Questions for When You Feel Overwhelmed

2012 | Apr 17 in Home Page News , Management

By Judith Lerner, Business Coach

“I was walking along the beach the other day, when out of nowhere I was swooped up and sucked out to sea by a huge sleeper wave.  Caught in the swirl, I found myself powerless in the face of the extraordinarily strong undertow…”

When business owners talk about overwhelm, it often sounds like they’re describing this sleeper wave.  

Arriving and engulfing them unexpectedly, it overpowers them.  Unable to do anything about it, they find themselves incapacitated – victims of their experience.

Part of what makes overwhelm so overwhelming is that you usually don’t see it coming; and before you realize what’s happening, you’re in the midst of it.

To eliminate overwhelm from your role as an owner, you first need to understand what it is, how it happens, and then ask yourself five very important questions.   

Defining Overwhelm

As a verb, overwhelm describes an action that is taking place.  
You can overwhelm someone by providing them with a huge or excessive amount of something.

The problem is that while we relate to overwhelm as a verb (something that is being done to us), we tend to use the word as a noun – defining ourselves and the state we are in. “I am in overwhelm.”

Think about how you use the word. Who do you usually tell that you are overwhelmed, and under what circumstances?

The Hidden Benefits of Overwhelm

When clients use the “O” word, I know the conversation is about to get rich. There are a number of questions I might ask:

  • What is your first clue that you are overwhelmed?  
  • What do you usually do when you are overwhelmed? In other words, how do you respond to being overwhelmed? 
  • How did you get here? 
  • Do you notice anything, a pattern perhaps, that precedes the experience of overwhelm?
  • What are you not doing that is putting you in overwhelm?

The big question, however, is “What do you get out of being overwhelmed?”  In other words, “Do you benefit in any way from being overwhelmed?”

Overwhelm as an Alibi

On a recent call I was talking with three partners.  I asked one partner, Jordon, to take the “hot seat.”

I asked Jordon how he benefited from being overwhelmed.

His initial response had an odd ring to it. “I get to push myself harder,” he said.  

It was a stretch for him to find something positive he could point to.

“That may be,” I said, “but in what ways do you benefit from telling others that you’re overwhelmed?”

Jordon couldn’t see anything that he would call a benefit.

So I asked the others how they responded when Jordon told them he was overwhelmed.

Jordon was surprised to hear the answers.

His partners felt they couldn’t hold him accountable for not doing what he said he was going to do.  Even though they might be facing important business deadlines, they didn’t want to add more pressure to his life, so they let things slide.

As surprised as Jordon was to hear it, it was a revelation for his partners, Mathew and Patricia, too.

Recognizing and naming what they did was eye opening for all three of them.  Being longtime friends as well as business partners, they immediately saw that they all interacted with each other in the same way.

“Exactly!  And,” I added “you are not alone in this.  Identifying ourselves as overwhelmed provides us with an alibi. It is a form of exchange we use with each other.  I won’t call you on yours, if you won’t call me on mine.”

To self-identify as “overwhelmed” is to claim a personality trait that grants us, in a manner of speaking, a “get out of doing it” pass.  

We get to avoid taking personal responsibility for the choices we make and how we spend our time. And we miss the opportunity to ask a most intriguing question:  Who or what has overwhelmed us?  

This line of questioning becomes even more powerful when we step out of victimhood and become curious about what we may have done to get ourselves into that riptide of overwhelm.  

This is one of the most effective ways to work our way out of it.  

Get Over the Whelm by Taking the Helm

At E-Myth we say there is power in knowing that we always choose.

Overwhelm can come when you suddenly realize that you have more things to do than the time you have available.  

You set yourself up by saying “yes” without referring to your schedules and identifying specific times in which to take actions in order to fill the request.

As those “yeses” pile up, the overwhelm builds up off-shore and inevitably comes crashing in.

If you find yourself looking at a list of things to do and they all feel like they “should have” been done days ago….this is overwhelm.

Insert a pause here, take a breath, and ask yourself “What exactly is the experience I am having?”

Get Out of the Current

From here, you can ask any of the other questions mentioned earlier. Often one of the reactions to overwhelm is freezing. If this is true for you try starting with the question: "What am I not doing that is keeping me in overwhelm?"

Notice whatever comes to mind first…take that small step and get into action. This will get you moving again.

And incidentally, the rangers at the beach advise much the same thing if you find yourself caught in one of those sleeper waves. “Stop struggling,” they say, “and don’t try to swim against it or back to shore.  You’ll exhaust yourself and drown.  Relax and swim along the side of the wave, parallel to the shoreline, until you’re out of the current.”


  1. .Brian C. says:

    Great Stuff!!!

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 7:07 AM

  2. .Dana V. says:

    wow!  i never thought of it that way

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 7:37 AM

  3. .Harlan G. says:

    love it

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 10:34 AM

  4. .Timothy H. says:

    Good, simple, straight forward. Nice info for everyday life as well.


    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 12:39 PM

  5. .Becky S. says:


    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 12:42 PM

  6. .Tim G. says:

    ...or you could just stop, get focussed and reorganise yourself.

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 3:51 PM

  7. .Kirstin L. says:

    Wow, felt like this one was written specially for me! Guess I am not alone:) The image of relaxing into the current works well for me. When I am overwhelmed, I get into flight or flight mode, so by definition am not thinking well. 

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 4:51 PM

  8. .Nola W. says:

    Hi, I really love seeing words within words and I especially enjoyed seeing the helm in overwhelm. I have never considered that before. I definitely know that I get a payoff of saying I am overwhelmed. I think because many of us experience that we do get let off the hook, not only by others but ourselves as well.

    When I feel that way I can get quite stressed and jump around from one thing to another or worse start procrastinating. Lately I have started to just try and bring myself to action by picking one small thing and working on that. It seems to calm me down and get me back on track. I can get really frozen when I feel there is too much to contend with at once, so just picking something I can do in 5 minutes or less helps me break that.

    Submitted Apr 18, 2012 7:41 PM

  9. .Allan S. says:

    Thanks for a great article. Tomorrow I go to the Dr. to see if I have the "big C". Your advice is good for life, not just business! One of those sleeper waves may be in the offing, but it is good to know there are actions that we can take, even when that happens.

    Submitted Apr 19, 2012 12:28 AM

  10. .Esther T. says:

    Wow.  Just needed to hear that.  Been in overwhelm in my head for the last 2 days.  Just want  to drop everything so someone else has to do it.  Question when asked "What are you not doing that is putting you in overwhelm? Answer - Not delegating some things and not asking for help on others.  I Am no good to anyone when in the overwhelm state, so it is ok to ask for help before that happens.  Good lesson for myself.  

    Fantastic work.  Thankyou.

    Submitted Apr 19, 2012 4:12 AM

  11. .Howard T. says:

    A wonderful piece which I will dwell on.

    Thank you.

    Submitted Apr 19, 2012 5:02 AM

  12. .Eric B. says:

    I seem to overwhelm regularly but without conscious warning. This week, in the midst of overwhelm, I decided to take the time to attend an industry conference I was invited to. I realized late in the day that I had relaxed and taken a step into a more controlled state, in spite of the fact that I still wasn't getting all the 'whelm' stuff done. The conference took me out of the churning waters and on to a cruise that not only relaxed me, but inspired and educated me professionally to boot! It wasn't really a day off, but kind of like one. I may go again today.

    Submitted Apr 19, 2012 5:32 AM

  13. .Judith Lerner says:

    I am thrilled that this topic (a personal favorite of mine) moved all of you to respond.  Kristin, you mentioned  flight or fight mode and Nola you talked about getting stressed and jumping from one thing to another. You could say that those are both reactions driven by adrenalin, which (in a manner of speaking) is not the "drug of choice” for clear thinking. I think the key here is to recognize the "feeling" as an alert.  In practicing the insertion of a pause, it becomes possible to bring a level of curiosity into play. Rather than reacting frantically in the attempt to alleviate the discomfort of the feeling (in this case Overwhelm) we can  "turn around," investigate, and choose.

    And speaking of the "pause", Alan, my thoughts are with you as you head for that Dr.'s appointment.  I had a "big C" adventure in 2010.  The experience of "The Reality of My Mortality" brought a level of aliveness to a number of "concepts."  Control, what's important, and the power and effect of our choices can take on very different flavors and colors in the "pause" that facing and dealing with a diagnoses brings to "life as usual."

    Submitted Apr 19, 2012 1:01 PM

  14. .Jesse H. says:

    Judith, I appreciate your words and perspective; they echo so many disciplines and theories, succinctly and eloquently.  Taking responsibility and choosing differently for myself in any given moment has been a large part of my personal and business growth.  Rechoosing, refocusing, lightening up and moving forward consciously brings ease for me in any situation. 

    Submitted Apr 23, 2012 4:09 PM

  15. .Judith Lerner says:

    Thank you Jesse.  One of the things I appreciate about E-Myth Mastery is the universality of the fundamentals and basic approach.  As stated among the core principles of the E-Myth Point of View,  "It's about Life."  And the secret (perhaps) about being a "Master" as evidenced, for example, by a Karate Master, is that one doesn't arrive, sit back and bask......one continually practices. Here's to the ride, and sharing tips for the journey!

    Submitted Apr 24, 2012 7:51 AM

  16. .Jean-Eric P. says:

    Great article! I can relate for myself and see some of my employees skillfully practicing the above "alibies" within my company. Well written, thank you!

    Submitted Apr 24, 2012 3:55 PM

  17. .Cherie M. says:

    Oh Judith, I see myself all over it! I shared this on my Facebook page! Thanks for nailing this not only here but in our meetings each time...oops, now time to get back to my Key Strategic Indicators work! You are the best coach!

    Submitted Apr 25, 2012 8:03 AM

  18. .Laura M. says:

    Awesome article!  I can relate to it completely!  You are a keeper!

    Submitted May 1, 2012 1:22 PM

  19. .Craig S. says:

    Thanks for the great article and especially for those great questions! What i love about these types of questions is that they interrupt the state were in, in this case "overwhelm" and has us see what we are "actually up to" as a result of what we are saying to ourselves regarding our current circumstances.

    I am committed to continually developing mastery "catching that disempowering thinking" in the act of it's derailing and or excusing my self from my intentions and what i am actually committed to.

    Submitted May 8, 2012 8:38 AM

  20. .Judith Lerner says:

    Thanks for your comment Craig (and others).

    It is amazing, and often humbling, what we can discover about ourselves when we take the opportunity to hold up a mirror that allows us to "see what's going on behind the curtain" so to speak.   When taken to heart, E-Myth Mastery offers that kind of opportunity. 

    Submitted May 9, 2012 12:07 PM

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