As a leader and entrepreneur, there are always lots of things going on. At times the never-ending to-do list or approaching deadlines can become overwhelming. If you have ADHD, you also might have the frequent experience of having two thoughts simultaneously, leaving you going to the left and the right, unclear of what to do next, resulting in suspended action, overwhelmed and yet temporarily unable to take any action. Managing overwhelm is a learned skill that is important to your resilience.
How we experience the events in our lives is directly influenced by our thoughts about the events around us. Acknowledging we can’t control everything can be liberating. Like the number of hours we get in a day. We all get 24 hours; that’s it. Focusing on what we can control is how we turn the dial up on what inspires us, sustains us and brings us joy.
Our brains are designed to think. Sometimes we have thoughts. Sometimes thoughts have us. And sometimes thoughts are just passing through. When those thoughts are negative, we have one experience; when those are positive, we have a completely different experience. Our experiences are uniquely our own as the outer world need not change for two people to have two completely different experiences. Our thoughts are powerful, impacting the perceptions we have.
When thoughts are untrue, unhelpful, and unkind-they alter the course of our lives. Some of these thoughts become repetitive. A repetitive thought can turn into a self-limiting belief. Self-limiting beliefs are thoughts you have that get in the way of what you want. Self-limiting beliefs will talk you out of your greatness, decrease the quality of your presence, and whittle down your resilience over time.
When you reflect on your life, how many opportunities have you talked yourself out of? You might have had good reasons for why you didn’t start working on a goal you had. However, if the reason why you didn’t take action was that you wanted to be considerate of someone else’s time or because you didn’t know how to (i.e. write a book, run your own business) or hadn’t ever done it before (i.e. run a 700-bed hospital), then consider yourself normal. You are not alone.
Think of what happens when you are watching a movie, and the music suddenly changes. Instead of listening to Debussy’s Clair De Lune, you find yourself listening to long sustained violin notes and your stomach starts to get queasy. You know something bad is about to happen. This is a similar experience to what happens in our brains. Our thoughts are like the background music in a movie. Our thoughts change how we feel, which often directly impacts our actions.
You have an idea for a book. Your next thought is, “someone has already written that,”; and so, you don’t write. You want to call an acquaintance, but when you reach for the phone, you think, “they are probably busy,”; and so, you don’t call. You look at your to-do list and think, “I’m never going to get this all done today,”; and so you become overwhelmed, unable to decide what to do first. A self-limiting belief stops you from taking action.
How does one stop these thoughts? You don’t. You can’t. Your brain is designed to think. Our goal cannot be to stop thoughts. Our goal must be to notice our thoughts and then to choose what to focus our attention on next. There are a few mistakes we make when thinking our thoughts. Here are three that are common:
First, we believe every thought we have is true. Our thoughts are not universal truths. Our thoughts are unique to the experiences we have had in our lives. Instead, being curious about a thought, “Ah, this is interesting. I believe I must complete everything I have written on my to-do list today. Yes, the to-do list I have had for six months. How interesting?”
Being curious allows us to have a light touch with our thoughts instead of latching onto them. When we stop believing our thoughts as being a source of absolute truth and start to become curious about them, we turn the dial up on the peace, calmness, resilience, and connection we experience.
Another mistake, we don’t intentionally choose whether or not to “feed” a thought. Choosing whether to feed a thought is one of our greatest human freedoms. Feeding a thought happens when you allow yourself to continue thinking negative thoughts, perhaps even adding additional thoughts to support the initial negative thought. “Our story” about the event or situation comes out of this stream of negative thoughts. The story can then be so powerful it becomes a belief.
Here’s an example of feeding a thought: “I must get all of this done. I am not going to be able to get this done. I wish my husband hadn’t made plans for us tonight. He never listens to me. I told him I was busy and needed to work more. He never listens. I can’t believe he is so insensitive when I have so much to do”.
Here’s an example of not feeding a thought: “I must get all this done…” Like watching a car drive by, just let the thought move on through, gently redirecting your attention nonjudgmentally to what you are actually doing. Intentionally taking some slow deep breaths helps with allowing thoughts to pass on by.
Lastly, we don’t challenge and replace negative thoughts. Here’s an example of challenging and replacing a thought: “I must get all this done. Okay, pause. That thought is not true. That thought is not kind. That thought is not helpful. Let’s reset. I get to choose one thing I am going to work on next. I will work on this for one hour and then go out to dinner with my husband”. Taking responsibility for the stories we create about the world around us allows us to move out of a victim mentality. It shifts us into being proactive about our experiences in the world.
Managing overwhelm starts with noticing how you are feeling and what thoughts you are having. Once we can notice how our thoughts impact us, we can then choose where we want to bring our focus of attention. If our thoughts are not true, kind, and helpful, we can then shift our focus of awareness to a different thought or the activity at hand or even to our breath, noticing the inhalation and the exhalation of each thought.
The gift of noticing how we are feeling and stepping back to assess our thoughts is how the process creates a pause. This pause is long enough for you to decide what to do next. If, after feeling overwhelmed, you pause to notice your thoughts, assess, and find you are truly overwhelmed, you have a choice. You can continue to be stuck in your story, not taking any action and allowing your thoughts to spin, or you can take action and ask for help.
By taking action, like asking for help, you are proactively creating a different experience for yourself. This is what shifting from a victim mindset to a proactive mindset can look like when one becomes skilled at noticing how their thoughts are impacting their perception, feelings, and actions. This practice of noticing yourself, the thoughts, feelings and actions you are having is a mindfulness practice. You can learn and practice this skill by attending a mindfulness course, like a mindfulness-based stress reduction course.
Life may not have an on or off switch, like a light switch. We may be unable to switch our thoughts off and never feel overwhelmed again. However, we can turn the dial down on the intensity of our experiences by being aware. We can also turn the dial up on the experiences when we don’t want to miss a moment. Noticing how we are feeling. Noticing what thoughts we are having. Challenging those thoughts to see if they are true, kind, and helpful. And then, focusing on what we can control refocuses our efforts and releases us from feeling overly responsible for others and outcomes we have no control over. It allows us to conserve our energy for those areas of life where we do have control, like our attitude and mindset.