I was going to write some kind of dreamy prose on this, something sweet enough that it could almost be a pink-tinted Instagram picture.
But then I laughed and typed, “Overwhelm sucks.” At least, experiencing it does. Why make it any more or less straightforward than that?
Most people who are talking with me about overwhelm share some variation of the following:
“I’m tired of starting each day with a focus, and then getting caught up in distractions.”
“I want to stop freezing up when feelings of overwhelm happen.”
“I keep putting huge expectations on myself.”
“How can I finally stick with things?”
“There’s always more and more to do, but with less and less time.”
These are the voices of overwhelm. This is what it sounds like, and it’s exhausting. When client after client shared with me that they felt this way, I created Breathing Space, a unique once-a-year course that’s about releasing overwhelm so that you can get to feeling more ease, more connection, and ultimately, more confidence in your life.
Oh, and some side benefits of working through overwhelm? Greater productivity and focus.
The tricky part with shifting overwhelm, is this: we can’t shift those spaces by just implementing a new “time management strategy.” Having a lot to do isn’t the whole problem, and most of us know at least one person who has a lot to do but who manages it with less overwhelm.
If you’re going to crack overwhelm, you’ve got to examine three pieces: feelings, belief systems, and self-talk.
This is exactly the point where I appreciate the work of Dr. Brene Brown, who has given us clear research to back up what personal growth types have been saying for years:
“You can’t get to courage, without vulnerability.”
These are all helpful–but they don’t stop overwhelm. Overwhelm is a flavor of fear, and fear requires courageous practices to work through it and past it, not to side-step it.
If you’re interested in joining or learning more about Breathing Space, click here: http://www.yourcourageouslife.com/breathing-space
This is the only circle of Breathing Space that I’ll be running this year.
Past participants said:
“The practices that Kate offered us to do each week were not time-consuming–thank goodness!–but were very thought-provoking and shape shifting. They were simple practices with the potential for big impact.”
“I didn’t have to work hard to get results in the class, but it seemed to work all on its own, like an elixir whose healthful benefits are felt long after I’ve finished sipping.”
“Kate, you did a wonderful job of providing us with great support around saying ‘no’ and creating space and time to think about our responses before we automatically said ‘yes.’ It was helpful to have a dialogue around what the inner critic says…and being able to practice that in a group was fantastic!”
“I am better able to let go of expectation around what I take on each day and what I set out to accomplish. I am able to recognize the things that are contributing to overwhelm and better equipped to move through it.”
“Kate, your leadership was so amazing. This group has seriously been a life-changing experience for me. Your ability to listen closely and provide amazing individual coaching within the group in a way that allowed all of us to learn from each other was truly fantastic.”
Truth is subjective, not objective. Truth for me is different than truth, for you. “Truth” as we typically talk about it, is perspective.
We lose sight of that all too easily. We forget to separate feelings from facts.
Just because you feel like you can’t, like you’re a loser, like life is too overwhelming–doesn’t mean that this is the truth.
It means that it’s entirely possible that you can, that you’re not a loser, or that life only seems overwhelming.
Just because you think someone is doing something to you, or that what they said means XYZ, or that they are to blame, doesn’t mean that that is the truth.
It’s entirely possible that they aren’t doing anything to you, that what they said is being filtered through your interpretation (and you’re misunderstanding! eep!), and that whatever they say isn’t “the truth,” anyway.
It’s important to separate feelings from facts.
Walking the Line
It’s a delicate dance to walk that line of acknowledging the truth of what we feel and giving that its proper legitimacy, without projecting our truth onto the world, thinking that “that’s the way things are” or that our interpretation of someone else’s behavior is accurately representing what they did.
On one level, yes, when you feel it, it’s the “truth.” It’s your world, it’s what you know, and it matters that you feel what you feel.
On another level? Not separating feelings from facts is destructive. It’s the most destructive force that I know in relationships (just because someone feels that you did them wrong, for instance, doesn’t mean that you actually did–and how many miscommunications and misunderstandings arise from that place?).
When we get self-righteous, when we get angry and lose it, when we are gossiping or judgmental, when you quit on a dream, when you get so overwhelmed that you hide out in front of the television or the internet–what’s really happening, there?
What’s happening is that you’re reacting to a feeling. You’re taking your feelings as facts to such a degree that it’s actually limiting you.
I claim everything that I feel. It’s my life experience. My feelings are, on some level, my truth.
But they aren’t the entire truth. They aren’t the world’s truth. They aren’t the truth of that person over there.
So as soon as you/I/we notice that we’re taking what we feel to the point where we accuse, blame, deny, criticize, judge?
Let’s get a truth check going. It’s time to separate feelings from facts.
Sometimes I want to beg people, plead with them to stop.
To stop beating up on themselves.
To stop hating a part of who they are.
To stop limiting their capacity for growth.
In essence, I want to plead with people to do something revolutionary–to stop hating their inner critic.
It starts with the name calling. The inner critic is often referred to as a “monster,” or a “gremlin.” I’ve heard people say things like, “I’ve decided to tell my fear to fuck off!” Others declare that that’s it–they aren’t going to listen to the “gremlins” in their head, any longer.
I used to do it, too, until the day that I made one of the biggest connections of my life: that this small, scared part of me talked a big game, but underneath? It was terrified.
Imagine a mother, out of mind with fear because her child is missing, but bystanders who don’t realize this are calling her names or telling her to calm down, not understanding the gravity of that kind of terror. That’s the inner critic when it’s triggered, living in a world of fear and feeling out of control and powerless, unable to see the full picture.
And what was I doing to my critic for so many years? What do so many people do to that tender, scared part of themselves? Call it names. Tell it to “shut the fuck up.” Abuse it for being afraid. Make it wrong for being scared.
You can’t practice love and acceptance, while routinely saying and doing things that are anything BUT love and acceptance for this one part of your being that you are uncomfortable being with.
Shifting your relationship with the inner critic, from one of trying to beat it back to having a relationship with it, starts with what you call it.
If you currently call your critic a “monster” or a “gremlin,” consider this: If you were trying to get along better with someone, and they kept calling you a “monster,” then how would you feel?
If we want to meet other people in the world with love and compassion, without reservation, then we’ve got to meet ourselves there, first.
Take an honest look at what you do with the parts of yourself that you’re uncomfortable with: Are you beating them into submission? Or being an invitation for something greater?
Source of Power
The inner critic is a huge source of power–of all things!–that most people aren’t going anywhere near, much less tapping in to.
As my coach put it, “Your inner critic is your best friend, with lousy communication skills.”
When I first heard this, I thought, “My best friend wouldn’t tell me that I’m a pathetic piece of shit.”
But as I grew to understand the critic more, I resonated with the sentiment.
My inner critic was there to protect me–no matter what. No matter if she had to berate me into not going after a dream (to protect me from potential disappointment or rejection) or subtly undermine my confidence when I was preparing for a speaking event (in order to get me to pre-prepare for every imaginable scenario, and thus not face the rejection of a crowd).
My inner critic was steadfast and loyally committed to trying to steel me against any kind of potential pain that I might encounter. She would fight to the death to keep me from the pain, shame, or humiliation of perceived or actual rejection.
The problem was not that she was afraid or even usually the content of her message. The problem was the delivery of that message.
As I began tapping into this belief, I became less interested in numbing out my critic and more interested in seeing what it was that she had to say, and why it was that she wanted to say it.
If I was willing to find out what it was that she was so afraid of, I could start actually address those fears. That is powerful.
Leaning into the Fearful Edge
When you first start working with those inner critic voices, there’s a hump that you’ll encounter pretty quickly, and it’s this one:
After years of being ignored, the critic is resentful, which means that at first, it is bigger and louder and angrier.
Imagine that you have a friend or family member, and years of resentment have built up. You finally decide that you’re done with that game, and so you approach said person and try to make amends.
Chances are, while they might be interested, at least at first they’re going to have their hesitations. (“Are you serious? After all these years? Now you’re saying you want to patch things up and let go of the past? Well, before I can do that, I need to tell you all the terrible stuff you’ve done…”).
Also–the first voices to work with are likely to be the angriest, which can be terrifying.
Furthermore, there might be places where the critic is…right. If it’s accusing you of having been lazy, it’s possible that if you get honest, you can see places where you were lazy. Sorting out what’s what is a commitment to a process. Staying the course is critical, and it’s where you need a coach or resource that can give you tools for working through.
How do we transform this? Well, we do not transform our so-called weaknesses through endless recitation of affirmations until we can believe in our essential goodness.
We transform the so-called weaknesses by lifting them up to the light of examination, by having the courage to see where those things might be true, discarding them when we see objectively that they are not, understanding the impact of those parts on ourselves and others, and embracing our imperfection by practicing gentleness while we are learning and in process.
While the process of looking at our inner critic voices and what’s behind them is a scary one, it’s–oddly enough–a process that ends up creating safety. We feel safer when we see what we’re doing clearly than when we’re hiding from what we’re doing. We feel safer when we examine needs, and then meet them, rather than judging ourselves for the needs that we have.
In essence: when we listen to the critic, we learn that underneath the lousy communication skills, she might have something important to say, something that will bring clarity or something that points us to an area where we have unmet needs.
We can’t transform things with hatred. We only transform them with love, patience, compassion, acceptance, gentleness.
So–I want to beg of you, plead with you, to stop: I’d like to ask you to please quit making yourself wrong, by way of making your inner critic wrong.
It’s not your enemy.
When you make your inner critic into your enemy, you make yourself into an enemy, and the war within will rage on, and on, and on, and it will wear you down in the process.
Like two countries that need to put down arms and start talking about what each party is really after, we need to lay down arms and start asking our inner critics what essential needs aren’t being met, and then start collaborating as to how to meet them.