Life has a way of overwhelming us sometimes. Have you been there? I sure have. The last six months have been very busy for me, as I planned a wedding, moved, adjusted to a new marriage, looked for jobs, and tried to get a new house in order. I have to admit, I’ve been quite overloaded at points and often downright hard on myself.
Although these specific set of circumstances are unique to my life, I know this feeling of being downtrodden and overwhelmed is universal. Maybe for you it’s the way the laundry never ends, toys litter the floor, and the baby screams his anger about teething. Maybe it’s the way work at the office keeps piling up and you can’t manage to get anyone to respond to your requests. Or maybe you’re experiencing depression or anxiety and the simple task of getting out of bed and dressed for the day seems incredibly daunting.
Whatever your circumstances, we have all been there. The question isn’t really “Have you ever felt overwhelmed?”. If you’re a human the answer is yes! The real question at hand is “How do you respond to yourself or someone else who is feeling overwhelmed?”
As human beings we like to be in control and have all the answers. Most often, our response to an overwhelmed friend is try to provide a solution, a way to fix their problem. There can be a place for that response, but first we have to meet them in their struggle with love.
When we’re the ones overwhelmed, our response is usually to beat ourselves up. We berate ourselves with: “You should have this together!” “A good mom would always have clean socks for her kids!” “You’ve lived here for three months, surely you could manage to get the pictures on the walls by now!” We can be so hard on ourselves, when it would again be better to meet ourselves with love.
Two years ago I participated in an intensive mental health program designed to assist in recovery from severe depression. Getting better was literally my part-time job, and boy was I hard on myself. My group therapist was a lovely woman with an even lovelier British accent. I could have listened to her all day, (which was good since I had to listen to her for 10 hours a week). If there is one thing I remember most from the group, it’s my therapist repeating her catchphrase to me and others: “It’s understandable.” Sometimes I still hear her British voice repeating that message.
“It’s understandable.” What a simple phrase, yet the very simplicity helps us to take a deep breath. It’s understandable that you’ve had your hands full with a teething baby and didn’t get to the laundry. It’s understandable that you’ve been dealing with so many crises at work and you’ve let some day to day operations slide. It’s understandable that your mental illness makes getting up in the morning extremely difficult.
This simple phrase helps us take a step back from trying to fix our own or other’s problems, and instead enters us into the person’s experience, finding a way to sympathize with the greater stress in their life. The phrase is loving instead of judgmental.
A fancier word for this idea is validation. Validation is defined as, “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile”. At our core as humans, isn’t this what we all want? Before you find practical ways to fix someone’s stress, validate their experience. Before you berate yourself, validate that you feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Please note that it is important to recognize that validating something does not equate to approval. You can validate someone’s fear of their abuser or frustration at racial injustice, for example, and still take actions to change the situation itself. You can also validate the darkness of experiencing mental illness, while also encouraging someone to see a clinician. Once we feel accepted, loved, and understood, it becomes much easier to actually tackle the practical issues that are so overwhelming.
After years of “sucking it up” as children and young adults, validation is one of the hardest skills to master in our society, yet it is also one of the most critical. Learning to validate yourself is an important step in wellness, self-care, and recovery from mental illness. Learning to validate others enables them to actually feel the love and compassion you already have for them.
Which do you need to work on this week?
The next time you or someone else gets emotional and you open your mouth to respond, stop yourself. Take a deep breath. Try to see the bigger picture and start your next sentence with “It’s understandable”. Just don’t forget the crucial piece: the British accent!