Recently my roommate was out of town so I brought her dog with us when I was walking my own dog. As I cruised through the neighborhood with a hyper dog on each side, I felt a new appreciation for dog walkers. Apparently if they walk together, both dogs totally forget that they know how to heel and walk nicely.
Anyway, we were stopped in the nearby vacant lot where all the best grass grows, having a little grassy snack, when all of a sudden, as if they had planned it, each dog took off like a shot in opposite directions. They each quickly reached the end of their leashes and began to pull hard on my arms, and for a moment I felt like Stretch Armstrong. Like Stretch my arms lengthened but didn’t pop off, although it felt iffy for a moment.
Thinking about it later, I realized it’s a good metaphor for life. How many times do we feel like we are being pulled in different directions? And then we wonder, is this going to break me?
The good news is, no, it’s not going to break you. But here are some tips for when you are feeling overwhelmed with too many competing priorities:
- Take a breath. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed is to stop for a moment and take a breath. Just stop moving and listen to your breath. Try deepening it or slowing it down. Bring your awareness into your body and let oxygen fill your cells. It works.
- Make a list and prioritize. It can help to just go over everything that you’ve got going on, and figure out what can wait. Write it on a piece of paper or use an app on your phone. Ask yourself, do I really need to do this? If so, does it need to be today? What will happen if I put this off for later? If I can’t do everything, what’s most crucial right now? Make a list and knock off the urgen or quick items first.
- Focus. If you’re like me, sometimes at your most overwhelmed you’ll think, “let me just check Facebook before I get started”, or “oh look, Golden Girls is on” (don’t judge me, Golden Girls is a classic). There are times when it’s great to take a break, and then are times when you’re wasting time and increasing your stress as your to-do list sits there, untouched. I often will tell myself that I’m going to totally focus and work on my list for 30 minutes and then I can stop. Sometimes I stop after 30 minutes, sometimes I get on a roll and keep going, but either way, I always feel better if I spend some focused time getting things done.
- Learn how to say no. This can be really difficult, especially for those of us who identify as women and have been socialized to be people pleasers, but sometimes you just need to learn to say no. The fact is, some people will take advantage of your helpful nature. Some people suck the life out of you. And some people can do fine all on their own if you let them. Before you agree to join one more committee or take on one more project at work or be the person who takes your kid to their dance lessons while your partner watches tv, think about saying no. Allow others to step up. Be assertive when you need help. And prioritize those activities that are most important to you.
- Remember you always have a choice. Years ago when I was in therapy I was complaining to my counselor about a work training that was very triggering and contentious. “What if you just don’t go?” she asked me. “I don’t have a choice, I have to go, it’s mandatory”, I answered. I’ll never forget her response: “You always have a choice. Your choice is to go to the training and be upset, or not go to the training and be reprimanded by your boss. The problem isn’t that you don’t have a choice, the problem is you don’t like your choices.” When you remember that you’re making a choice, even if it’s choosing the lesser of two evils, it brings the control back to you.
- Recharge. You’ve heard the old saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. No matter how long your to-do list is and how many commitments you have, you need to practice self-care. If your response to this is, “I don’t have time for self-care” then you need it more than most. Do something that recharges you at least once a week. Practice yoga or meditation. Take a walk in the woods. Have dinner with low-maintenance friends. Play with your dog. Get a massage. We all have different things that make us happy and give us joy. Find that joy. I guarantee you that you can find an hour or two (hopefully more) in your life somewhere this week to focus on you. You’ll be glad you did.
What are your favorite strategies for feeling less like Stretch Armstrong and more like you?
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