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June 9, 2021

Feeling overwhelmed? You're at risk of making these 5 common mistakes.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 14, 2021.

    When people are overwhelmed, they often fall into behavior patterns that "not only don't help the situation, but that even make it worse." Writing for Harvard Business Review, Alice Boyes, an author and former clinical psychologist, spotlights "five common self-sabotaging mistakes overwhelmed people tend to make"—as well as practical solutions for each.

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    1. Thinking you don't have time to help yourself

    According to Boyes, people who are overwhelmed "often have great ideas about things that would help them feel better and more in control," such as seeing a therapist or taking time to see friends. However, they often dismiss those ideas because they "think they're too busy or that it's not the right time." Instead, they "[wait] to take those actions until a more ideal moment that typically never arrives."

    Boyes recommends that rather than waiting, people should "choose the best option that easily available to you now." For instance, if you don't have time interview several therapists to find one who checks all your boxes, go ahead and schedule a few sessions with just one therapist who meets the most critical of your criteria, she writes.

    According to Boyes, "By acting to help yourself, you'll get practice finding doable solutions, feel more self-efficacy" and reap the benefits of "trying your ideas."

    2. Not leveraging your 'unconscious mind'

    "Your unconscious, wandering mind is as valuable a tool for solving problems and creative thinking as your focused mind," Boyes writes. As Boyes explains, allowing your mind to wander can "help you get important things done, without so much pressure to be focused and undistracted all the time, which can be an unreasonable expectation." 

    Noting that overwhelmed people can "sometimes try to block out work thoughts during their personal time by listening to music, a podcast, or other entertainment," Boyes recommends instead "identifying the activities during which your mind naturally drifts in helpful ways and solves problems for you," such as running errands or going for a walk.

    3. Criticizing yourself for feeling overwhelmed

    According to Boyes, feeling overwhelmed is often a natural response to trying to complete a high-stakes task or attempting to do something new. However, people who are overwhelmed often "get self-critical about the very fact that [they] feel overwhelmed," believing that they should be able to handle any given task "'without … stressing out.'" They may also react to this self-criticism by "approach[ing] the task with extra perfectionism" or refusing to seek help.

    But this mindset can make people "more likely to procrastinate," Boyes writes, "because not only does the task trigger feelings of overwhelm, it also triggers shame or anxiety about having those feelings." Instead, Boyes advises people to replace self-criticism with "compassionate self-talk."

    4. Defaulting to your 'dominant ways of handling things'

    Since people tend to "have less cognitive and emotional bandwidth" when they feel overwhelmed, they often "become less flexible about adapting to the demands of the situation and default to [their] dominant ways of handling things," Boyes writes. And those methods can often backfire, she adds, by turning your "values" into handicaps. For instance, "thoughtfulness can turn into overthinking" or "having high standards can lead to being picky or perfectionistic."

    Boyes recommends that when you are feeling overwhelmed, "make sure you're matching your values to the demands of the situation." You should assess whether the task at hand requires your dominant values—say, thoughtfulness or self-reliance—or whether a "different approach would be better suited to the circumstances."

    5. Pulling back from your support system

    According to Boyes, when people feel overwhelmed, they tend to have limited emotional energy—and as a result, they often pull back their "emotional availability." For instance, they might not take the time to give their child a long hug because they are "still thinking about other things."

    But this behavior can be "self-sabotaging," Boyes writes, because by pulling away from their support system, overwhelmed people are "missing opportunities to fill up [their] emotional cup" when they need it the most. Boyes recommends identifying ways "you still enjoy connecting with your supports even when you've got limited emotional energy," so as to preserve and sustain those channels.

    According to Boyes, by "being aware of the five patterns outlined here, you can make getting through busy and challenging times easier on yourself and those around you," by making "easy, small changes" (Boyes, Harvard Business Review, 4/27).

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