The Question to Ask Yourself When You’re Overwhelmed

By Julie Boyer, MFA, CPCC | Tips & Tools

(I first wrote a version of this post for Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling, a blog for women in business.  You can check it out here.)

Working when overwhelmed is like an emotional hurricaine.  If you’re like me- highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed if I’m not grounded- your mind is not your best friend in this state.  It’s extremely hard to be effective.

I know if I’m emotionally flooded, I’m better off taking an immediate self-care break to come back to center, than I am trying to press through it.

Overwhelm is a human phenomenon, and it seems to be a daily part of life (not just highly sensitives).  Do you ever notice what happens when you get into this place?  Do you find yourself more exhausted, if not exasperated and complaining like whining child?  Probably not your best self.

Here’s the thing.  Being mindful of overwhelm, staying calm, and taking responsibility for your experience are all pre-requisites to leading others.

And, if we stay on top of it, we can lead others no matter what our title, position, or context.  We have expanded capacity to create, connect, and make magic happen.  Leaders, no matter where they are, work with their surroundings to create magic.

In order to stay grounded and out of overwhelm, the most important question to ask yourself is: “In this moment, am I reacting or creating*?” 

Knowing whether you are in reaction mode or creation mode- and choosing to be in creation mode- will determine the quality of your experience and your creative capacity to lead.

What’s the difference?

Well, see what you make of this example of planning a party.

In reaction mode, planning a party looks like this:

You suddenly remember you’ve got to plan this party, and the timing’s bad.  This could be the task that puts you over the edge.  So you buckle down an jump into the process, thinking, the sooner I start the better.  You find the date, you shop for invitations, you roll your eyes at the cost, you check your phone as you realize you’re taking time away from other obligations.  You try to make the process quick, but inevitably there’s an endless stream of emails and phone calls to work out the details of coordinating caterer, event site, and music.  Some days you work through lunch to catch up.  Or you forget to eat.  When the event comes, you put on a dress, and a smile, and you get through it.  You may succeed, and your guests may leave impressed, but the ultimate impact on you is… exhaustion.  And maybe even a little resentment.  But hey, you survived.

(Notice how it feels just to read this scenario!)

Creation mode is like a parallel universe governed by a completely different set of laws.  In creation mode…

           When you remember you have to plan this party, you sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start to dream up ideas of what you want, and take notes.  Your first task is deciding what you want to create.  You take the timing of this into consideration:  one key outcome you want is limited stress put on you.  You dream of an easy party to put on that makes everyone feel great.  You realize you could use a mood boost, since it was a long winter, so you want the feel of the party to be bright, light, and gregarious.  

           Since you know it will be more fun- and easier- to do this with others, you immediately call a creative friend to help brainstorm.  You and she talk, and the two of you laugh as you consider some pretty outrageous ideas.  You settle on a couple components that will create joy:  salsa dancing, and a dance instructor to lead some fun exercises.  It’s a bit out of the box, but you go with it.  You can’t help but talk about your fun idea over lunch with colleagues, and they naturally offer some resources.  You take everyone up on every offer, knowing that the more help you’ll have, the less stress there will be on you.  

           Suddenly, you’ve got the music booked, the venue reserved, and already a good portion of your guests are getting ready to ham it up come party-time.  You have a team of co-creators making this event a hit, and your’e feeling really fulfilled by how fun the process is…  

           And the outcome of the party?  Just the emotional uplift you needed, and a bright, light, gregarious mood for your guests.  


See the difference?

In reaction mode, we don’t see our freedom to choose.

We’ve actually convinced ourselves we have no control over the situation (or our response to it) but most likely we do.  At any given moment, our actions shape what happens next.  And how we choose that next action matters.  A whole lot.

In reaction mode, circumstances outside of us run us.  We may want to wait until we’re caught up to address or personal needs, but we will never catch up.

In creation mode, choice is front and center.

We realize that the way we approach what we need to do is up to us.  In this mode, we stop to reflect early in the process- and frequently along the way- asking “what do I want to happen?” or “what’s the best possible outcome?”  and “what actions of mine would lead to what I want?”

In creation mode we stop to address tough decisions to commit to our priority, which is what we most desire.  This creates decisive action.

Actually, in creation mode, we assume that anything we choose is possible.  We accept that it is our job to creatively explore how it is possible.

How do I know if I’m in reaction mode or creation mode?

You’ll know you’re in reaction mode if:

-Your primary motivation is stress.

-You don’t feel in charge of your time or energy.

-You’re overwhelmed, maybe even resentful.

-Your brain sees things in black and white (“he’s always ___.”  “I’ll never ___.”).

-You’re reactive in conversations.

-You feel like a victim of circumstance.

-You’re unaware of your resources.

-All you want is your control back.


Here are signs that you’re in creation mode:


-You’re enjoying yourself.

-You’re calm in the midst of chaos.

-You’re aware of your resources.

-You’re focused on possibilities.

-You’re drawing boundaries and saying.

-You’re spending time in important conversations, to nurture the outcome you want.

-You anticipate a positive outcome.


It is so easy to slip into reaction mode in everything we do.  But notice the difference between when you’ve already sold yourself out to something you don’t want, and when you’re focused and acting on creating something you do want.

Don’t settle for a reality you don’t want.  Don’t let anyone else define your limits.  Set your eyes on creating something you do want, and take time consider what you can do to make it happen.

It doesn’t matter what position we’re in at work, or if anyone else sees us as a leader.  We could be at the check-out line at the supermarket and be a leader, by creating the impact we want.  We could be an intern focused on creating a positive experience for everyone inside the office walls.  Or we could be CEO, deciding it’s time for our company culture to explode with innovation.

Whatever it is, we use creation mode to make it happen.

What can I do to get into creation mode if I’m in reaction mode?

It’s most important to choose creation mode when we’re tempted to react.  That’s when choosing to switch perspectives will make the biggest impact.  It’s your biggest opportunity to take charge, your moment to lead.

When that happens, do this:


1.  Stop.  


2.  Take 5-10 breaths exhaling longer than you inhale (this tricks your brain into thinking you’re safe, and will help you access more resources).  


3.  Switch your mindset into focusing on what you want to happen.  Dream about it for a moment.


4.  Let yourself feel desire, or joy, if it surfaces, and be honest about what you want.  Then ask yourself:  “What’s a creative way to make this possible?”


5.  Ask, “What’s the next step I can take to create what I want?”


6.  Start there.


Try this out right away.  Apply it to a situation that’s currently nagging you.  Then leave a comment- tell us what you notice when you change perspectives.  Share your insights!


*Bob Anderson, Founder and CEO of The Leadership Circle, first wrote about reacting vs. creating in his white paper “Mastering Leadership”.  Click here to read.

About the Author

I help people who are stuck in the wrong job find their true purpose and make a life from it, so they can finally enjoy satisfaction and success. I believe every outlier has a purpose, and it's not to fit in- it's to elevate the status quo. I discuss things like: the truth about how change really happens, common traps we create for ourselves (and how to eliminate them), how to own your emotions and leverage them as a leadership tools, and stories of regular people leading from their hearts and experiencing success.