5 simple ways to be kinder to yourself when you feel overwhelmed
AKA: staying intentional when you're stressed AF
Warning: This article is in no way intented as treatment for mental illness. For mental health treatment, diagnosis, and general information, contact your healthcare provider, find a local treatment center, or call the national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). If you have a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.
When you feel overwhelmed, it's important to treat yourself with kindness. It's often the relationship with ourself that suffers the most, and when our relationship with ourself suffers, so do our other relationships, which makes intentional decision-making extremely difficult. It's the same concept as the flight attendents telling us, "if you are taking care of a child, put your mask on first, then help the child," because if anything happened to you, you wouldn't be a whole lot of help to your child.
In times of stress, when we sacrifice our own self-care in order to serve others, it has the adversely intended effect; putting us in an unhealthy state of mind to maintain our own wellbeing, much less take care of others. If you're nodding along with this saying, "OMG YES! Why the heck do I do that?" you are not alone. Let's explore that concept further.
Humans are helpful, kind, and nurturing people by nature; hard-wired for connection and seeking belonging; a tribe. If we are feeling overwhelmed to the point where it's affecting our own mental state, chances are life has gotten a bit "complicated" to say the least, so we go into what I call, protect-and-serve mode; pushing off things like our weekly bubble bath, poker night, long weekend away, etc. for things like perfecting your toddler's birthday party (neighborhood politics included), helping your friend move even though you're exhausted, or working through the weekend because your boss needs this thing RTF now. It's easy to think, "things will get back to normal soon," but if this pandemic has shown us anything, it's that life is unpredictable. There will always be a thing, person, or cause that needs us, so consciously and intentionally choosing to care for ourselves is vital to being able to help anyone else.
Most times, we can't do a whole lot about the situation, the person, or the day to day demands of life, but we can be kind to ourselves, starting with how we talk and care for ourselves. It's nobody else's responsibility but our own to ensure our sense of self is well attended to, and when we neglect it, our mental and often physical state take a huge hit, leaving us unable to effectively manage the stress and overwhelm to be there for ourselves or our loved ones.
The good news is, I've derived (that's the clinical term for "learned the hard way") four simple strategies that will kick your wellness game up a notch, even when life gets crazy. Remember, you need to be there for yourself in order to be there for anyone else.
STRATEGY 1 - LET YOUR VALUES GUIDE YOU
Knowing your values is an essential part of living mindfully and intentionally. Your values give you direction; they light your path when you lose you way and help shed light on who deserve to join you on your journey. Whether the worst day of your life or a minor setback, knowing your values is key to finding direction and moving forward, one baby step at a time.
While knowing your values is important, knowledge alone isn't effective. The second part of the equation is learning how to align your lifestyle with your values and apply said knowledge. That means doing your best to act intentionally, be present, and most importantly, understand your internal state well enough to adjust your surroundings to support you.
For most people, values will change throughout your lifetime, so you have to maintain that level of self-awareness; checking in with yourself periodically to hold yourself accountable and to re-evaluate. Maybe do this self-check-in over a nice steamy cup of your favorite tea?
what are your values?
use these guideposts to light your way when you feel lost
STRATEGY 2 - SETTING INTUITIVE BOUNDARIES
When we're stressed AF, if you pay attention, our natural, possibly subconscious, boundaries often become evident, masquarading as "melt-downs", "injustices", or other points of contention, no matter how big or small. Here's the most important part though; your boundaries shouldn't just apply to others behavior towards you. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to apply to how you treat yourself.
If some of your strongest emotions are triggered by somebody lying to you, honesty or not being lied to is probably a boundary you should have in place for those close to you, and for yourself. That would explain why whenever you try to lie, you usually are found out. The external is incongruent with the internal, which feels unnatural. It's why If it really upsets you when somebody is late for a meeting, respect/disrespect might be one to look into - and might explain why you feel so out of alignment when you gossip or take advantage of someone. My point is, being mindful of your emotional reactions to others is a great place to start when exploring the internal boundaries you need to set for yourself.
As far as the severity of these boundaries goes, that's where your intuition comes in. Listen to your body, mind and heart to know when you're being too leanient. A small voice will probably be nagging you saying things like, "this isn't me," or "Ok, that was nice and relaxing, but time to get to work." Comparitive suffering is a term describing the "somebody always has it worse" mentality, so keep an eye and ear out for that creeping in as well. You values, your boundaries, your pain, your trauma is yours, and nobody can take that from you. Just because somebody else has experienced hurt, trauma, or pain to a different degree doesn't make yours any less painful to you. Do you have people in your life who give you the "somebody has it worse," response when you confied in them? This is a great example of people to set boundaries with. While they probably don't intend for it to be hurtful, explaining to them that you understand other people have pain, but you are allowed to feel pain as well, might be an uncontroversial, respectful place to start. However, as with all boundaries, if they can't respect that, or they take offense to you asking them to see you - not all the starving kids in Africa - you, they may not be a friend to confide in...or a friend at all.
When you're worried about pushing too hard, keep your eye on the prize. Minimize your distractions by using focus apps like Forest, or hang a "mommy's working" sign on your door so the kids know when they can come in. Growth is uncomfortable by nature, so you're shooting for somewhere towards challending, but not quite painful. Pushing too hard will burn the candle at both ends, which doesn't help you or those depending on you.
The tug of war between giving yourself grace and knowing when to push is a tough act to pull off, and the only way to get better at it is practicing.
STRATEGY 3 - MINIMIZE (NOT JUST THE THINGS)
Say it again with me, mi-ni-mize. That's right ladies and gents, the term that's been in everyone's feed, ears, neighborhood gossip circle, millenial anything; minimialism. But what I'm suggesting is a bit different as it expands outside of the realm of physical things. I'm not talking about Marie Kondo-ing (yes, it's a verb now, I've decided) your entire house or throwing away all your prized posessions. I'm talking about really figuring out what is most important to you.
Minimalism is popular for good reason; it works - when done mindfully and for the right reasons. Of course, there are varying levels and forms of it, but the general idea is prioritizing what's important and eliminating the distractions so that you can spend your time, money, and energy on what truly matters to you. It also helps bring to light self-sabotaging behaviors you've picked up along the way.
However, minimizing things is not the only way to do this. When life gets to be stressful, minimizing schedules, digital life, and mental load are just as effective, maybe more so than physical things. Did you recently have to take a pay cut? Have a quirky, imperfect, rainbow-tiger-puppet-show-whatever birthday party with close friends and family for your kid rather than the expensive had-to-invite-the-entire-class arcade birthday party. Tight on time this week? Have a pizza and beer night with neighbors instead of cooking, and ask your partner to help move the family's appointments to next week.
If there are people who feel taxing, even if you can't explain why, just say no. Just because the activity is fun, if a person puts weight on you, it often takes the fun out of it, leaving you feeling drained. No, you can't come out for girls' night, no you can't play golf today, no you won't do them a favor. Why? Because you are taking care of you...and having a bubble bath with those new fancy bath bombs you just got.
It's very important to NOT minimize anything helping your physical and mental health. When you're feeling overwhelmed, it's easy to blow off a workout or skip walking the pup and sit in front of a screen all day, but these will only make the overwhelm worse. Physical exercise and mindfulness practices like meditation are some of the only proven ways to improve your mindset and mental clarity. So yes, minimize, but don't forget to move.
STRATEGY 4 - CHANGE YOUR MOTIVATION
One of the most effective ways to be kind to yourself is to give yourself permission to do what you want. Easier said than done, right? It's not as impossible as it seems.
When things get overwhelming, it's often the things that bring us the most joy that fall off of our priority list first. For example, I love knitting, sewing, and basically anything that has to do with fabric or yarn. When my life gets crazy, I have to consciously make myself stop, breathe, and grab my knitting needles, or else my creative outlets, hobbies, and self-care rituals get pushed to the back burner while I care for my family, home, career, and physical health.
It's been shown in study after study that the only truly effective way to motivate ourselves to do something in the long run is if we actually want to do it. That means all of those little things - running the dog to the groomers, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash - that we don't really want to do are slowly taxing our energy levels and patience.
We deserve to feel good about ourselves regardless of how much we get done, what we look like, who wants to be around us, or any other external factor. The bottom line is we are worthy of love and compassion. And when it's hard to come by, we need to provide those things to ourselves. So make sure the essentials are taken care of, and let the things that can wait, wait. Delegate and automate so that you can focus on surrounding yourself with people, things, and thoughts that make your heart feel happy, your body feel relaxed, and your mind feel at peace.
Being kind to ourselves isn't just about doing things that are fun, it's about intentionally treating ourselves as if we were our bff. There will always be things we don't want to do, that's just part of being a grown-up. But, in true Mary Poppins fashion, "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun....a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Take something that's a pain to do and find a way to make it fun, entertaining, of at least vaguely interesting, and those tasks will, over time, become less of a burden, and more of an opportunity to grow.
what motivates you?
Find out why some things matter more to us than others.
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STRATEGY 5 - CELEBRATE THE SMALL WINS
Setting goals is a great way to get things done, but setting too large of goals is a great way to get discouraged. If your goals feel out of reach or unrealistic, it's perfectly fine to break them down into smaller, more manageable goals. Studies show that this helps us celebrate our small wins, thus encouraging us to keep going.
The way you celebrate is important as well. If your child worked really hard to bring home an A on her spelling test, you (hopefully) wouldn't celebrate by opening a bottle of vino and putting your feet up with your favorite mystery novel. You'd probably take her out for ice cream or go for a special bike ride. My point is, when you do accomplish one of your small (or big) goals, celebrate in a way that's suited to you and nobody else.
When you break you goals down into smaller ones, and you don't accomplish them, it's easy to feel bad and say things like, "wow, I can't even do this now." But remember, everybody sets different difficulties of goals, and everybody's threashold is different. I tend to set huge goals and masquerade them around as if they were small, leaving me feeling defeated and overwhelmed. I've worked really well with people in the past who do the opposite and set such tiny goals that every half hour we got to high five about something we finished. Like so much in life, it's all about balance.
Also, when you set those original goals, your mindset may not have been where it is now. Moral of the story; cut yourself some slack, and if those goals are still too much to bite off at a time, break them down further. Nobody is judging, and if they are, it's nobody's business but yours, so as our friends across the pond say, they can bugger off. Celebrating small wins feeds your mental state with positivity chemicals like dopamine, which encourages you to do more of what you need to be well.
you are not alone
My fingers are quite tired, but this article is near and dear to my heart, so I'm not skimping on anything. When you feel stressed and overwhelmed, it's easy to feel alone, scared, and anxious. But you aren't alone. Let me repeat that; you, no matter who you are, what you've done, what your situation is, are not alone. You have yourself, you have me, and soon (coming down the pipe) you'll have a community of others in the same boat. We are all people, and we are all connected through our shared humanity, humility, and our desire to feel happy.
Give yourself permission to put yourself first. It's the most effective way to improve your mental and physical health and be there for the ones you care about. And never forget, you deserve to feel good about yourself and feel joy every. single. day. If you think of the stress and overwhelm as rain clouds; they come, they go, and the less we let them get under our skin the better. Ignoring them completely or exhausting yourself finding a million umbrellas to hand out to everyone but yourself will leave you soaked and shivering. Get your umbrella up, in good shape, and hand out the others. For those of you (hello, enneagram 2's / the helpers), it's not selfish to prioritize yourself. It's logic. Remember the mask example? If you aren't taking care of yourself, you probably aren't in a position to be helpful to anyone else. So if the end goal for you is to help others, helping yourself is the best place to start.
So there you have it; 5 surefire ways to be kinder to yourself (and therefore those you care about) when you're feeling stressed and overwhelmed AF. And even if you're doing great right now, it never hurts to have some coping mechanisms in you back pocket to be prepared for a storm. If you never experience storms, good for you, I doubt you're actually human. So take the time to focus on you for a change and you and those around you will see the benefits shine through.read the definitive guide to Intentional Living
I've created articles, courses, guides, and more to take you from overwhelmed to clear, confident, and impactful. You can download free intentional living workbooks, worksheets, and guides resources like my "What do you stand for?" workbook or the "What motivates you?" worksheet on my freebies page. Are you ready to take the first step towards a modern, intentional life? If so, subscribe below.
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