How to Shift from Overwhelm to Engagement

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Overwhelm is a common experience among nearly all of the working people I know. We are all busy, that’s for sure, and the labor system we live in tends to ask for more and more, and then some more. Perhaps that’s just its nature. For me, the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling engaged, as I operate within this system, is usually a question of perspective. That is, how do I internally react to what companies, managers, institutions, governments, or family members are asking of me?

I don't know about you, but when I'm overwhelmed, I generally feel totally out-of-control, as if  there’s way too much for me to do, understand, or otherwise respond to, that I'm drowning in  work and have no hope of finishing. When I'm engaged, though, I feel connected to my own power of choice. I'm working because I want to work, and I'm doing in a way and at a pace that I want to be doing it. It has a feeling of eagerness, or at least of genuine interest and commitment.

If you experience work-related (other any other kind of) overwhelm, this post hopes to assist you in reflecting on your particular situation, and in considering how you might practice shifting from overwhelm toward a state of healthier and more sustainable engagement. NOTE: This topic is, of course, vast, but in hopes of avoiding overwhelm and sticking with engagement, I'm going to keep it brief!

1. Do one small thing for yourself

Self-care isn’t optional, it’s mandatory (like food!), especially if you live in a society like ours that tends toward overwork and isolation. Self-care can be anything (exercise, meditation, chocolate, a bath, a good book, a burger) as long as it is completely unrelated to your work. To reduce overwhelm and move toward engagement, we need to back away slowly, so to speak, remembering that we are humans first, and workers second. We need to feel, in our body, that we are ok, in order to counteract the messages from overwhelm which are telling us that all is not ok. Self-care does this. It provides us with small, essential doses of comfort, relaxation, nourishment, and pleasure. When we give ourselves those things, even for 5 minutes a day, we calm the nervous system and that generally takes the edge off the overwhelm.

The reason these tiny acts of self-care may be hard to implement is that the pattern of overwhelm is probably telling you that you don't have time to finish your work much less eat lunch. How can you possibly meditate for two minutes? There's no time! I know, I've been there, and it seems impossible. But I promise, as soon as you decide you have time, you will have it. Really. Eat lunch. Breath for two minutes. And then go back to work and see how you feel.

2. Get realistic

Are you asking too much of yourself? This is not an idle question. Unrealistic expectations are rampant in American work culture, so much so that they have become normalized. Many of us actually believe we should be able to magically fit in three extra meetings or two extra research reports at the end of the day, or that we should lengthen the work day until midnight or beyond in order to complete the extra tasks because, well, someone asked. And by the way, also fix the loose kitchen tile, do the laundry, and help the kids with their homework.

More is not always better. More is not always possible. More frequently leads to mistakes and getting the flu. If you thrive on 14-hour days, that's great! But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there might also be a very good reason for it. Take an honest look at what you’re expecting yourself to do on a daily basis, and consider whether it’s actually a realistic standard.

3. Take back your power of choice

Our inner state generally mirrors our outer circumstances, and each can influence the other. When you take change of your inner state, even a little bit, you reclaim your power to impact both. Even a statement as silly as, “I choose to feel overwhelmed right now,” can initiate a shift in perspective. Engagement comes from choice, and the act of choosing itself makes it easier to keep on doing it. Try out other points of view that may shift you closer to a state of engagement. No matter how demanding the external circumstances, you can always choose how you see them and feel about them. For example:

"I choose to focus on one thing at a time."
"I choose to feel grateful that I have this job/family/opportunity."
"I’m doing the best I can, and I choose to believe that’s enough."
"Even if everything isn’t done perfectly, I choose to believe it will be ok."

 

How do you understand the experiences of overwhelm vs engagement? How do you navigate between them? Leave your own pro tips in the comments!

Why art making must be for everyone

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In her beautiful book, Brave Intuitive Painting, my teacher Flora Bowley writes, “For many years I struggled with my desire to paint for the sake of exploration, raw expression, and release. I thought my art needed to support an intellectual theory, make a political statement, or in some way change the world. Eventually I surrendered, allowing myself to paint for the purpose of painting and the joy it brings… I now understand that… it is through this kind of heartfelt expression that truths are revealed, lives transform, and new worlds are born.”

I suspect many artists, myself included, can relate to the nagging voices, sometimes external but usually internal, that pester us with skepticism: Why are you doing this? What’s the point? Does it sell a product? Does it feed the hungry? Does it advocate? Believing that we need to justify artistic work is a pervasive and dangerous piece of cultural programming, the same programming that demands that every waking (and even non-waking) moment of our lives be chained to the proverbial hamster wheel of earn and spend.

But this post is not only for those who identify as artists, it’s for the artist in every person. Whether you know her or not, she’s there, and the more I explore creative process, the more I see with clarity how my own inner artist takes me by the hand and steers me gently away from undo commercial and political influence and firmly toward choices that further my holistic well-being.

Another brilliant teacher of mine, Nina Wise, writes, "Creative self-expression, a time-honored methodology for accessing our spiritual natures, for making contact and giving form to our subconscious, for establishing interpersonal bonds and building community, and for enhancing vitality, is essential to our welfare personally and collectively. We can, together, take this moment in human history to wake up to who we already know ourselves to be: a free people dedicated to a sane and just world made up of individuals who celebrate their common humanity and this planet of indescribable beauty through song and dance, poetry, and care of all sentient beings."

Jobs and shopping themselves, of course, are not problematic. Problematic is over-identifying with these things while squelching our own inborn, self-determined meaning and purpose. We are not our work. We are not defined by our wealth or our lack of wealth.

Art-making, down to the idlest doodle on a napkin, is inherently radical because to do it, we must step off the hamster wheel. In creating, we externalize an internal experience, and in so doing, affirm that the internal experience does, in fact, exist. On an experiential level, I find that identifying with my internal experience is quite a different way to live than defining myself by what I do or what I earn.

To get at this difference, I asked myself what I mean when I say I want to dance, or paint, or write, for its own sake? In other words, for what do you step off the hamster wheel? Here is how I personally answer that question:

For the sake of beauty

For the sake of discovery

For the sake of adventure

For the sake of exploration

For the sake of curiosity

For the sake of choosing

For the sake of calm

For the sake of contentment

For the sake of strength

For the sake of joy

For the sake of pleasure

For the sake of freedom

When I venture into the territory of art-making, these are the states of mind and body that I begin to recognize as characteristic of its landscape. In fact, I find that the creative process both encourages and thrives on these states. When I feel strong, I make more art. When I make more art, I feel stronger.

And, I find that with practice, I am able to carry these states of being out of the studio with me. I live them in other contexts. I believe that is because, in the act of dancing, drawing, or any other kind of creative work, the experiences of calm, joy, and freedom become real, materialized in our own flesh and bone and neural networks. The choice to make space for art making is training for living on my own terms.

To be clear, artistic practice need not be political or social in its content to spark these new ways of being and of seeing the world. Rather, it is in the act of making itself that my own consciousness shifts, that my own pain heals, that my own perspective sharpens. I begin to wonder, spontaneously, if I can make this drawing, what else can I make in the world? If I can change from blue to white to yellow, what else in my world might I change? More becomes possible, achievable, and future unknowns in my life feel more malleable, open to my influence and interest.

Are you feeling called to embrace your inner artist and see what she has to say? If you’re wanting to live less from your doubt and hesitation and more from your joy, discovery, and pleasure, please consider joining me this March for CREATE, a weekend retreat experience for women that presents the artistic practices of writing, drawing, and dancing as methods of shifting toward a more intentional way of life. No prior experience required.