Message Two: Stop the Overwhelm – Set Boundaries

In the first message I sent, I talked about how overwhelm got me again while I was in the middle of creating this series on, of all things, overwhelm!* Today, I’m going to talk about how I picked up skill #1 to stop overwhelm, and that skill is learning to focus on just one thing.

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Back when I was in college, I helped pay for school by acting in weekend-long murder mystery productions. Talk about setting myself up for overwhelm!

During a typical weekend, we actors would be required to stay in-character any time we left our hotel rooms, from Friday night at 5 p.m. through Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Our “stage” was mostly large dining rooms, where interacting directly with the paying guests was how we spent about 95% of our time. The other 5% of our time was spent trying to stay on-script with what was mostly improvisation anyway. Every minute we were in character, we had to watch for any stage managers hiding in the shadows frantically cueing up our few-and-far-between scripted scenes, try not to get distracted and let clues slip to savvy and sneaky guests, and keep track of story details that would change at the last second because of issues with props or costume malfunctions or stage makeup snafus.

It sounds exciting and yes, OK, I’ll admit it was a lot of fun. For me, it was also exhausting, stressful and often nerve-wracking. Because, believe it or not, I’m actually an introvert at heart. And so, out of sheer survival, it was there that I taught myself skill #1 of stopping the overwhelm: choosing just one thing to focus on.

Why does this work? Because overwhelm is made up of a collection of things that each are just one thing. (I made several videos on this back at the beginning of the pandemic. You can watch them here, if you are curious.)

It really is like that old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Except I don’t like the idea of eating an elephant, so I picture a giant watermelon as my overwhelm instead.

So how do you figure out what to focus on, as it relates to overwhelm? Here are two questions to ask yourself.

Question one: “What is one thing that is causing me overwhelm?” In my real-life example of what really happened when I went to create this series, I realized I was making myself unbearably grumpy by trying to meet the demands of my original plan. While a whole a bunch of other stressful stuff was piling up (see email #1 if you missed this whole backstory). So I made a list that had several things on it that were causing me overwhelm. Then I chose the one thing – my plan for this series – that I thought I could change to give myself some immediate relief.

And question two, ask this to test the one thing you identified: “Is this one thing something I believe I can change or resolve right now?” This helps you choose one relationship or situation or event that you believe is possible to resolve now. I’m not telling you that you must resolve it or how to do it (don’t jump ahead of me on this!), I’m only saying you need to be able to believe that you can. When I tested my choice to revise my plan for this series, I believed it was possible without missing a beat. I could already feel disappointment in myself creeping up on me, but I was willing to be disappointed if it meant I could get relief from my overwhelm.

And if it turns out that you chose one thing to focus on that you can’t believe in resolving because it’s too hard or too big? Just pick something else from your list. To get relief from your overwhelm right away, you have to start with a bite that’s small enough and easy enough for you to chew. You might also find you have to give yourself permission to focus on just one thing, and that’s totally normal. If you find you can’t give yourself permission to do this for any reason, send me an email or leave a comment and I will help you.

Here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the other things don’t matter. I’m not saying the other things don’t exist or aren’t actually happening. In fact, those other things you think are overwhelming you? I believe you!

I’m also not telling you to judge yourself for all of the things you see when you look at the whole watermelon of overwhelm. But if you’re at all like me, I bet you’re going to find that you are judging yourself right now. Maybe you are agonizing or blaming yourself for not being farther along in handling your overwhelm at this point. I want you to know that’s normal and it’s OK. And it’s part of the cycle: your thoughts add to the overwhelm of the overwhelm problem.

Please try very hard not to judge yourself, but when you do, rest assured that nothing has gone wrong with you. I highly recommend you notice that self-judgment and then simply set it aside so you can come back to it another time. (I promise you this works. My inner critic is loud and mean and tends to mouth off in my head 24/7, and this works for me.) I’ll talk a little more about this in the next email.

For today, your entire assignment – or maybe you want to think of it like field work – is to choose just one bite of your particular overwhelm watermelon, just one thing you believe is possible to resolve. Stay focused on that one thing. Don’t deny the other things exist, just try not to focus your attention on them.

The next message will be about skill #2, which is to get curious so you can get a more neutral picture of what’s really happening.

I do want to give you fair warning that in the next message, I’m going to talk about my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a car accident that happened a long time ago, because it’s why I had to learn to go deep into curiosity for my own well-being. I’m not going to say anything that’s graphic or detailed, but I want you to know in case this is something you are sensitive to.

In the meantime, I really do want to hear from you. If you don’t like to picture overwhelm as either an elephant or a watermelon, what’s an image that works for you? Leave a comment below to tell me or to ask me anything you want, or you can just send me an email.

Here’s to giving ourselves permission to focus on one thing that will give immediate relief,

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Life & Business Coach, and mother, wife and caregiver


*There are three things I should define now, so that as you read through this series, you’re a little more clear about how I use them:

Overwhelm: this is both a thought and a feeling. The thought is that you’ve got something going on that is too much for you to handle, and this could be a relationship, a situation or an event. The feeling could also be described as pressure, discouragement, helplessness or hopelessness.

Boundary: this definition has two parts. One, it’s deciding what’s OK with you and not OK with you. And two, it’s a decision you make about what you will do when a boundary is crossed, so boundaries aren’t about controlling the actions of other people. I wish it worked that way, but it doesn’t! If you want to learn more about this, listen to podcast episodes 33, 49 and 50.

Human Giver Syndrome: this is a term that has only been in use for a few years, but it’s a belief system that’s been in place for thousands of years. It means some people are supposed to do everything they can to make sure the people around them thrive, no matter the personal cost to them. If you want to learn more about it, listen to podcast episodes 31, 35, 44 and 52.

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Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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