Reflections On Overwhelm

Note: Once again, this post (like most) started off as something I wrote for myself. I feel overwhelmed sometimes. I feel like a fuck up sometimes. Here’s an adapted version of some of my notes on dealing with those situations. Also, I don't normally swear in posts but it felt appropriate in this case.

Someone asked me how I deal with feeling overwhelmed with life.  Someone else asked how I deal with failure. This is my answer to both.

First of all, you start with the basics. Breathing. Tea. Water. Fresh air. It’s as simple as that. Everything else can be dealt with later. Sometimes the best place to start is the very boring basics.

Everything feels meaningless and miserable? Embrace that and go do something mundane like laundry or cleaning your teeth or having a conversation about the weather with a random old lady in the street. It’s a lot easier to do the difficult stuff once you’ve proved you’re an autonomous being who is capable of ignoring the void and getting a glass of water or whatever and not a blob of anxiety.

You relabel what you’re feeling and stop tying yourself to negative labels. You’re not depressed, you have depression. You’re not overwhelmed, you are experiencing temporary feelings of overwhelm. You’re not a failure, you feel like a failure. Get some perspective.

You have doubtless felt like this before and you will certainly feel like this again. A useful technique from CBT is to vividly think of times in the past when you felt the same way and were fine. Or were scared of something that didn’t turn out the way you worried it would (as Seneca wrote, We suffer more in imagination than in reality.) There is no evidence this time won’t be the same. If it isn’t, you will learn lessons that will make the next time easier.

The overwhelm and anxiety is probably at least partly something you have created by extrapolating from nebulous circumstances.

If you are reading this, you probably aren’t facing the fear of not having anywhere to sleep, or enough to eat, or clean water, or any human contact. You’re probably not living through a war or economic depression or an outbreak of the Black Death or a tiger attack.

That’s not an excuse for feeling bad about feeling bad because other people have it worse, by the way. Adding guilt to the pile is not going to help. It just creates the feedback loop from hell.

You’re allowed to feel bad - not because your situation is special, but because human beings with brains are allowed to feel bad. We're allowed to feel happy even if other people have it better. We're allowed to feel bad even if other people have it worse. 

You’re probably struggling to handle work pressure, or uncertain about the future, or dealing with relationship difficulties, or general angst. And that doesn’t devalue what you are feeling. Seeing as most of us don’t have to fear for our lives very often, all that anxiety gets misplaced. I think of my own anxiety as free-floating. It attaches itself to some element of my life, but it’s not usually to do with that.

We are defined by the things we are willing to feel overwhelmed by.

Pretty much anything worthwhile in life - travel, family, relationships, doing work you are passionate about, making art- requires getting uncomfortable. It requires feeling overwhelmed sometimes.

Perhaps one of the most crushing things about life that took me way too long to realize is that even the best things suck a lot of the time. I went traveling for a few months and it was great, except when I got hopelessly lost in rural Italy with no money or phone signal, or when I got into a massive fight with someone I stayed with and nearly had nowhere to sleep. Working for myself from a cool office is great, except when I freak out about the future, decide I’ve made some terrible decision and spend an hour chain making cups of coffee to calm down. I don’t have kids, but the impression I get from people I know who do is that they’re great, except when they’re not. Getting my own flat was fantastic, until the oven, shower and toilet all broke and it took the landlord three months to fix everything.

The weird thing is that it’s possible to live exactly the life you want and still feel fed up a lot of the time.

That’s the price you pay. Sometimes it’s better to deal with sporadic moments of intense anguish, rather than a general low-level boredom and dissatisfaction. Being overwhelmed by something means it matters. That's a good thing.

I don't think I've ever met someone, no matter how intelligent, successful, or talented who hasn't felt like a fuck up during at least one point in their lives. For as long as I can remember, I've lived with an overwhelming sense that everything I do is somehow wrong, that I can't make good choices, that I have a unique capacity to make terrible decisions. It took a long time for me to finally realize that feeling is common (if not normal.) It took a long time for me to stop seeing people around me as flawless demi-gods and to recognize they also feel like fuck ups sometimes. That changed everything and completely reframed my attitude.

The idea that it is possible to mess up our lives suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way to live.

If we set aside ethical considerations, that’s a dubious belief. Our ideas of what constitutes the right way of living are heavily subjective, formed by our culture, our families, our peers, the media we consume. They are not fixed. We develop an idea of how we should live, then get annoyed when we don’t match up with it. Most of us are too intelligent for our own good. We are hyper-aware of our flaws, of our progress, of how we are matching up to our own standards. And we don’t have an effective yardstick to measure ourselves against.

Comparing ourselves to other people might make sense, but we don’t know other people anywhere near as well as we know ourselves. No matter how close we are to them. The only crushing doubt and insecurity we get to experience are our own. So I always try to seek out accounts of other people's experiences of similar feelings. Whatever you are dealing with, someone on Yahoo Answers had the same problem in 2008. There's someone on Quora or a blog or a forum or Reddit who get's it. Always.

The concept of the psychological immune system is important here. When something bad happens, our psychological immune systems kicks in. Events that would have once seemed insurmountable become perfectly manageable. Despite everything, most people do get over trauma. Not because they want to, but because they have to- as long as we’re alive, we have no choice except moving forward and coping.

Lately, for some reason, I have been hearing from a lot of people (both online and in real life) older than me who still suffer from depression or anxiety or plain fear and overwhelm. Men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties, who continue to live with feelings I have written about.

At first, part of me was almost enraged. You mean this stuff doesn’t go away once you’re no longer a teenager? Isn't life an endless trajectory upwards? Hearing that, combined with the shock of turning 20 in September, led to a creeping realization. Life isn’t about not being fucked up. It’s about dealing with the ebbs and flows as they come, coping with dips, and trying to improve without ever reaching the point of perfection. It’s about accepting that you haven’t fucked up everything no matter what it feels like. And the solutions are usually simpler than they seem.

I often use a journaling exercise, which I wrote about here and here. The idea is simple. Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half. On one side, write down all the problems you are facing. All of them. On the other side, write down the potential solutions for each. It’s a very basic idea, but I find it powerful (and quite a few people have emailed me to say that it worked for them too.) Why does it work? Because it provides a reality check. Most of the problems I find myself writing down are nowhere near as big as they seem. Putting them on paper reveals that, and all too often the solution is to calm down and stop overreacting.

Writing about this isn’t pleasant, just as writing about what I went through earlier this year isn’t pleasant. Why bother? Because I’m adamant that if more of us talk, and write, and sing, and paint and whatever about feeling like a fuck up, fewer of us will end up feeling that way.

Because there are few things more harmful to someone who feels like a failure than constantly hearing about how successful, happy, healthy and loved everyone else is. Because it’s very profitable for a lot of people to perpetuate the myth that there is a right way to live and guess what, they can sell you the shortcut to it for just 6 quarterly payments of $99. Because most of us are messed up in a lot of ways, unhappy in a lot of ways, confused in a lot of ways. Because honest, authentic accounts of other people’s experience of feeling like a fuck up do make a difference.

There are a lot of things that I (and maybe you) need to accept are not the end of the world, they are just part of it. That relationships end, people leave, people we love hurt us, people get lost in a lot of different ways. That traumatic events don’t go away and scars linger. That no one’s career is an endless ride upwards, that everyone gets stuck with the grunt work sometimes. And that as long as we're working on it, it’s not the end.