Note: This is longer than usual, but the topic seems to be up for people, so I'm sending the current version of this book chapter. Feedback welcome!
Getting Out of Overwhelm
Overwhelm is not a given, ever. Not when there's a lot going on and you have no clue how you're going to manage it all; not when you're up against a deadline with one task lined up after the other and not a moment to spare; not when you're in an emotional pressure cooker and life feels frightening and out of control. In such moments, things may indeed be inarguably full. You may benefit from being very diligent or focused, or both. You may choose to accept some discomforts (less sleep than feels good, less peace or leisure than you typically enjoy) to get what you're after. You may have some strong emotions to field. Still, in all of that, overwhelm is optional.
So how do you get out of overwhelm when you find yourself in it? How do you learn not to go there when it all feels like too much?
I've found a grand solution to overwhelm in Byron Katie's three kinds of business. This is relevant to me personally. My two most often repeated declarations used to be “I'm overwhelmed” and its close cousin, “I'm exhausted.” After The Work of Byron Katie came into my life, it dawned on me at some point that whenever I felt overwhelmed, I was out of my business. I started checking for whose business I was in whenever I felt overwhelmed or heard myself say I was. Invariably, I was out of mine—truly, every single time. I started wondering: Could it be there's no such thing as overwhelm if you live in your own business?
Let me go over Katie's three-part model. In your thinking, it's possible for you to be in three kinds of business: yours, someone else's, or the Universe's (she says God's). When Katie talks about the three kinds of business, her emphasis is on self-abandonment: when you're out of your business, you abandon yourself. This is important—crucial—because people tend to correlate the concept of leaving their business with a harsh admonition or that rap on the knuckles: Bad girl! Bad boy! Mind your own business! Get out of my business! That's not your business! Katie's approach is meant to be kind: Come back to yourself. If you're not in your business, you're no longer here to attend to yourself.
I find that people are often struck hard when they realize the self-abandonment of it. Seeing this, they get very serious, realizing how far afield they habitually go, about getting back to their own business. The way Katie speaks it, when you're out of your business, you're over there telling God how to run things or telling other people how to live their lives, so no one's here for you. (Katie's conceptualization of God, by the way, is very open-ended, non-patriarchal, and not based on a human image—certainly not a white bearded guy in the sky: for her, God is reality. Reality rules; what is, is.)
My favorite metaphor for being out of your business is treading water. When you're taking care of what's yours to take care of, applying agency where you've actually got it, you move forward. It's like completing a lap or swimming across the imaginary alligator pit to that dock across the pond: you actually get somewhere, even if through some harrowing adventures. Conversely, when you're out of your business, you exert yourself trying to apply agency where you don't have it, so nothing gets accomplished. You exert, exert, exert until you exhaust yourself (I'm overwhelmed, I'm exhausted), and at some point you may well feel like you're drowning.
A pre-med student gearing up for MCATs, for example (somehow I've talked to more than one of these, living as I do in an Ivy-League college town), could slip out of her business in any number of compelling and torturous ways. If she brings to her test preparation how much time she's got to prepare (is it enough?), the score she needs (what if a good school doesn't want her?), the actual score she'll get (outcome!), the competition (horrendous in the med-school world), the steps still to follow the test (including potentially terrifying interviews—and what will they think of her? … she gets so weirdly inarticulate in such moments), what it will be like to be a resident functioning on interrupted sleep while absorbing crazy amounts of life-and-death information, and how on earth she'll manage to cultivate a solid and juicy relationship so she can somehow gracefully juggle family and work one day—holy hell! Is this manageable?
If she comes back to her business, she's down to one thing: prepare as best she can for the test in the time she's got left to prepare in. That's definitely manageable.
Let me ask an obvious question because it bears asking. Which maximizes the chance of a good outcome? Staying in her business and simply preparing as thoroughly as she can, or going out of her business to theirs and God's and carrying and managing (in her poor, taxed pain body) all the anxiety this produces? And while I'm asking the obvious, one more: which is more likely to keep her out of overwhelm?
It's mostly pretty obvious when and where you go into other people's business, but there are any number of times you might go there without quite realizing you're not where you belong. This may happen with your should concepts, your wonderful ethics and (truly) great ideas about how people ought to treat each other, drive safely, talk to their children or siblings, get out of codependence, run meetings more efficiently, buy local—you name it. But if you're not the one doing the treating, driving, talking, getting out, running, or buying, you're in someone else's business, visiting your fabulous ethics (Katie calls them your sacred concepts) on others.
And are you clear about staying out of their thoughts of you? It's common, perhaps universal, for people to very much want to manage what others think of them. The idea that doing so takes you out of your business isn't Katie's brainchild. Folks in the 12-step world love to declare some version of, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
As for the Universe's business, it's whatever no one can control, certainly not you. I like to flag outcomes and time as the two classic categories here that are likely to get most anyone in trouble.
Outcomes are clear enough: how it all turns out. You can't know before it's revealed. What you can do is locate the ways you can appropriately influence the end result: what's actually yours to do to move toward your desired outcome (or your vision)? That's your business. Beyond where you have power to effect outcome, let go. Give it to the Universe (put it in the God box, if you will.)
Your slice of the pie may be quite large or a tiny sliver: identify what that actually is, focus your efforts there, and see about cultivating detachment for the rest. This could look like catching yourself in a worry or prediction about outcome and coming back to NOW—always your business—and to what you can do or, even more precise, to what's yours to do here and now. Remind yourself the Universe holds the rest.
Time includes timing—that is, how long it will take, when you'll get there, how quickly anything else will happen—even if your part's on hold till it does—when the emotion will ease up. (Yes, even when rage, sorrow, or grieving will let go of its grip on you. If it's out of your control, it's not your business. But you can certainly mind the pain body from the perspective of the compassionate, dispassionate witness. Minding your pain body—part of self-care—is always your business.)
Time also includes the past and the future, as most of your business happens here and now. Note that in-your-business time travel (such as going to the future to plan and prepare, or the past to rectify something) won't land you in stress. If you're in stress while mentally visiting past or future, and if there's no action on your part involved, you're almost certainly out of your business.
As for the past, you're out of your business there when you're going over it in ways that aren't useful, revisiting what just doesn't need to be revisited again. A useless foray into the past is often characterized by blame, regret, sorrow, longing, or believing that what's over and done should still be happening, that whatever happened shouldn't have happened (or not as it did), that anything or anyone gone should still be here, or that you'd somehow be better off now if something hadn't happened or if this moment still held what is no more. If you're visiting the past in therapy, for example, in a way that brings ease, insight, forgiveness, letting go, you're in your business. If you're reviewing the same scenes with your shrink five, ten, twenty years later (“Please,” a new client said to me, “not one more word about my father”), you're almost certainly out of your business again and may well benefit from another modality. If you're visiting the past with joy and gratitude, you don't even need to wonder whose business you're in.
Likewise, when you go into the future unnecessarily, you're in the Universe's business. You may legitimately need to go there to troubleshoot or to plan or to coordinate things with other people. But whenever you're there to worry and make bleak predictions of all that will go wrong or what you can't have or won't get to—out of your business. I like to invite people to notice what portion of their time in the future is actually time they belong there. Most find it's quite a small percentage.
Finally, I want to flag that you're in the Universe's business when you declare limitations or character flaws as if they were universal laws. I especially find myself pointing this out to people when they're in self-judgments, which for many people are far more harsh than anything they direct toward others. You can't do that, you won't get there, you don't get to, you're not capable, you're too flawed? Who are you to declare that about anyone, even yourself? There's no universal law that says you can't create, thrive, and fulfill your potential alongside every other human being. Come back to your business, which is to hold a vision and move toward a vision; let the Universe show you what you can and can't get to.
In terms of overwhelm, it's crucial that you stay out of the Universe's business. Do I need to tell you that you're not equipped to do the job of the Universe? If you'll excuse the G-word here, do I need to remind you that you're not God? (I've had cause to remind myself, trust me.) How could anyone be anything but overwhelmed seeking to take care of the turning of the planets or of the hands on the clock, the weather, the unexpected, natural disasters, and most anything to do with life and death, war and peace, what is or isn't possible, and the way it ultimately will or did turn out?
So when you're overwhelmed, ask yourself two simple questions. First, “Whose business am I in right now?” Find where you're in others' business or the Universe's: you will surely be in one or the other, if not both. Then ask this follow-up question: “So what is my business here?” Once you locate your business, go there. You'll be right where you need to be. You might feel instant relief. Even if your actual business isn't a comfortable place to be for the moment, you'll still be equipped to manage it. A pre-med student is entirely capable of spending an evening preparing for a test. She isn't capable, that same evening, to manage her entire schooling and career while coming to grips with how to manage the balance of work and home life in such a demanding profession.
Sometimes your first order of rightful business, when you come back to it, is simply to mind the pain body that got activated when you left. Stay with yourself kindly and gently. Access that compassionate, dispassionate witness as you breathe. And from there, take care of what else is yours to take care of, checking in periodically to give awareness and breath to the pain body as you go.
It's certainly possible for what's actually your business to be quite sizable and daunting. If that's the case, trying to manage all of it at once puts you right out of your business again. You can't swallow the whole ocean. You can, however, pull out one bucketful and do something with that. So take large tasks or situations and make it your business to break them down into bite-sized, manageable pieces, then show up now and now and now for each task before you. You can only do one at a time anyway, whatever's up right here and now. (Okay, sometimes you can multitask. Do that if it makes the most sense and keeps you in your business. And note that you can only multitask so much. I like to get Zen about it and say, When you're multitasking, just multitask.)
If there's a long string of tasks and a deadline looming, be clear about how much time you can allot to each one. This may mean relaxing your standards a bit. Is your mind going to what your boss or client will think of what you present, or whether you'll get done on time or not? You're out of your business, unless you're reevaluating how you want to proceed. Worry (or any stressful emotion) is a clear sign you're out of your business.
Then there's the phenomenon I call arranging the button drawer. Don't color-code the button drawer when it's time to move through the whole of a project (paper, proposal, decluttering). Somehow this idea came from living with a kid who loves to let a room get to alarming levels of chaos before cleaning it. She'd then declare a day of cleaning, and when I checked on her three hours later, she would show me some painstaking task she'd conquered in the realm of minutia (Look, all the buttons are arranged by size and color in this drawer!) while chaos reigned all around. It's a good idea to take care of any momentous task in an unpolished way to get it from start to finish, then go back in and tweak toward perfection as time allows.
There's no staying, in life. As with everything else, you can't stay in your business. You can't stay out of overwhelm. You can, however, hold the intention to live in your business, free of any sensation coursing through you or lodging somewhere in your body related to the idea that it's all more than you can bear. With the intention in place to live without overwhelm, catch yourself there (you'll land there again, so be willing to catch yourself kindly) and check out whose business you're in. Having found that you're out of your business, you can then simply come back to what's actually yours to mind. That's as good as it gets, and it's plenty good enough.
Love & blessings, Jaya
Here comes my second podcast from Healing from the Ground Up. The topic is "Reaching for Problems When There Isn't One." It covers minding the pain body and tending the mind, offers a formula for change, and reminds you to navigate by joy.
Want to Get In on These Podcasts?
Visit the Heal from the Ground Up website and listen to various coaches on various topics as the shows accrue there over time. Choose from Love, Fear, Family, Purpose, Mindfulness, Wellness.
You can also subscribe to the show on iTunes or leave a review on iTunes or both. Once you follow that link, click on "view in iTunes" and there you'll see a "subscribe" button. This will download existing podcasts into your iTunes library; later, new shows will magically appear there as they post. You can also click on "Ratings and Reviews" and from there read other people's reviews or click on "Write a Review" to contribute yours. For the record, your actions on iTunes related to this show will increase its (and therefore my) exposure.
You can be the client in a future podcast of mine. To qualify, you simply need to be someone I've never worked with before. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire. I'm especially looking for anyone who identifies as any kind of queer, just because this population is as of yet underrepresented in this series. (And because it's one of my tribes.)
Most of all, may you benefit richly from exploring this healing venue.
Curious about coaching?
I offer a free 30-minute exploration session by phone or Skype or in person (in Ithaca, NY). To get the free session, just fill out the contact form on my website.
I'm looking for a woman/women local to the Ithaca area to be part of a coaching dyad or small group. The thrust of this group will be to move forward with creating what you want in your life and to apply more deeply any of the principles I work with related to living with self-trust and trust that all of life wants to support you to thrive and to offer your highest service to the world. If you're interested, contact me at 607.339.9714 or email@example.com.
For Facebook types, I post most days with an aim to support your growth and healing, inspire you, remind you of what you already know, keep you in touch with the magic, propose that you think big, and cast my vote for you to keep being ever kinder to yourself. Some popular posts from last month:
Strange how universal “I'm bad” is. I've come to welcome it when it shows up. I don't let it hang out: it really must be moved along. I greet it like some brain-damaged innocent who wandered into the wrong place by mistake. I just sit with it, breathing into the pain body and giving my full awareness to where it hurts, whether that place is minuscule or gargantuan. I sit with “I'm bad” until it looks false, even absurd. And then it goes away all on its own. If the pain body still feels tender, I carry that around giving it awareness and breath as I go about my business. Please, do not let “I'm bad” hang out with you untended.
You may be quite right about what someone else or some group or government should do, especially looking through a certain lens—what's responsible, or functional, or fair, or any number of excellent criteria you may be using. But if it's not yours to manage—someone else's journey, their decisions, their ethics—you can only create distress & disconnection by focusing on what's right, by getting outraged & incensed. It doesn't matter how many people would agree with you: you're perpetuating suffering (especially yours) and discord. Come back to your journey, your decisions, your ethics. This is how to be the change you wish to see.
If you find yourself mentally groping beyond yourself for what you need, see if you can bring it closer. Drop into how it feels physically right now to be you and witness that, breathe into it. Get okay in that space, however it feels, even if it currently feels bad. Consider the possibility that all you need to know—about love, forgiveness, healing, moving forward—is all right here. All the laws of physics are right here. Any intelligent, love-driven god-force—right here. If you're groping, grope into that.
Everything I do as coach & writer is what I've done/do in my own life. I guide people to stop believing their thoughts, especially the disempowering, painful ones. I help them catch any way they're being or talking like a victim so they can live in power. I hold up mirrors for them to see their beauty & encourage them to be as big as they can be. I don't tolerate ways they're hard on themselves, expecting perfection where it's not possible. I guide them into a clear vision for their lives & help them choose (act, think, speak) into that vision. I support them in applying their own belief system, as life's job is to push us to places where we stop doing that. I invite all to a grand experiment with a friendly universe conspiring in your favor.
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