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  • Writer's picturePhil McAuliffe

On managing overwhelm

Let's explore why you and I feel so frequently overwhelmed.

Our lives may depend on it.



I’ve been feeling overwhelmed a lot recently.


Many of my clients have been telling me that they feel overwhelmed, too.


Have you also been feeling overwhelmed lately?


Let’s explore why this may be the case.


If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately – or ever – do you know what’s triggered the thoughts and feelings of being overwhelmed for you?


Has it been the amount of work you have to do? Has it been something within your life outside of work? There has been a lot happening around the world – and in the world of diplomacy – for the past 25 years, so it may be the affect of all that time of operating at this heightened level.


How does overwhelm look, sound and feel for you?

I'm sure you're lovely to be around when you're stressed and overwhelmed. As for me, well, I’m told that I’m not lovely to be around. I like to think that I continue to be awesome and that those around me barely notice that I’m being overwhelmed, however feedback that I’ve received is that I’m not really present.


I get curt to the point of rude to those who I feel comfortable around. I have a low tolerance for things that distract me away from all the stuff I need/want to get done. I live in my head when I’m overwhelmed, and everything that happens outside of my own head doesn’t get much attention.



I get into a mode that perhaps you’re also well-acquainted with: Getting Stuff Done. I usually call it something else, but I don’t want to offend…

I have an enormous capacity for work. Years in the Australian Public Service taught me how to power through a colossal amount of work with a paucity of time, people and money. Overwhelm was an almost constant state – so much so that anything BUT being overwhelmed felt like underwhelm.


While I feel that I’m able to hide all these thoughts and feelings, I’m fortunate to have amazing people in my corner who call me out – with kindness and honesty – on my bullshit. And that’s exactly what my beautiful partner Jeff did for me recently.


He reminded me in his beautiful way that while I may be focussed on working and getting stuff done to set up for a future that lives in my own head, I’m not present in the present.


He also said that I need to set expectations that don’t include scaling the proverbial mountain in a single bound and just because I have an enormous capacity to work doesn’t mean that this needs to be the only way I get to approach work.


Those truths landed.


It was time for me to practice what I preach on the topic of overwhelm. I’ve now very consciously and very deliberately set intentions to:


  • Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.


  • I know that I cannot control everything that’s happening, but it doesn’t stop me trying.


  • I remind myself to let go. Surrender. This is hard for me.


  • Give myself the same – if not more – grace that I freely give others.


  • Check my expectations and clarify others’ expectations of me, especially when requesting my time.


  • Practice gratitude (especially by writing five things for which I’m grateful every night when I journal).


Overwhelm and loneliness


My response to feeling overwhelmed is to shut down and shut out. Getting stuff done mode demands it until, well, the stuff gets done.


This is an OK strategy in the short term. However, there is ALWAYS stuff to do. The thoughts and feelings of being overwhelmed feel like they’ve been a constant for me ever since university days. It was how I got through those times in every semester when there were two or three major essays due in the same week.


It worked, because the work got done. So, I kept doing it. I got really good at it, and there were times when I’d delay starting something because I felt I needed to feel overwhelmed for me to get things done.


Overwhelm was the cure to procrastination.


Throughout my career in the public sector – and now as a solo entrepreneur forging a new career path – smashing it out and getting stuff done was the way I smashed through the ridiculous amounts of work.


But overwhelm ABSOLUTELY feeds my loneliness. I miss others’ bids for connection because I’m living with very narrow blinkers on. I justify missing precious connective moments with myself, those most important to me and to my community because I’ve got stuff that must get done and I’m the only person to do it.

Those bids for connection are everything. Ignoring them – or simply moving too fast to see them – feeds my loneliness.


Advice for the overwhelmed diplomat


Missing connection bids feeds your loneliness, too.


Consider this advice:


  • What is the source of the demands you feel are on you? Is it someone specifically? Speak to them. Is it you? Be honest. Are you the main source of the unrealistic demands and expectations? Ouch.


  • There is ALWAYS going to be more work and expectations on you to do it than there can ever be time. However, you can choose how you approach the work and the tasks of life.


  • You get to learn other ways of coping with all the work and expectations you feel you have upon you.


  • You get to be gentler on yourself and choose to not hold yourself to unreasonably high expectations of quality work done in record time EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.


  • When you get yet more work placed on you - or you place upon yourself - decide as quickly as possible: delete, delay, delegate or do (in that order). The number of decisions you’re expected to make each day without a mistake is unconscionable and access to your time and expertise is precious.


  • Speak up. There’s power in asking for support.


  • Let go when others offer to support you. Surrender.


  • Let go. The world will still revolve if you’re not involved in every meeting or don’t respond to every email, text message or phone call.


This has been working for me lately: How I choose to be in myself, with those most important to me and with my communities is as important as what I do.

Finally


What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? How do you move from overwhelmed to being sufficiently whelmed?


If not feeling overwhelmed leaves you feeling, well, underwhelmed, then I invite you to really reflect on what tools and strategies you need to develop and practice to bring yourself back off that level. Getting Stuff Done mode is great in the short term, but it’s a dangerous way to operate as your default setting.

You’re doing yourself real mental, emotional, physical and social harm if that’s the case.


There are other ways of being a great diplomat that allow you to be human.


Thank you for reading.




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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own/the author's and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.


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