Updated: Jul 8, 2022
As we finish out a year like no other, many of us are facing some level of overwhelm. But ancient wisdom offers us a powerful way to transform our experience. One that might just give you some needed relief—or even change your life, like it did mine.
“I act like I’m keeping it together, but some days… [voice lowers to a whisper] I’m about to lose my shit.”
“My mom’s in the hospital, I can’t even see her, and I don’t know what to tell my kids when they ask, ‘When is she going to get better?’”
“My list of things that still need to get done could reach the moon. I have never ever been this overwhelmed.” These verbatim accounts from some of my clients speak to what may be the common emotional thread of 2020 for many of us: overwhelm.
Whether we’re overwhelmed from spending the better part of a year in relative captivity… or from adding 10 unpaid job titles to our resumes like Homeschool Teacher and Disinfectant Technician… or from grappling with punishing financial strain through no fault of our own… or from fearing for our loved one’s lives… or from trying to adapt to a warped world where hugs can now kill and masks are fashionable… it’s safe to say that this “train-wreck lap around the sun”[i] (as one article described the past year) has gotten to us all, in one way or another.
As someone who has spent years of her life either disabled, in chronic pain, or in the throes of anxiety (sometimes all at once), I understand overwhelm intimately. My overwhelm-meter frequently flashes red. So, for a long time, like many of us, I made the only sensible choice: fight it. That is, suppress my messy feelings and hope that they disappear like poop down a toilet—unseen and unrequiring of my assistance in their disposal.
Everyone and everything around me only encouraged my resistance, especially when overwhelm threatened to loom. I was told to “Stay strong,” “Snap out of it,” “Keep pushing,” “Hold it together,” and, whatever I did, “Don’t fall apart!”
That’s when it struck me: modern culture reveres if not worships the archetype of “The Fighter.” It’s embedded in the very fabric of our culture. From iconic figures like Muhammad Ali and Rocky Balboa to the billion-dollar superhero franchises to all the fights against cancer to the scrappy bootstrapping American ideal—we love ourselves some ass-kicking.
Curiously, however, when I finally turned to ancient wisdom for guidance, I encountered a totally different model—one that flipped this version on its head. Many sages advised that I treat overwhelm like a valued messenger, not a vilified menace. To approach it with open arms, not to take up arms. In short, they said, the key was to feel it, not fight it. Which sounded nice on a motivational cat poster, but how did it apply in real life? When you’re waist-deep in Shit Creek, the advice to “just feel the shit all over you” sounds about as useless as it does moronic.
"Many sages advised that I treat overwhelm like a valued messenger, not a vilified menace. The key was to feel it, not fight it."
Feeling the Shit
I had a pivotal encounter with this conundrum years ago, during an intense episode of leg pain. The throbbing felt so penetrating that I could hardly sleep. Even lying on my relatively plush mattress felt like sleeping on concrete. Sitting was even more brutal—my stiff, Tin Man muscles and joints forced into a fixed position.
Naturally, the pain came on just days before I was to leave town for a long-awaited spiritual retreat. Still, determined to go, I foolishly hauled my butt on a plane, bound for a modest hotel set amidst the chilly winter woods of Oregon.
The second I arrived, the colossal depth of my foolishness set in. For one, my budget lodging came with a budget mattress that made me want to weep just looking at it. As for the retreat itself, it would prove equally taxing: three long days of morning-till-night sitting. Great, this should be interesting, I grumbled to myself as I settled into a thinly padded seat that first morning, squirming within seconds.
Fittingly, the retreat focused a lot on acceptance of one’s suffering, which was helpful in theory but uncooperative in practice. And so, toward the end of the first evening—having nothing to lose and feeling a tad ornery from sitting all day with thighs that now felt like frozen meat—I worked up the courage to challenge the retreat leader: “Yeah, well, what if you’re in Level 10 suffering and you don’t know how to keep up the stamina to handle it?”
The leader’s eyes crinkled into an inscrutable expression for several seconds, before he responded almost playfully, “Hmm. Tell me, who says that you have to ‘keep up the stamina,’ as you call it?”
Thrown off my game by his questioning my question, I fumbled to express what still seemed like an obvious answer. “Well, er, naturally, I can’t give up, right? I mean, I have to keep fighting this. I have to stay strong!”
“And why is that?” he prodded guilelessly.
Without thinking, the words that tumbled out of my mouth were: “Because if I don’t, I’ll fall apart.”
That’s when the retreat leader threw me a curveball. In Sotto voce, he gently posited, “Lisa, what would it look like if you actually allowed yourself to fall apart? What if I gave you that permission right now?”
“Ummm…” I stuttered, sensing a pressure behind my eyes that threatened to break my typically watertight levy.
Until then, I’d never let myself fully speak words to the fear and sadness and anxiety that brewed inside me. What’s the point? I’d figured well-meaningly. Doing that will only make me feel worse. But he wasn’t asking me to dive into my overwhelm or wallow in it; he was simply asking me to stop fighting it. To just be with it, for that one moment.
“Well,” I began, dabbing at a few rogue tears that escaped my eyes, “I guess I’d stop trying to be strong all the time.... I’d let myself say things I’m too afraid to say, like, ‘This is really hard,’ and ‘I’m in so much pain,’ and ‘I’m so scared because no one seems to know how to help me.’.… I suppose I’d also be kinder to myself.... And, uh, I’d let myself cr—.”
With that, the levy burst. Dissolving into possibly the longest cathartic cry of my life, my icy insides turned liquid as years of suppressed emotions came rushing to the surface, coated in a sweet but strange balm I soon realized was self-compassion. For minutes, I just sat there in a room full of adults, bawling like a child, my face glazed with a stream of snot that defied all semblance of dignity–for once not caring, or perhaps too drained to care.
After I crumpled up my tenth tissue and the sobs subsided, I sat in a semi-catatonic haze through the last 10 minutes of the night. Bizarrely, something inside me felt different. Even though my outer circumstances hadn’t changed, I felt stronger. Freer. Unstuck. Somehow, quite counterintuitively, accepting my utter stuck-ness seemed to shift me out of it.
"Counterintuitively, accepting my utter stuck-ness seemed to shift me out of it."
Once the evening ended, the retreat leader threw me a subtle, knowing smile as I got up and shuffled back to my room upstairs. Straight away, I collapsed onto the godforsaken hotel mattress, now both physically and emotionally drained.
Wait a second. Where’s the…? What the...?
What happened to the pain?
Holy cow. It’s gone!
Indeed, the pain in my legs had not just subsided; it had totally disappeared.
Too instantaneous to write off as coincidental and too unexpected to write off as the placebo effect, I had to consider another mind-bending possibility: magic. Okay, well, not hocus-pocus magic, but the kind of real, metaphysical magic that can happen when we understand how energy works—something that the great wisdom traditions have taught for millennia, and that modern science is now bearing out.
In energetic terms, it goes something like this: holding in the seismic force of strong emotions consumes a tremendous amount of the body’s energy. Just imagine holding the air in your lungs for 10 years—or even 10 minutes. Obviously, you couldn’t. Your body would reflexively force you to draw in a breath. It’s only our emotions’ invisibility that allows us to ignore them so flagrantly.
But, when we stop expending all that energy trying to resist, when we hold space for the emotions to literally express themselves out of us, we free up a boatload of energy. As a result, this can generate emotional relief, if not physical renewal. And voilà: “magic.”
Now, did this "magical spell" last forever? Sadly, no. But it was an undeniable sign that I had more power over my experience than I thought. It also catalyzed a profound inner shift, which ultimately did contribute to improving my physical condition.
"It's only our emotions' invisibility that allows us to ignore them so flagrantly."
Above all, the experience showed me that falling apart didn’t break me. Rather, it allowed me to be “broken open,” to borrow author and Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser’s phraseology. Because, as Lesser explains, “The difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”[ii]
So, these days—especially with 2020 putting a new, cosmic spin on what it means to be overwhelmed—I’m grateful for that humbling lesson years ago. And, when the need arises, I'm better about giving myself permission to fall apart, knowing that I’m not Humpty Dumpty.
That I can put myself back together again.
And that I’ll be all the stronger for it.
© Lisa Berzack, 2020.
Lisa Berzack is a soul-centered coach, workshop leader and writer devoted to helping people find inner healing and live a more empowered, awakened life. She is also the author of a forthcoming self-help memoir. To read more of Lisa's work, see her upcoming events or work with her privately, visit www.PainIntoPower.com.