Let’s be serious. If you are living in the world today and never feel overwhelmed you are probably psychologically unwell or a guru.
Of course there are beautiful moments when we feel we are a part of something special, when we know in our hearts things are changing, or feel in our bones a connection with Earth. These are the gifts of the great turning, the peaks.
But the valleys of business as usual are deep, and social and mainstream media dig into familiar ruts, bombarding us with tweets from our abysmal president, photos of emaciated polar bears, news of another innocent black police killing. If we watch sad story after sad story scroll by, or replay the sad components of our lives in our minds, feelings of overwhelm, disempowerment, and depression are not far behind.
It is so easy in those moments to turn on the television, crack open a beer, or find cute cat pictures. Of course there is time for all of those things in our varied and exciting lives! But changing the subject doesn’t get us anywhere with the overwhelm, it just reschedules it for another day.
For me, feeling overwhelmed is one of the worst emotions, the one I’m most likely to try to avoid. But just like anger or grief, avoiding overwhelm is a recipe for more of the same only worse, moving away from your experience and your true self, and never feeling much better. All emotions are gateways to knowing yourself better, seeing the world with new eyes, and to opening our full capacities as whole humans. If we can welcome overwhelm, something beautiful can emerge.
I think of it like Rumi’s poem The Guest House.
There is a lot of messaging in our culture about good emotions and bad emotions. Happiness, joy, sexiness, confidence, are all good things to feel. Sadness, despair and loneliness are bad. No question that feeling sexy has more positive sensations than despair. But life isn’t about being happy. Life is about feeling so deeply that we are changed.
Never feeling sadness or despair is not only impossible, it’s not human. Feeling overwhelmed is as much a part of humanness as is joy. When we deny the “bad” emotions, we are saying “no” to an aspect of ourselves. We are telling ourselves, “feeling this way is not okay” or “you shouldn’t feel this way,” when it is the most natural thing in the world.
Actually, a congratulations is more in order. Lots of things aren’t going well, but you are present enough to be a witness to the world. The overwhelm means that what you’ve been witnessing has had an effect on you. You know totally and completely that something is wrong. Lots of folks today have no idea, are still invested in business as usual. But you are in touch with your humanness such that you know. This is incredibly healthy and powerful!
We might also revel in the wonder that we can be overwhelmed at all! We have a uniquely human capacity to see the larger picture and be sad for it. No other creature sees how the whole Earth is interconnected in one magnificent ecosystem. No other being can see how the plights of peoples on opposite ends of the globe are related. It is our responsibility to feel on this planetary level. No one else can.
And no other human feels it exactly as you do. The intricacies of your overwhelm speak of your unique vulnerabilities, the place where the world touches you. Overwhelm is an opportunity to access the parts of us that are most distressed with the times, in other words, most fully in love with beauty, justice, and ecological sanity. It is from this most vulnerable and most devoted place that we become agents of change. If we are able to accompany ourselves through our overwhelm, we can explore those tender facets of ourselves. Those facets have a lot to say about who we are and where to go from here.
When we reach the point when we’ve witnessed too much and haven’t allowed the emotions in, they pile on until we break down, overwhelmed. Overwhelm is a message that says, “you love the world too much to see this and not feel it”.
So let it in – feel the emotion of being overwhelmed, let it wash over you. Sit with it quietly alone. Or maybe you want to yell or cry - go with it. Awaken your compassion and comfort yourself. Not reassurance that everything will be okay, but reassurance that you are feeling what you are feeling.
If a child felt overwhelmed you wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. You might say to her, “Wow, I hear you are feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot of upsetting stuff going on. It can be really overwhelming.” You could give yourself some affectionate pats and say, perhaps out loud, “This is an overwhelming time.” And just give yourself the space to feel that emotion, to sit with yourself as you feel it. We need our emotions to be felt and validated.
At this point, you might go deeper into it and ask – what is the heart of the matter here? And lean into that feeling. Maybe underneath everything that feels overwhelming is the sense of utter lack of reciprocity with Earth in mainstream culture. Feel the sadness of that, the grief. Feel the longing of relationship with Earth in your own life, and for humankind. Feel the hurt of the beings who suffer because of this abandonment.
Or maybe what really stings underneath it all is the inequity of our civilization. Lament for the people whose lives have been dictated by the school to prison pipeline, for our culture that is suffering without their wondrous contributions. Whatever it is that is at the heart of your overwhelm in this moment, meet yourself there. Meet the total sadness of it, or the terrible heartache.
It is helpful to do this work out in nature or with others. Earth can hold such big feelings. Find a place on the land that reminds you of what it is at the heart of your overwhelm, or perhaps a place where you feel totally held and supported.
Sit there and take the place in – open yourself to the possibility that it has something to share, or some way to comfort you in this moment. Tell the land what is troubling you, give the Earth your tears. Speak out loud all the ways this hurt is touching you. Then take some time to listen. Listen to the wild ones around you and to your own body. And be a witness to how these feelings move through you, and are received by or mirrored in nature.
This is a simple recommendation. It is kind of hilarious actually. You tell me you’re overwhelmed and the remedy I’ve proposed is an invitation to feel overwhelmed!
But this process changes you. It makes you more human. It makes you more yourself. It helps you realize what is really important. And it sends an essential message to yourself, “It is okay to feel however I feel”. “When I feel something, I’m invited to really feel it”. “I have the strength and compassion to meet myself where I am”.
Where you are is your unique place in the world. Feeling overwhelmed can be the gateway for sharing this unique place. Perhaps the center of your overwhelm cracks you open wide and breaks your heart. Heartbreak is one of the most transformative things we can endure, if we are willing to show up for it. The world doesn’t change because you truly allowed yourself to feel, the world changes because you are now a different person birthed from that allowance.