Get Over the Whelm by Taking the Helm

Get over the whelm by taking the helm.

Demystifying Overwhelm

“I was walking along the beach the other day, minding my own business, blissing out on the feel of the breeze, the smell of the salt air and the sound of the waves when, out of nowhere, I was swooped up and sucked out to sea by a huge sleeper wave!  Caught in the swirl, I found myself powerless in the face of the extraordinarily strong undertow!”

When my clients talk about overwhelm, it often sounds like they relate to it as if whelm were the sleeper wave.  Arriving and engulfing them unexpectedly, it overpowers them by sheer strength. Unable to do anything about it, they are, to varying degrees, incapacitated….victims to their experience of the Overwhelm.

As odd as it may sound, I am excited when clients come to a call and use the “O” word because I know the conversation is about to get rich.  There are a number of questions I ask, and in last month’s newsletter, we focused on what I referred to as “the kicker” question, “What do you get out of being overwhelmed?”  This month we’ll be looking at some other questions and suggestions for how to get over the whelm by taking the helm.

A closer look – Defining overwhelm

Overwhelm is, according to the dictionary, a verb. So by definition it’s an action – a word used to show that an action is taking place, or depicting something that is being done to one by another.  You can overwhelm someone by affecting their emotions in a complete or irresistible way, or providing them with a huge or excessive amount of something (this definition for example), or using superior strength, force or numbers to defeat them completely, or (like a wave) flow over the top of and submerge or cover somebody or something.

The mischief is that while we relate to overwhelm as a verb (depicting something that is being done to us) we tend to use the word as if it were a noun – defining ourselves and the state we are in. “I am overwhelmed,” or “I am in overwhelm.”

Take a moment here and think about when you use the word.  Who do you usually tell that you are overwhelmed and under what circumstances?

What do you get out of being overwhelmed?

As we saw in the last blog, identifying ourselves as overwhelmed provides us, albeit sub or unconsciously, with an alibi (or if you want to play with rigorous wording, an excuse). And we use that alibi in exchange with each other. Think about it as a kind of bartering. “I won’t call you on yours, if you won’t call me on mine.”

I know this is stretching the analogy, but try on the idea that self-identifying as “overwhelmed” is, in a manner of speaking, like claiming a personality trait. As if we could be cut open and see the faulty “O” valve, or do a blood test and see that pesky “O gene” which, oh by the way, grants us a “get out of doing it” pass.

The biggest blind spot here is that In doing so, we avoid taking personal responsibility for the choices we make relative to what we do and how we spend our time. We miss the opportunity of asking a most intriguing question. Who or what has overwhelmed us?

This line of questioning becomes even more powerful when we step out of victimhood and into being curious as to what we may have done to get ourselves into the riptide of overwhelm.  And that is one of the most effective ways to work our way out of it.

It’s not just in your head

Now, here’s the thing. I’ve been writing as if overwhelm is all in our heads. And I know that’s not the whole story. While getting caught up in a mind swirl can be part of the experience, there are physical aspects and sensations as well. Finding a way to navigate the bridge between the two (mental and physical) is key in moving through and out.

Overwhelm can be experienced when you suddenly realize that you have more things to do than the time in which it appears you have to do it in.  Often we have set ourselves up for that by saying yes without referring to our schedules and identifying specific times in which to take whatever actions are necessary to fulfill on the request that is being made. As those “yes’s” pile up, the overwhelm builds off shore and will inevitably come crashing in.

If you suddenly find yourself looking at a list of things to do, and they all feel like they “should have” been done days ago….there’s overwhelm.

If the reaction to overwhelm is anxiety, we may rush around, either physically or in our head, grabbing at a multitude of thoughts and things to do in a wild (and mostly ineffective) attempt to alleviate the apparent source of the anxiety.

Get over the whelm by taking the helm

At Synergy, we say there is power in owning that we always choose. The first step here is putting in the pause and asking “what, exactly, is the experience I am having?”

What does it feel like and where in my body do I feel it?

Stop and take a few deep breaths. Allow yourself to look over your shoulder and notice that, as much as the adrenalin may be pumping, chances are pretty good there is not actually a bear, or saber tooth tiger there.

From there, continue to breath and get curious. Take some time to investigate. Begin asking any of the following questions:

  • What was my first clue that I was overwhelmed?

  • What was it that happened – what circumstances or situation occurred – just before I began to identify as overwhelmed?

  • What do I usually do when I am overwhelmed? In other words, how do I respond to being overwhelmed?

  • How did I get here? What did I do (or not do)?


Do you notice anything, a pattern perhaps, that precedes the experience of overwhelm?

Often one of the reactions to overwhelm is freezing. If so, try starting with the following question:

  • What am I not doing that is putting me in overwhelm?

Whatever comes to mind first….take that small step and get into action. That will get you moving again.

Leading your Synergy.