Overwhelmed without a Cause

My 61-year old, obese, diabetic, cancer-ridden, often miserable (as a personality trait, not due specifically to the illness), hot-tempered father is not the first person one might go to for advice, but he always has some to give nonetheless. Our phone conversations — only triggered by my calling for mindless chit-chat with my mother and her not being home — follow the same exact plot:

  • How is your job going? Are you wealthy yet (semi joke)?
  • How’s your man doing? Does he have a stable career yet?
  • You know, you’re getting older. Life flies by. Don’t waste it. Do you have a plan? You need a plan. I don’t think you know what you’re doing. You’re going to regret it not having a plan, your life will fly by.

At 30, there’s a physical change happening within, or maybe it’s imagined, but it’s a feeling as if my entire body is running a thousand steps ahead of me and there’s no way I can catch up. The child I once was is clearly many years deceased. I look at my hands, garnering wrinkles at the knuckle by the day, skin thinning over blue blood lines, and see my mother’s hands, not my hands. I look down and see a body that is no longer my body.

Inside, I am an adult now, there’s no question about it. But I still think much like I did as a child, only now I’m free to do what I want, and have given up on most of my dreams. That is likely what being an adult is – for even if you achieve your dreams you realize dreams are just hard work in disguise, or too boring to revel in for long.

I’m a terrible manager of time, priorities, and deliverables. I put so much pressure on myself to be able to be everything when ultimately I’m underperforming and failing to meet expectations. There may be one or two projects where suddenly my potential is put on display for the world to see, and these often trick enough people into allowing me to proceed on my anxiety-ridden way, always knowing that I’m not enough, but not even knowing what “enough” is.

Brigid Schule, super-mom, journalist & author, inspirer, felt overwhelmed too. She was clearly much more productive then I’ve ever been, but nonetheless, she wasn’t happy. She decided her mission in life was to help others determine how to better prioritize their time, to segment it, so they could lead happier lives. In this viral Time article, abstracted from her book on feeling Overwhelmed, she details her own life of constantly being on, just watching it fly by while never feeling done or complete.

She attended a time-prioritization class by Terry Monaghan.

“You want to write the perfect book,” Terry said matter-of-factly. “And you think the perfect book is anything written by anyone else. Your ongoing conversation with yourself is: You’re not enough. So whatever you do will never be enough. Every human being has some flavor of ‘not enough.’ You can either be stopped by it, or simply notice it, like the weather.”

Why must we give ourselves permission to be “not good enough” and what does that even mean?

As a child, I cannot remember a day when my mother said she was finished with what she had to do, and could just enjoy the day. A stay-at-home mother, she didn’t have to go into an office or provide work for a business, yet there was always piles of laundry to do, things to put away, shopping to take care of, projects and deliverables. My father did a better job at relaxing when he was home, but he worked long hours after an hour-and-a-half commute into his New York office, so when he came home he was just exhausted and didn’t want to deal with the list of priorities for the house. Neither seemed to the ideal set up. I learned early on that it was impossible to get everything done, and one couldn’t earn relaxation without first being utterly exhausted.

If I do have a family, I desperately want to raise them in a house that doesn’t feel chaotic. That starts with getting a hold of myself and my own rabid chaos.

“So much of our overwhelm comes from unrealistic expectations,” Terry told Brigid said. “And when we don’t meet them, instead of questioning the expectations, we think that we’re doing something wrong.” Managing the overwhelm, she said, comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.”

Much of this story is about the 30/40-something woman who has a full-time, demanding job and also children and a household to manage. I’m repulsed by my own overwhelm as someone with no serious responsibilities outside of work (i.e. no one will die if I don’t feed them dinner or remember to take them out of the car.) I don’t even have any pets. Yet I still cannot keep up with life. I waste time like no one else, it’s an incredible talent I have. Yet wasting time doesn’t make me feel happy or fulfilled. It’s something I do because deep down I don’t feel like I’ll ever earn relaxation, so the only way to stop is to just revel in my overwhelm.

Working for an always-on young startup is not the ideal setup for work-life balance. In my 20s, I wanted to be everything to everybody. I wanted to write the best whitepapers and create the most brilliant website and be known as a thought leader in my space that my company could count on to go speak at events around the world to generate interest and excitement in our business. Today, at 30, I’m realize I’m not meant to be a self-promotor or thought leader. At least not in business. There are things which come naturally to us that take little energy and others we can learn that take more energy and then others that just will always drain us completely. The trick to a happy life, I believe, is finding a career and making the right life choices which enable us to spend more hours of the day doing the things that we do best naturally vs those that suck our energy out. Then, stop worrying about not being perfect about the things that suck our energy out, because no one is perfect at everything.

What I’m learning at 30, that my parents never taught me, because they didn’t know how to do it themselves, is to delegate the things I’m not that good at or that don’t matter. This starts with work, being willing to hand off projects and not be such a control freak over everything because ultimately getting stuff done is more important than being the best at everything (and that’s impossible anyway so a futile effort.) Even if you happen to launch the world’s most innovative project for your respective business, unless you’re an engineer it doesn’t really matter.

In the grande scheme of things, businesses don’t matter. They are designed to make money. To optimize efficiency. B2B is a blessing and curse, in that your not selling products to make people’s lives better, you’re selling products to make them better at their jobs (though sometimes that can be one in the same.) Marketers are cogs in the machine. It’s an important job, for sure, but it’s not life-or-death. If you don’t get an extra blog post out this week it may reduce the number of new site hits, but the business is going under because of it, and no one is going to die either way (unless you jump in front of a train because you can’t handle your own failure. I am pretty sure most people who feel so overwhelmed have at least considered this as an absolute worst-case solution.)

It’s challenging to find balance, because I’m an all-or-nothing person. An “integrator” vs a “segregator.” The type that works all hours of the day and weekend, who doesn’t turn on and turn off. And working in marketing finding balance is a further challenge because there is no “done,” there is always more one can do. In order to find some semblance of balance, satisfaction and completion one must create a quantifiable plan and stick to it. I’ll write one whitepaper this week. I’ll send out three campaigns. Et al.

The challenge is there are many other prioritizes that pop up, making it hard to get through what you’ve committed to. In the end of the week, feeling like everything is done is impossible. In fact, It’s impossible to turn off and not work through the weekend. I’m not complaining about this, I’m currently in a job and industry where this is expected, and to a large part I enjoy being always on at work because I really have nothing else going on outside in my day-to-day life. I have few friends. My boyfriend and I sit next to each other and do work. I have no kids. I have no hobbies except occasionally singing in the shower and/or my room and/or my car. I travel across the country a few times a year to visit my family at which time I’m usually working in between meals. Not necessarily being as productive as I could be, but working nonetheless.

It’s just all getting to be too much. I can handle a few more years of this, but I can’t allow work to always be my life because I don’t know what else to do, or I’m too scared to commit to anything outside of work. Because I know work doesn’t actually matter. It’s easy to commit to something that you don’t personally care about. I mean, I care about the people I work with, but again, the products I have been responsible for marketing are not solving world hunger or some great epidemic. It’s empty and meaningless and makes it much easier to ignore the fact that my life is rather empty and meaningless.

But all that would change when I have a family – wouldn’t it? If I were to have a child or multiples of said child, I’d have some sort of meaning. Or a new kind of chaos. I’d have real responsibility. And if I feel overwhelmed now, god help me when I have a family. I don’t want to just work, work, work to death and never stop to enjoy life. I just don’t know how to obtain balance. I’d like to take a figure drawing class in the evenings after work, but I feel responsible to leave my time open for professional events and projects that often require evenings and weekends to finish. I can definitely be much better at time management and productivity, but I’m not sure that would solve the fundamental problem that there is no time that I feel is mine anymore. It’s all work.

I used to think it was awful that my father couldn’t do his job from home. He’d occasionally have to go into the city on weekends because of a big project. But usually when he was home, he wasn’t working on work. That was a time before the internet and mobile phones (yes, it’s crazy to think I lived in such a time) and before being always connected, always on. Now I long for a life where I can segment work and everything else. Because ultimately it’s the everything else that matters. It’s all blurring by.

Maybe my dad is right. Maybe I do need a plan. But that plan. A plan about who I want to be, and when, and how. Despite not having a plan, I know that the person I want to be is not someone who spends her life buried in meaningless work, pushing herself into a quantifiable game where winning is rewarding only insomuch as numbers are achieved and more are required, and losing is only as painful as the jab of meaningless failure and filing for unemployment.







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2 thoughts on “Overwhelmed without a Cause”

  1. Firstly, thank you so much for this article! I am not the only 30 something with these crazy thoughts whirling in my mind. This makes me feel not alone. Thank you!

    Secondly, don’t leave until you leave. Do not worry about what you would do if you had a kid until you do. Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg for those words! So, that is one issue not to worry about too much.

    IMO, it doesn’t sound like you have the traditional ‘time management’ issues. Although, I think even people who don’t have time management issues should read time management books, because some of them are full of amazing work/life hacks. However, it seems more like a ‘you time’ boundary issue. If I were in your shoes (which I’m not, so this is just an idea), I would look at calendars from past years and take notice of patterns. When are you absolutely NEEDED for a project? When are you absolutely REQUIRED to attend a professional function? Is there a project that you WANT to work on that recurs? Then see what time outside of that is still left. That is ‘you time’. It needs guarding or it will slip to a point that work consumes it. If that time doesn’t fit a traditional art class schedule (many don’t), then I have looked for alternatives. Places like Skillshare, Udemy, Meetup, and many others are available for people with your same issues. So, you might have to use them instead. I hope that helps!

    Also, if you look at your calendars and you don’t notice a true pattern, I would develop a set of questions that help you decide when you want to put that extra time into work. Possibly start with the same questions in the first paragraph, but ultimately you really have to develop your own, because it’s your life and it should be spent following your goals and dreams. Therefore, unique questions are in order. I have been fortunate enough to be in a mostly predictable work environment, so I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of schedule. Good luck!

    Also, joining your local Levo League can put you in touch with other women your age that have the same issues and you can get their opinions too.

  2. Its not necessarily a bad thing to keep thinking like a child. There is a lot to be gained in the world by having a young mind no matter where the status of the body. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of different things go on at the moment, but remember that this is an opportunity to learn about yourself as well as the human condition. Good luck!

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