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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

When you feel overwhelmed: 4 steps to break out.

When I found myself working in my dream job in global health (the job I’d been working towards for almost two decades), needless to say I was pretty excited.

But I quickly found that there was an endless mass of work to do and I was at risk of overwhelm and burnout – how quickly can you end poverty and improve the health of the most vulnerable in the world? My boss had boundless energy herself so she wasn’t going to put the breaks on for me.

One weekend when a report deadline was coming up, I realised that if I were to go the distance in this job, I’d need to make some choices, miss out on certain opportunities and occasionally disappoint my boss.

While it was a little tense sometimes, eventually what happened is that my productivity in one area of my work that I enjoyed very much – writing – shot through the roof and I delivered beyond expectations.

That became my speciality and I was given some pretty exciting international projects which also increased my wider credibility and profile. My boss was happy, I was happy and the initial adjustment of our different work rhythms was in the past.

But it’s not always easy to break out of overwhelm, especially when you want to please your boss and grow your reputation.

GPs are noticing increasing numbers of burned out consultants – especially new ones. These are smart, capable professionals but sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

Here are steps you can take to break out when facing overwhelm and get back to a sense of stillness and poise.

[Read on or watch the video below]

1. Acknowledge.

Recognise what’s going on i.e. that something is out of balance for you.

In clinical medicine, a key diagnostic principle is whether something is acute or chronic: is the overwhelm something recent and hopefully temporary or is it a chronic, ongoing issue?

The different patterns lead to different solutions.

2. Boundary.

Of course, placing boundaries with others is important. Saying “no” is one of the most life-changing skills you can learn, especially if you’re a people-pleaser.

When my colleague Terri said “no” to a big project from her employer, she found that not only were they completely OK about it, but they conceded to her big request to work part-time!

The most important boundary is often the inner-boundary you place between your creative, happy self and your inner-critic who tries to hold you back.

3. Commit.

My client, Paul, is building his own consulting business helping companies to increase their social impact, after a successful career in management consultancy. He finds that he can get easily overwhelmed overthinking his business strategy, which slows him down.

He emailed me this week asking for tools and tips to help. I caught myself before launching into more strategy since we’d already discussed one and just wrote back: Stop thinking. Take action. To which he replied: That was easy!

Of course, there’s a time to strategise and dive into the nitty gritty the practicalities. But breaking out of a cycle of overwhelm doesn’t have to be complicated.

It can be a matter of making one decision and acting on it. The feedback you get from that one decision you acted on will be much more valuable than weeks of rumination.

4. Drop it.

Many important scientific discoveries were made by accident - antibiotics for example. You may have noticed that when you drop the ball sometimes, the world doesn’t end and things can sort themselves out anyway.

Sometimes you have to trust others to work things out without you, especially if you’re overwhelmed and irritable and liable to make things worse anyway!

Tiffany Dufu wrote a book on the subject with a revised definition of what “dropping the ball” means: “To release unrealistic expectations of doing it all and engage others to achieve what matters most to us, deepening our relationships and enriching our lives.”

So dropping things not only gives other people a chance to step up but is also an opportunity to transform and deepen the relationship you have with them.

It can feel uncomfortable to stop something that’s in progress or turn down an offer not knowing exactly what the consequences will be. You might worry that you’re missing out, feel irresponsible or worry that your reputation is at risk. The truth is people-pleasers are rarely at risk of this. It’s continuing the cycle of overwhelm that can cause the most trouble and being unavailable for the most important opportunities.

So give yourself permission to stop when you’re overwhelmed and pick up only the commitments that really matter to you. Things are much more likely to work out well in the long run. And life is a marathon not a sprint!

Amina Create your own path.

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