What are you pretending not to know?
The toughest coaching question I know is: What are you pretending not to know? The question is so difficult because it requires the client to face up to her delusions, the wishes she has for reality that don’t line up with what’s actually going on. To face reality is often so painful—sometimes the client chooses to hold on to her make-believe world instead. And by “client,” I also mean me.
I was faced uncovering my own pretending-not-to-know last week when I brought one of my struggles to conversation with a beloved friend. I explained that I was really confused by my own confusion. “When I’m out walking my dog, I can see what to do and how to do it, but when I get back to my desk, all that vanishes. I just sit there, feeling confused and distracted. This is not like me!” What I really meant was: What the hell is wrong with me?
My wise friend said, “What would you tell a coaching client who came to you and said what you just said?”
Oh, drat. I felt like I’d just been served a big heaping plate of my own dog food. Sighing, I looked around for a fork. “I would ask them about rest and play and stillness. I would suggest that maybe there’s some overwhelm or overload happening,” I replied. “I’d ask them: What are you pretending not to know?”
In my own recent season of overwhelm, insomnia has been my most persistent companion. Every night that I lose a lot of sleep extracts a terrible cost on my body, my spirit, my mind. What I’ve been pretending not to know is that I’m not just anxious, I am also overloaded—and that I have very real symptoms of burnout.
Like many people who have to come face to face with what’s really going on, I can’t just teleport to a beach in Hawaii for some lanai time. But there are some steps I (and you) can take when I find myself in a season of deep overwhelm and anxiety. In Part One of The Overwhelm Diaries, you learned about some of the warning signs of anxiety—and in the comments, you can find others contributed by readers (God bless them!).
Some Tools to Consider During a Season of Anxiety and Overwhelm
Before my recent season of anxiety and overwhelm set in, I created a self-care plan:
- Turn toward the light: Light isn’t just a metaphor for well-being. Light is an essential and powerful weapon against anxiety and overwhelm. A few weeks ago, my spiritual director suggested that when I feel very assaulted by adversity, find the light source and turn toward it. Every morning, I sit with my “happy light” for about 30 minutes while I pray and plan my day. At night, when insomnia taps me on the shoulder, I turn toward the window where a little light is seeping through.
- Exercise: Studies show that as little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can stave off symptoms of burnout. I get up and move every day, preferably outdoors, since other research shows that being in nature also improves outlook and increases feelings of well being.
- Centering Prayer: For twenty minutes a day, I sit still and focus on allowing the Holy Spirit into my heart, my body, and my mind.
- Examen Prayer: Every evening, I review my day in conversation with God.
- Art: I make some art. This is what play looks like for me: colorful, spontaneous, expressive, and fun.
- Ask for help: I went to several of my closest friends and asked them to be my listeners. When I’m really distraught, I give them four questions to ask me:
- What happened?
- How did you feel?
- How are you doing now?
- What do you need from me?
My Emergency Survival Tactic
In moments of intense anxiety, frustration, or overreaction, however, I need something more. I’ve learned to spot the signs I’m about to go over the edge—I grip handfuls of hair, my teeth clench, I snap at Douglas, or I yell at the dog. To pull myself back from the abyss, I use a self-soothing exercise that I call Eight Breaths. I take eight deep breaths and on each breath, I focus on a different sensation.
Breath 1: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of air entering my nostrils.
Breath 2: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.
Breath 3: On the inhale, I focus on the expansion of my rib cage.
Breath 4: After the inhale, I focus on the pause before the exhale, when my lungs are full.
Breath 5: On the exhale, I focus on the contraction of my rib cage.
Breath 6: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.
Breath 7: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath exiting my nostrils.
Breath 8: After the exhale, I focus on the pause before the inhale, when my lungs are empty.
Doing this small meditation takes about a minute (I’ve recorded an Eight Breaths guided meditation for my newsletter subscribers—it’ll be attached to the issue that comes out on November 29). When I self-soothe using the Eight Breaths, I immediately feel calmer and more in possession of my own mind. Often, the Eight Breaths is enough to ground me. But if not, I turn toward the light, pray, and look for one of my people to give me perspective (and hugs).
- Take a few minutes to create your own self-care plan. Plans are best created when you’re not in a season of deep anxiety and/or overwhelm—I created mine when I saw the first warning signs back in September.
- Practice the Eight Breaths (and if you want to receive the guided meditation recording, subscribe to my newsletter).
- Identify your trusted helpers and get them on board. Sharing your difficulties with a trusted other is incredibly important. If you don’t have a friend that you feel comfortable with asking, look for a spiritual director, a counselor, or a pastor with whom you can speak. I’ve found it essential to tell people that I don’t need or want fixing. More than anything I need to be heard and understood—period.
- In the comments, share your strategies for coping. You can be certain that your story will help someone else.
In Part III of The Overwhelm Diaries, I’ll talk about steps you can take to develop your resilience to seasons of overwhelm and anxiety. Stay tuned! And don’t forget, you can hop on my Facebook page to ask questions and find more resources on this topic.
With love and gratitude,