shoulders, and to want to close your eyes and go to sleep instead.
However, none of these signify an uncommon, unnatural state unless you’re always in them. If your life constantly causes you to feel “overwhelm,” you are not drowning or defeated but may make poor choices, not know how to say no, be a perfectionist, be an ineffective boundary setter, let yourself get frequently taken advantage of, or have taken on more than you can chew. You can learn to make better choices, say no, focus on being and doing good enough, set and stick to firmer boundaries, not be a doormat, and back off on being all things to all people.
For some people “overwhelm” has taken the form of a permanent state of being. It isn’t. If you don’t want to feel it, stop telling yourself that you do and quit using the word completely. You’ll be a lot happier and feel a good deal better without it.