It’s always interesting to reflect on behaviour and mindset patterns, and be honest about which ones are working for or against you. I recently had a 3-day overwhelm shutdown, brought on by a return to 100% remote teaching, coupled with excitement about a return to 100% remote teaching potentially giving me the flexibility to pursue some life goals. Basically, the admin-heavy reality crashed into a vivid sense of potential, like enemy clouds. I’m pleased to say that time did that wonderful thing it always manages to do – passing – and I was able to reflect on what led to this overwhelm shutdown, as well as the mindset shifts I need to cement in order to minimise the next one. Keep scrolling if you’d like to skip straight to the tips on how to deal with your own overwhelm shutdown.
WHAT AN OVERWHELM SHUTDOWN LOOKS LIKE
Overwhelm to the point of shutting down manifests differently from person to person – for me, my brain has become super efficient at subtly shutting down the moment it feels uncertainty or emotional extremity of any sort begin to bubble. Food doesn’t taste as satisfying, mess feels too arduous to clear away. Lying in bed mulling over how the day will pan out feels, in the moment, more satisfying than actually putting the day into motion.
WHAT CAUSED MY OVERWHELM SHUTDOWN
1. THE CONCEPT OF A ‘LIFE OVERHAUL’
You know the routine. Watching YouTubers and Instagrammers who have achieved the impossible, glowing up and overhauling their mental and physical selves, or their digital and physical environments, and feeling the twin emotions of inspiration and paralysis.
This recent shutdown has shown me that what I need is not a life overhaul in the traditional sense, but a keen awareness of what I specifically need to enhance in my current lifestyle, as opposed to detracting from it. So, spending fifteen minutes in the afternoon on my passion project. Taking a break from the screen to properly wind down for better sleep. You can probably list a few of your own daily choices that enhance your perspective of the day.
This idea of enhancement is what underpins The Exhaustive Life – the desire to brighten your current self and the knowledge how to go about it, the way subtly-applied makeup takes your existing features and amplifies them.
Focusing on this idea – of gently amplifying and magnifying the good parts of your life and your individuality – solves the conundrum that self-help poses: do we accept or do we change?
2. SELF-HELP CONTENT, and THE WORDS ‘IF’ and ‘SHOULD’
I absorb self-improvement literature like a sponge, and if there’s one habit I’ve cemented over the years, it’s the self-help high. The feeling, the knowledge, deep down, that you could do so much if you JUST. LET. YOURSELF. SHINE. If you suspect you might be overwhelmed by self-help content, I encourage taking a step back and monitoring how much you’re actually consuming. YouTube Autoplay, anyone?
If our brains had a feature that allowed us to see our most frequent uses of self-talk, the word ‘if’ would very likely feature. This can be compounded by the consumption of self-help material, that encourages a sense of hope undermined by the very uncomfortable truth that your track record of completing things or cementing good habits is not particularly promising.
Another key word to look out for is ‘should’. You might feel like you have so many things you should be doing. I know that I’m super conscious of how limited this gift of life is, and so I want so badly to commit to absolutely everything, all at once.
But I can’t. Nobody can. So the decision fatigue sets in – how much can I do, gradually, over time? How many books can I read for the rest of this year at my current reading speed? How many habits can I cement if I follow the 49 day rule, or the 3 habits a month rule, or the habit stacking method?
Cue the Shutdown. Mental tabs involuntarily closing, Post-Its with important things to remember curling up and slipping from the walls of your skull.
What I love about thought leaders like Brene Brown is that they take the promise of self-improvement and frame it within the context of healthy acceptance. It’s vital to remember that being your best self is not contingent upon a situation you wish you could only find yourself in, but is something you can achieve right this second – often by doing something as simple as accepting who you are right now, and choosing the very next action to be your best self in the very next moment.
This links to the idea that we shouldn’t focus on our goals, but rather our systems. The latter is more closely tied to our current selves, and in our control. We don’t know with absolute certainty how we’ll get to our goals, or how long it will take. But we do know what our next step could be.
3. NOTIONS OF IDENTITY AND LEGACY
I’ve been obsessed with this idea of building a legacy for so long. My ears prick up any time I watch a show or film that so much as alludes to it. I read essays and skim daily routines, looking for clues of how to really do something purposeful.
They say that this is part of human nature – looking for ways to build our legacy. That finding meaning in life itself is just one big legacy-building exercise – every choice, from love to work, is based on what we identify as the best way to be loved, appreciated, or remembered.
The other night, I wrote this in my journal:
“Don’t attach the ego or identity to everything. You are a vessel, moving through this journey. In the grand scheme of things, you ARE inconsequential. [But] you matter ALREADY to people. Stop telling yourself otherwise.”
These thoughts formed after re-listening to Oprah’s podcast, where she speaks with Eckhart Tolle about the ego, and then staring up at the moon before reviewing my day. I was never into space as a kid but it’s become a real fascination of mine in recent years – seeing yourself from a different perspective. As someone with a history of anxiety, where your mind just wants to chew itself to bits because it thinks that everything is supposed to be a source of fear for ITSELF (very I, I, I), looking at my need to leave this perfect version of myself behind as problematic is very much a relief.
I think that the main point for me, the revelation of the day, is that the legacies we build are byproducts. The act of legacy-building itself is happening every single moment. Upon reflection, I can see that I have made significant connections, and I do matter to different people in different ways, while I’m living. We all have, and do. There is actually no need to prove what you are – you can strive to improve, become a better friend, feel the sense of accomplishment and task completion that is so reaffirming.
But it’s cruel to keep looking at yourself as separate from what you perceive as acceptable. Every day, pitting yourself against this shadow ideal. It’s an empty cycle and it’s vicious as hell.
15 WAYS TO OVERCOME YOUR OWN OVERWHELM SHUTDOWN
These are some actionable steps I suggest you take the next time you feel an overwhelm shutdown coming on. They are not a cure, but they help manage the discomfort and keep your head above water before time, and the overwhelm itself, passes.
- Remind yourself of what you love for an instant mood-lift. This could be a quick round of sudoku, your favourite song, answering a question on reddit or Quora about a topic you’re passionate about.
- Accept your overwhelm threshold, and vow to move away from comparisons with others. This is the only way to truly start genuine improvements.
- Question your overwhelming thoughts – are they realistic, or distorted? How might you be overestimating the seriousness of your current situation? (Note that this does not apply to feelings like grief.)
- Reflect on what’s led to the shutdown – and be honest. Is it physical factors like dehydration or lack of sleep, or are you anxious about something and trying to avoid it?
- Read about the psychological reasons for overwhelm – understand your brain and remember that you are a complex being.
- Take a break from things that detract from your ability to be your best self in the next moment – like eating your third snack of the hour instead of identifying the easiest next task on your to-do list.
- List all the simple things you can do when you feel the edges of overwhelm, and place this list somewhere your overwhelmed self is more likely to see it.
- Accept that overwhelm is not curable, only manageable. This is one of those niggly paradoxes – surrendering your control in a way that will earn you more of it.
- Take a step back from self-improvement content and give yourself the chance to discover, on your own, the next best step. Trust that you know yourself best.
- Monitor your use of the words ‘if’ and ‘should’.
- Consider how you can shift your mindset to one that focuses on systems rather than goals.
- Listen to Oprah’s conversations with Eckhart Tolle to help you detach from your perceived identity.
- Watch a documentary on space or the universe, and reassess your view of your significance in the grand scheme of things – another paradox that gives you a sense of the meaning of things when you accept their relative meaninglessness.
- Think about the relationships you have or have had, major or minor, where you’ve connected with someone or made some sort of positive difference. Think about who’s made an impact on you.
- Plan and prepare for your known overwhelming days. These are often predictable – my most overwhelming day is Wednesday. Reconsider the necessity of each task you prioritise around these overwhelming times. Work WITH yourself, not in spite of it.
THE MAIN GOAL: AUTHENTICITY
My ongoing need to talk myself down from the edge of overwhelm, as well as the desire to create a place for those easily overwhelmed not just by responsibility but sometimes counter-intuitive concepts espoused by the self-help industry, sparked the creation of The Exhaustive Life.
I want this website to be a record of the human experience. I’ve been overwhelmed by this desire to get email subscribers, monetise my online efforts. At the end of the day, I love to write. I’m practising my storytelling skills most nights, because it’s something I truly want to get better at, and I see my potential rising up before me. Writing is the one thing I know for sure that I would keep doing even if no-one enjoyed reading my work. It is a truly intrinsic driving force.
When I journalled earlier, I turned to how, above all else, I want to practise authenticity. That’s always been the goal. I know I can often operate from a mindset of scarcity. I look in the mirror, my age sitting on my head like a glowing novelty headband, and I stare, with dread, at the possibility that I won’t get to leave the legacy behind that I want. That encompasses all of those aspirations Ideal Candy wished Real Candy would work towards, without conflict.
Authentic and wholehearted presence is so important because that really is all there is – the present moment. It’s influenced by the past and future, sure. But there’s ultimately only right now to make our next choice.
Stop thinking about how people are going to remember you, how you’re going to serve them in their memories of you. Whoever is in your circle, be it parents, family, friends, acquaintances, students, the person you converse with at the supermarket checkout, YOU – start thinking about how to love and serve them right now. And love authentically – that doesn’t mean pandering to whims or indulging the negative. It’s about being a synergistic force.
I think a lot of our surface thoughts and fears are mired in others that reside a lot deeper down, that we can only uncover if we allow ourselves to feel the intense discomfort, as well as the intense relief, that comes with truly knowing what we’re so overwhelmed by.
We may not be able to prevent oncoming overwhelm shutdowns, but we can feel comfortable in the knowledge that there are countless ways to mitigate the effects.
Have you ever had an overwhelm shutdown? Generally, how does overwhelm look and feel for you? What’s one thing you can do the next time you feel overwhelmed to minimise its hold on you?