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The Life Transition Blog

Get “Over” Being “Whelmed”!


Overwhelmed.  It is the most common word that I hear within the first sentence of nearly every telephone call that I receive from a prospective client.  It is a loaded word – one filled with feeling, with emotion.  When used in the context of talking with me, the word takes on a negative meaning, as in, “Caring for my ill spouse has left me feeling overwhelmed.”  But this very same word is sometimes used in a positive way as in, “I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support.” Or, “I was overwhelmed with joy when I held my son for the first time.”  Feeling “overwhelmed” is the catalyst that leads so many to reach out for guidance, assistance, and reassurance.  But what is this feeling?  What is this word?

The dictionary definition of overwhelm is “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass” or “defeat completely” or to “subject to incapacitating emotional or mental stress.”  Synonyms include “overpower” and “crush” to name just a few.  The word is derived from Middle English over – whelm.  In this context, over means “too much” and whelm means “submerge or engulf”.   So it seems that the correct use of the term really is the negative, because after all, is it so terrible to have “too much” joy or to be “submerged or engulfed” by love?

So how do I help my clients get “over” being “whelmed”?  Or, put another way, to feel less submerged by life?

The first step is to acknowledge and name what is going on.  What are you engulfed by?  Why do you feel defeated? What is overpowering you?  Sometimes the answer is relatively clear, as in “I feel guilty that I can’t do more for my mom but I have my own life.”  Sometimes, the answer is pragmatic, such as, “There are too many bills to pay and forms to be filled out.”  Often, the root cause is that my client knows that they can’t change an inevitable outcome and feel sad and frustrated by this reality.  Whatever the cause, the outcome, feeling overwhelmed, typically leads to inertia and profound stress.

Once the cause is named, I work with clients to define a successful outcome.  My favorite powerful question is, “How will you define success?”  I encourage my clients to give themselves permission to define success as working within the simplest parameters.  For example, perhaps success will be defined as hiring someone to handle mom’s mail and bills.  Or, perhaps it will be to make sure to exercise at least five times each week no matter what is going on with my ill wife.  Typically, any given situation will call for multiple definitions of a successful outcome.  The simpler the definition, the better it is.

We then work to create a plan to achieve those success milestones.  I come to this with a bias, and that is that I see that life has a larger purpose, as something with meaning.  I find that clients who share this view find it easier to deal with stress than those who believe that life is random chance.  They seem better able to put events into perspective perhaps because they realize that there is more than just their own situation to think about.  They believe that problems in life are challenges for our growth and development rather than a cause to feel overwhelmed.  So we often need to spend time discovering their purpose and trying to understand how the immediate challenges fit in as a way to mitigate the stress they feel.  What starts as a task oriented need like “Help me figure out whether my dad should go to an assisted living facility and how to pay for it” often becomes a transformational experience on the journey of life.
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