Jill has been working 12-hour days all week. She’s barely seen her son, let alone spent any quality time with him, which leaves her feeling guilty. Her 11-year-old is nagging her to have three friends over to watch a movie on Friday night, but Jill is exhausted. It’s Mother’s Day weekend and she still hasn’t gotten downtown to buy her mom her favorite chocolates. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law is blowing up her phone trying to nail down a time for a Mother’s Day gathering that Jill doesn’t want to attend. To top it off, her boss springs a business trip on her with only 48 hours’ notice.
Can you relate to Jill’s experience of feeling overwhelmed?
Why do we feel overwhelmed?
We’ve all felt overwhelmed at times. It’s the feeling you have when you’re overrun by emotions and you’ve exhausted all your coping strategies. You feel like you can’t keep up and you don’t know how to manage all the problems, emotions, or obligations that you have. You don’t feel in control and capable of handling everything.
Sometimes feeling overwhelmed is the result of having too many demands on your time and energy, like Jill is experiencing. Other times, we feel overwhelmed because we’re inundated by stressors or we’ve absorbed other people’s problems. Ideally, we can lean on supportive friends or family members and use effective and healthy coping skills to get us through stressful times. But sometimes we deplete all these resources and feel overwhelmed.
Codependents and people-pleasers often feel overwhelmed
Codependents like to feel in control. Control makes us feel safe. So, when our problems feel unmanageable and out of our control, we get overwhelmed.
Codependents tend to be caregivers, problem solvers, and ultra-responsible people. We’re hypervigilant – always on the lookout for potential problems so we can try to avert disaster. We take on not only our own problems but other people’s problems, too. And, of course, it’s an overwhelming load to carry not only your own problems but other people’s as well.
Codependents become consumed by other people and their problems. This can show up as actively trying to solve someone else’s problems (find them a job or get them into rehab) or it can be an inability to separate your own feelings from someone else’s (you only feel good when your spouse is happy or when you know your child is safe). Mark’s story is an example of how codependents can feel overwhelmed by other people’s problems and feelings.
Mark’s girlfriend of six months, Ashley, is the victim of ongoing sexual harassment by a coworker. She is adamant that she doesn’t want to report the abuse. Understandably, Ashley feels stressed and often comes over to Mark’s house in a depressed or irritable mood. As a result, Mark has been having trouble sleeping and feels like he can’t be happy (even though he just adopted an adorable rescue puppy and he loves his new job) because Ashley isn’t. He’s constantly trying to convince her to report her coworker, figure out how he can make a complaint on her behalf, and sends her articles about the psychological effects of sexual harassment. Mark is well-intentioned, but he can’t fix this problem for Ashley and his efforts to do so are causing them both added stress.
As codependents, we also have difficulty saying “no” and setting boundaries because we don’t want to be criticized, rejected, or to have people angry with us. We become people-pleasers who are more concerned about pleasing others and maintaining the status quo than about doing what’s right for ourselves. It is, of course, important to consider other people’s feelings, but people-pleasing leads to self-neglect which in turn makes it hard for us to deal with and solve our problems.
People-pleasing also leads to feeling overwhelmed because when you don’t set limits, you end up signing on for more than you can realistically do. And when you do this, you end up with a mile-long to-do list, obligations rather than activities that bring you joy, and feeling stressed out and exhausted.
Boundaries can protect us from feeling overwhelmed
The best way to regain control over your life and reduce your feelings of overwhelm is to set boundaries.
When you don’t set boundaries, you take on too many projects, give or loan money that you can’t afford, go out of your way to help those who don’t want or appreciate your help, enable others by doing things for them that they can reasonably do for themselves, and you allow others to mistreat or take advantage of you. The result can be physical and psychological damage, exhaustion, and resentment to name just a few.
Boundaries create a healthy physical and/or emotional separation between you and other people. So, when you don’t have clear boundaries you’re vulnerable to absorbing other people’s feelings and problems (and feel responsible for fixing them). You become reactive – feeling as if everything is on fire and you must single-handedly put it out – or you become paralyzed and unable to make decisions and solve problems. Both overreacting and underreacting are the result of feeling overwhelmed.
Setting boundaries, or limits and expectations, in our relationships, prevents us from feeling overwhelmed.
Examples of healthy boundaries:
- saying no to things you don’t want to do or don’t have the resources to do
- leaving situations that are harmful to you
- telling others how you want to be treated
- being aware of your own feelings and allowing yourself to feel differently than others
- not trying to change, fix, or rescue others from difficult situations or feelings
- allowing others to make their own decisions
- prioritizing self-care
- sharing personal information gradually based on how well you know and trust someone
- recognizing which problems are yours to solve and which problems belong to others
- communicating your thoughts, feelings, and needs
- having personal space and privacy
- pursuing your own goals and interests
Boundaries provide a strong defense against feeling overwhelmed. While you probably can’t completely eliminate feeling overwhelmed in the face of life’s inevitable challenges and tragedies, boundaries can insulate you from negative energy, toxic people, and external stress that comes from people and situations you can’t control. Boundaries aren’t about controlling other people, they are a healthy way of showing others how you want to be treated. And this helps you to feel safe, which allows you to relax and utilize healthy coping skills.
You can learn more about how to set boundaries in my eBook Navigating the Codependency Maze or in one of the blog posts below.