When You’ve Got That Overwhelmed Feeling

Some days are just plain old challenging. John Denver put it this way. Some days are diamonds, some days are stone. Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone. I love that man and all his lyrical genius, but I have to give credit to the writer’s of the TV show Parenthood for the inspiration for this week’s post. At one point one character is feeling overwhelmed when trying to tackle a new work project, and the other character asks “Are you in over your head or just outside your comfort zone?” I wanted to hit pause and just sit there with that for a minute. It’s a great question that serves to reframe, and who doesn’t love a little reframing now and then?

There are undoubtedly moments in our lives when we are overwhelmed, and for me it is easy in those moments to freeze and look around wondering what I did wrong to get here. Sometimes I a panic because I am reaching for something and fall short—trying hard to catch my breath and feeling like I may not make it this time. This happens to me a lot during finals week. I am in graduate school for the second time, and every semester when it rolls around, I feel overwhelmed. I am behind. I have usually not studied as much as I could. I have a bazillion pages to write. I took three classes and that’s just dumb. Whatever the issue, it is crunch time, and crunch time is draining and scary and exhausting. Sometimes crunch time is having to get Christmas presents in the mail on time or finish up a work project with a strict deadline. Sometimes it is having company coming to visit and you are too under the weather to clean the bathroom like you want to. There is no doubt that sometimes we are just plain old in over our heads and in the immortal and oft quoted words of Dorie the fish, we have to “just keep swimming” and make it to wherever it is we are going.

But sometimes we are overwhelmed because we are making a change or embarking on the new—like meeting with a friend about a new endeavor, or starting a project we’ve been dreaming about, or pursing a new career, or putting ourselves out there. Almost anytime I’ve tried to do something new or difficult or good, I’ve felt overwhelmed. A month or two ago I decided to attend a college alum get together. When I arrived at the reception, I stood outside the door and looked at my husband wide-eyed. Words like “why did we come to this, I don’t know anyone” were flowing freely. I breathed in deeply and took a lap around the lobby before going in and meeting some great people. I was overwhelmed, but I was not in over my head.

A little over three years ago, we moved to Los Angeles. Tracking down an apartment that had been cleaned and did not harbor decrepit 1960’s appliances was a feat. Learning to live in a city was an adjustment. More than once, I sat on my couch and wondered what we were doing. As the movers moved box after box into our tiny hobbit house of an apartment (that was thankfully very clean), they said over and over that we should have gotten a bigger apartment. I resisted the urge to launch a “no kidding” diatribe their direction and watched the boxes pile up. We were overwhelmed, and we had boxes well over our heads, but we were ok. We were learning to live in ways and places that were totally new to us. And we were going to be fine.

If you are overwhelmed right now, and let’s be honest, if you aren’t right now, there is an excellent chance that the overwhelming feeling will come your way at some point, take a moment to look at your situation in light of this question. While your kids are crawling through your legs as you read this post, or your best friend calls to ask a favor, or your boss asks you to take on a new project that will eat your time, or you glance over and see the notes you made about starting an online shop with the artwork you’ve been secretly creating, consider your circumstance carefully.

“Are you in over your head or just outside your comfort zone?”

Here are a few more questions that may be helpful in looking more closely.

Is this situation taking or giving?
Is it essential?
Is it leading me to opened doors?
Is it connected to a dream?
Is it helping me become more of who I want to be?
Is there an end in sight?

Only you can decide if you are in over your head or if you are out of your proverbial comfort zone, but this week I have been very struck by the idea that our lives cannot be any different than they currently are if we continue to do the same things we have always done.

There are no easy transitions, but possibility often lies just on the other side of change. If you consider your situation, and you find that this overwhelming is the in over your head kind, I want to encourage you to look around and ask for help. We have all been there. We all know what it looks like when we’re swimming for way too long and we can’t even see our comfort zone anymore. Learning to know what we need and being able to ask for it is just another way that we engage with possibility. But if after thinking about it, you find that you just happen to be a few steps or a mile outside of your comfort zone, breathe. Those walls keep us safe, but sometimes they also keep us from ourselves and our dreams.

So drop what you can that doesn’t fulfill you, keep swimming through the things you cannot drop, and get out there and embrace the you that surprised yourself and stepped out into a zone that is uncomfortable and transformative. Because while you may be overwhelmed and frantically looking for your zone right now, there is a great chance that in the end of the change you may be exactly who you are meant to be.

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