Overwhelm (it’s not the email)

You know that feeling….

It’s 4:30 on Friday you are just starting to timidly believe that you are going to get out of the office before 6pm, you start to allow yourself to get excited because you are meeting your law school friends for happy hour and your significant other will be joining you later and taking you out for dinner at your favorite restaurant. Finally, a fun Friday night with the people you love. It’s been a long week!

Then your office phone rings and it is your best work friend in the middle of a complete pre-working-all-weekend cataclysmic meltdown. Just as you are about to begin telling her not to quit, you can do this…. “that” partner darkens your doorway. You quickly get her off the phone, promise to call her back, and internally cringe as the partner asks you if you could take a look as these “few sections” of this Stock Purchase Agreement blah blah blah, “I just emailed you with a link to the diligence room”, hands you a 60 page SPA and promptly exists. You glance at his email and it asks for a response by tomorrow morning (Saturday for those of you not tracking…). Then your phone lights up, it’s your boyfriend asking you where the dog food is and could you make sure to put milk on the grocery list. Also, what should he wear tonight? As you are just starting to process what just happened, your paralegal shows up and jumps right into discussing a project you gave her a week ago that she is “struggling with” as she launches into a long and detailed explanation and plants herself in your office chair and you sit there, dumbfounded wondering what the heck she is talking about, how can I get her to stop talking without screaming…and what the F just happened?

Then it sets in.

For me, overwhelm feels like hot compression of my chest and a ringing sound, like after a bomb goes off and your ears are trying to adjust. It’s the worst.

We’ve all been there. In the moment, it’s easy to believe that all of these “things” happening to us are what is causing that sickening, tight feeling. The truth is that none of that is true. That feeling is caused 1000% by your thoughts. You are doing this to yourself.

The email saying “I need you to respond by 11am Saturday” is not making you feel that way. In fact, that circumstance alone is not particularly anxiety-inducing. It’s just words. On a page.

What is anxiety inducing is the thought “There is no way I’m going to get this done in time…I’m going to have to cancel all of my plans…I really needed tonight, I really needed this break, it’s been such a long week…I’m so tired of this BS…I can’t believe you did this to me, AGAIN!…I don’t have time for all of this…how am I going to get all this done?!…you didn’t even think to ask me if I have time!…

THOSE nasty little sentences are what get your heart racing. It’s not the events going on around you. It’s not the email.

Add to it, thoughts about the other circumstance “C’mon Karen, you have a meltdown every week, I don’t have time for this…if I don’t call her back when she needs me, I’m a terrible friend…I have to call her back, she is so upset…I don’t have time to call her back, I need to figure out what I’m going to do…I can’t deal with her right now…she is so dramatic…she is going to hate me if I don’t call her back..” and then the thoughts about the boyfriend “Seriously, why can’t he find things on his own?! I’m at work, I don’t have time to tell you where everything is, look for it yourself, GDI!…can’t you pick up some milk and while you’re at it, get the other groceries, why do I have to do everything!?

You end up with a ton of emotions racing through your body at the same time: fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, judgment, shame, indignation. These ingredients cause overwhelm, like a pot boiling over, your brain can’t handle the sudden influx of feels!

This cacophony in your brain is what is creating that feeling of overwhelm. It is not your boyfriend, your tearful colleague, the partner, or the email. You are doing it to yourself.

So how do we turn down the noise and sort through overwhelm?

First, recognize that it is your thoughts doing this to you. It is not the circumstances. That email does not reach out of the screen and make your heart palpitate. It’s impossible. So let’s look at the real cause: you have to get the thoughts out. This leads us to step 2:

Step 2: Exercise the demons.

If you had a bat in your attic, you wouldn’t simply close the door and continue to let it bang around up there. You would get it out and then figure out how the F it got in there. Take 5 minutes to breathe and write down every single thought that is banging around up there — get them out. Do not judge them. Do not censor them. Just get them into black and white.

Step 3: Look at them! Separate the thoughts from the facts. You are lawyer, you know facts when you see them. Cut out all the adjectives, adverbs and subjective statements and isolate the facts. Highlight them. Then look at all the lovely thoughts you are having about those facts.

Step 4: Lawyer them to death. Challenge each of those thoughts. Argue it. Question it. Present the opposite side. If you are thinking “If I don’t respond to that email by tomorrow at noon, I am going to get fired,” ask is that true?

Argue with yourself–If I don’t respond by tomorrow at 11am, I am NOT going to get fired and here’s why…. 

For each thought, ask “how is this thought serving me right now?”  Is it helpful for you to think, If I blow this off he is going to be pissed! What’s point?!

The majority of these thoughts are not serving you. Sure, some of them might be true but what is the upside of thinking them and focusing on them?! What is that getting you?

Is it helping you get the work done? Is it helping you triage the situation? I doubt it.

You don’t wander around telling everyone about that time you completely missed the deadline on that IRS filing for a client. It might be a fact but what is the point of carrying it around with you?

Just because it might be true, doesn’t make it useful.

Ask yourself “So what?

If I have to cancel my happy hour with my friends, they will be disappointed….so what? Will they stop being your friend? Can they handle being disappointed? Will it kill them to be disappointed? Will it kill you to allow them to be disappointed? Asking yourself “so what?” forces you to examine the worst case scenario and look at all the drama your brain is offering you. Stop with the drama and start really looking at the reality of the situation. Your friends will understand. They will get over it. They might be sad. They are grownups and they can relate. So what if your perfectly planned Friday night doesn’t work out? So what?

For each thought in your head argue the opposite. If you are thinking “I have to call my friend back, she was in tears!” Challenge yourself to argue the opposite. Do you really have to call her back? What if you didn’t? Do you really need to spend all night working on the SPA review? Can you make an argument that you can do it more efficiently (once you clear all this junk out of your brain)? Do you really need to cancel all your plans or are you just being dramatic?

Whenever we are feeling overwhelmed it’s because we have a series of competing thoughts in our brain that each are causing some form of negative emotion. Those thoughts and feeling converge and we lose our $#!+.

Stop blaming the circumstances around you for those feelings.

Own your role in this. Recognize the source of your feelings and get to work watching and questioning your thoughts. You are lawyer. People pay you to argue. Put that fancy degree to work and start arguing with the ridiculous statements in your head.

Don’t be a pawn to your own drama. You got this.

Whenever you’re ready, there are three great ways to take your work on your career and your brain deeper.

  1. Sign up for one of my 6-week programs that will take you from overwhelm to happiness.
  2. Sign up for free coaching consultation.

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