Many people may say it’s their long to-do list. Or a stressful relationship. Or a bad economy.
In truth, overwhelm is all about fear. Pure and simple.
Even though the topic of fear has become more popular in recent years, we still have a hard time confronting our own fears. And we struggle just to name it for what it is.
But in order to live a better life, we must understand that fear is at the root of most of our problems. Whether you’re worried, stress, or overwhelmed, fear is likely the engine driving you to despair.
In fact, your state of overwhelm may actually be an attempt to deal with your fears in an unhealthy way. What are the fears we try so hard to avoid?
Fear of exclusion
Each of us is driven by these basic fears: rejection, humiliation, failure, and judgment.
These are all related to the fact that we are social in nature. Anything that threatens our connection with other human beings will generate a fear response. Our ancestors depended on their communities to survive dangers all around them.
We may think we’re more individualistic than they were, but we too need community. It’s very difficult for us to thrive when we feel isolated or excluded.
Fear of the uncontrollable
The other set of basic fears involve the things we cannot control: health problems, crime, accidents, natural disasters, and death.
If you watch the news regularly, this fear may be dominant in your life. You may fear the feeling of having no control over your own body or the environment around you.
Unmanaged fear of the uncontrollable may motivate us to do things that allow us to feel safer. But it also often means remaining in the “comfort zone,” a place which actually has no power to protect us from the uncontrollable.
Why we get overwhelmed in the face of fear (and how you can break the cycle)
When we feel these fears, especially fears of exclusion, we engage in certain defensive actions that may contribute to our overwhelm: We procrastinate, we start projects but never finish, we say yes to everything and everyone, we go it alone.
Chances are you’re doing more than one of these. No wonder you’re feeling so stressed and overwhelmed. If you’ve tried without success to break these habits, you’re not addressing the underlying fears driving them.
Here’s how you can begin breaking the cycle:
1. Acknowledge your fears
Though we carry around our fears all the time, we pretend they don’t exist. The first step to breaking the cycle of overwhelm is to simply acknowledge not only that you have fears, but that you experience these fears almost continuously.
2. Name your fears
The next logical step after acknowledging your fears is to identify them. For this step to work, you must get as specific as you can. First, identify which of the two main categories your fear falls into. Second, try to describe in as much detail as you can what you’re afraid of.
For instance, if you find yourself taking on more projects at work or working late, spend some time identifying what may be driving this fear, e.g. Job loss, not getting a promotion, or not having enough saved for retirement.
3. Say no
As scary as it sounds to acknowledge and name your fears, this is probably the scariest step.
Why? Because saying “no” may actually lead to the realization of some of your biggest fears. For instance, if you say no to working on weekends, you may get passed up for that promotion. Or if you say no to hanging out with the guys five nights a week, they may start talking behind your back.
But more often, these fears are not realized. It’s even likely that you will earn a newfound respect from your colleagues and friends for exercising good boundaries.
4. Remember you’re not alone
Though you may feel alone in your feeling, know that we all experience similar fears. We all yearn for connection and belonging. We all yearn for greater control over ourselves and our environment.
Remembering this can give you the courage to reach out to others for validation and support. You’ll feel less overwhelmed just by knowing that you don’t need to carry your emotional load all alone.
You are stronger than your fears
The real reason why you’re overwhelmed?
You believe that you’re not strong enough to face your fears.
The truth is that you are. So drop all the things that distract you from facing your fears. Because your fears have no real power over you.