The Hidden Benefits of Overwhelm
What do you get out of being overwhelmed?
When clients come to a call and use the “O” word, I know the conversation is about to get rich. While there are a number of questions I ask, the one with the most kick is, “What do you get out of being overwhelmed?” In other words, “Do you benefit in any way from being overwhelmed?”
Stop a moment and ask that question of yourself. What do you think?
A while back, I was talking with 3 clients who are in business together. As we began the call, all of them, in one way and another, were voicing their “overwhelm.” Intending to uncover something that my clients were most likely not aware of, and knowing that can be challenging and uncomfortable, I asked for a volunteer. One of the partners, Jess, agreed to be in the “discovery hot seat.”
The others understood that though they would be listening and supporting Jess as he investigated his “overwhelm,” they would be, in a manner of speaking, two headed about it. In other words, they would also be paying attention and thinking from the perspective of identifying what they could see or notice for and about themselves regarding their own experience, understanding, and relationship to overwhelm.
Jess’s initial response, “I get to push myself harder,” had an odd ring to it. I could tell he was looking for something positive, and it was obviously a stretch for him to find anything at all that he could point to.
“That may be” I said, “but that’s not quite what I’m looking for here.”
I know the question is confusing. And once it is really understood, it can be downright confronting. In this context, most of us automatically think that if we are “getting something”, it must be a positive thing. And that is, in fact, the case. However, as I told my clients, “What I want you to discover isn’t necessarily a “squeaky clean” positive. When uncovered, it could actually be a bit sleazy or underhanded.”
I went on, “I’m not suggesting that you do it on purpose. I’m suggesting that there is something you actually get, like a benefit, from telling others that you are overwhelmed.”
Beyond pushing himself to get more done than he might otherwise, Jess couldn’t see anything that he would call a benefit, so I turned to Mary and Stan, the two other partners, and asked how it was for them when Jess said he was overwhelmed.
Take a moment and think about this yourself. What is it like for you when someone tells you they are overwhelmed? What do you do in response to that declaration?
At first Mary and Stan said they could empathize. After all, they were dealing with their own overwhelm and knew what it was like. You probably do too. So much to do with not enough time to do it in, the list of things that should already have been done piles up. The idea of facing one more “Hey, can you…..?” or “When will you be getting that done for me?” can have us wanting to shut the door and put up a “Go Away” sign.
Jess was surprised, however, by what his partners said next. It turned out that, because they “knew what it was like,” they didn’t feel they could hold him to account for what he said he was going to do.
Why? Even though they might be facing important business deadlines, they didn’t want to add more pressure to his life, so…… they let things slide!
As surprised as Jess was to hear it, it was quite a revelation for Mary and Stan too. It wasn’t as if they’d thought about it and been withholding resentful communications. They just automatically accommodated by, in a manner of speaking, “easing up on the gas.”
Recognizing and naming that that’s what they did was eye opening for all three of them. Being longtime friends as well as business partners, they immediately saw that, in fact, they all interacted with each other in the same way.
“Exactly! And,” I added “you are not alone in this.”
It might not be a comfortable idea, but check it out for yourself. When we self-identify as “overwhelmed” it’s as if we claim a malady that grants us, in a manner of speaking, a “get out of doing it” pass. It provides us with an alibi. And we use it in exchange with each other. I won’t call you on yours, if you won’t call me on mine. I mean, how likely are you to tell someone who says they are overwhelmed to “get over it”? Think about it. When was the last time you said, “That’s nice. Now, you said the report would be on my desk by 9 and it’s now 9:03.”
I invite you to try this insight on for yourself. Evaluate how and when you do the things we’ve talked about in this article. And keep an eye out for next month’s article. We’ll be talking more about “overwhelm” and what you can do about it.
While it’s not quite as easy as (in the words of Bob Newhart) “Hey, if you are overwhelmed….STOP IT!” there are answers. We are here to support you in making changes …. call us.