Mindful Leadership

Mindful Response to Overwhelm

In the spring of 2012 I had my busiest career stretch in recent memory.

I was two months overdue on the manuscript for Who Says It’s a Man’s World.

I was working on a series of six webinars for my largest client – which meant 90 pages of additional copy and 200 (yes, 200) PowerPoint slides.

I was booked to speak at a national conference I’d basically groveled on my knees to get.

All happening at the same time and, of course, no ball could drop.

It was the kind of stress so deeply-rooted, it actually created physical symptoms.

My chest was tight.

My face broke out like a teenager.

Sleeping was tough.

This is what happens when we get in a major crunch, right?

We panic. We cram. We become very intense versions of ourselves.

And while I’m not in any hurry to jump back into that particular hurricane, there was something different about being at the center of the storm this time.

Thanks to my mindfulness practice, I was able to experience the pressure – both mentally and physically – without getting lost or swept up in it. 

In other words, no crying jags.

No lashing out.

No eating my feelings.

I just took each moment as it came, accepting that, as long as I was doing my best right then, it was enough.

It would have to be enough, in fact, because it was all I could do.

And to get through the times where I could feel myself sliding into fear – fear of failing, fear of underdelivering, fear of losing the opportunities altogether – I would consciously, intentionally come back to three things:

There’s a difference between “thinking” and “thoughting.” Thinking is accepting the facts of where you are and creating a logical path forward. In other words, it’s strategicThoughting, on the other hand, is emotional. It’s the time you waste picturing yourself publicly dive-bombing, wishing things were different, and focusing on the stress rather than the work. The only difference between thinking and thoughting is where you choose to direct your attention. One helps you cross the finish line. The other keeps you stuck.

Crying doesn’t help. I can cry watching reality shows, military reunions, even Folgers commercials. So when I became a student of mindfulness, I wanted to learn what specifically made me cry in career situations where tears would cause more long-term damage. And by carefully witnessing what was going through my mind before welling up, I unlocked a pattern: I always cried in reaction to feeling victimized.

Light bulb.

So, for example, when I was feeling the weight of numerous deadlines, the story I’d tell myself was “I’m working so hard but I still can’t get it all done.”

Poor, poor me.

When I was angry, the story became “why did I commit to doing all of this anyway?” 

Poor, poor me.

Once I (finally) recognized the victim mentality as the source of my waterworks, I was able to shift the story to something more empowering – and thus save myself the humiliation of breaking down in front of others.

Don’t run. At my lowest point – I almost set a fake “vacation with no access to email” autoresponder so I could avoid my inbox. Then I remembered the more you try to push stress away, the more it comes back stronger. With appropriate thanks to my teacher Gil Fronsdal, I learned the best way to combat this kind of thoughting is to actually feel what’s going on…allow it…and then release it.

So, for example, whenever my mind would spin into, “You’ll never have enough time to…” I would respond calmly and without judgment, “thoughting.” Sometimes I’d close my eyes and just repeat “thoughting” and sometimes I’d actually say it out loud. This process allowed me to catch myself –and course correct – before I got too far down the victim-y road.

Almost two years later, this is still my process for managing overwhelm.

Think without thoughting.

Feel without crying.

Deal without running.

It’s still all I can do.

And it’s still enough.