The Origins of Feeling Overwhelmed

An unresolved negative emotion can produce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

One sufferer described the misery of feeling overwhelmed this way: “Has anyone seen my brain? It ran off this morning flailing and screaming about being overwhelmed. I’d really like it back.”

As the comment suggests, the feeling of being overwhelmed can be agonizing. Paradoxically, though, the feeling is sometimes delightfully associated with love or with wonder, as when astronomer Carl Sagan contemplated “the overwhelming immensity” of the sky. For this post, however, I’m writing about the feeling as a disagreeable, painful experience. We can ease this form of suffering when we expose the source of the feeling in our psyche.

The feeling is widespread in modern life. Another person described a common rendering of the experience: “I constantly feel overwhelmed—busy, busy, busy! I ask myself, ‘How can I possibly get this all done?’ I’m living on the edge of chaos, and I tell myself, ‘This is crazy, insane!’ I go to bed, get up in the morning, and it starts all over again.” He later admitted, “Every day I load myself up with too many tasks and too much work, so I know I contribute to the problem.”

Feeling overwhelmed can sometimes be a normal reaction to very difficult circumstances, as in the plight of some single parents or the predicament of underemployed people struggling to pay bills. Still, our psychological issues can make challenging circumstances more difficult and painful than they have to be.

People often feel overwhelmed as they try to tackle the straightforward challenges of everyday life. While some of us go with the flow, others get caught in the undertow. Why do some of us feel overwhelmed on a daily basis by work, sadness, fear, children, choices, finances, or the obligations of a busy life? Often times, too, we feel overwhelmed by things we can’t influence, for instance when we start worrying about dire possibilities that are unlikely to occur.

It usually feels to us that difficult circumstances are causing us to feel overwhelmed. We believe we’re bogged down by our complicated, demanding life, suffocating in endless demands and obligations. In most cases, this impression is an illusion. While we may indeed be feeling bogged down, we’re unwittingly contributing to that impression. It’s not the outside world or demanding circumstances that are solely responsible for producing the unpleasantness. Rather, an unresolved negative emotion inside of us is producing much of the suffering. Unconsciously, we’re willing to relive an unresolved negative emotion that’s associated with feeling helpless, weak, and even defeated.

This is a counter-intuitive idea that we’re usually not eager to consider. The implication is that something weird and wacky is going on inside of us that we don’t know about—and this idea is offensive to our self-image. We usually want to believe that suffering is being imposed upon us from outside. It’s too offensive to our ego to absorb the fact that we’re making unconscious choices to experience this suffering.

It helps us in understanding this concept when we see that the feeling of being overwhelmed actually serves as a psychological defense. As a defense, the feeling covers up our unconscious determination to go on experiencing oneself as weak and helpless. Helplessness is an old, familiar feeling that goes back into our childhood, and we can be tempted to replay and recycle the feeling. The unconscious defense goes like this: “I’m not attached to (or willing to recycle and replay) that old feeling of being helpless and at the mercy of circumstances. Look at how I hate feeling overwhelmed. I want to get things done! I want to be on top of things! Look at how much I suffer by feeling overwhelmed. That proves I don’t want to feel helpless!”

The defense, however, only proves how convincingly we can deceive ourselves.

When feeling overwhelmed, we usually react by being frantically busy, by procrastinating, or by doing things clumsily or inefficiently. Let’s briefly look at the problem from the perspective of procrastination. When a person is experiencing the paralysis of procrastination, he or she is suffering the pain and consequences of inner conflict. This pain is the product of helplessness, apathy, psychological paralysis, and a disconnection from one’s intelligence, self, and will. I tell my clients that they’re entangled in a primary conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity. On the passive side, the conflict consists of their conscious (sometimes desperate) wish to feel inner strength versus their unconscious determination to continue to experience themselves through unresolved feelings associated with helplessness.

In my experience, when an inner conflict is clearly exposed, the individual’s intelligence and determination to flourish engage in a somewhat mysterious healing and learning process that begins to resolve the conflict.

Feeling overwhelmed is a primary emotional symptom of inner passivity, while procrastination is a primary behavioral symptom. I’m attempt at this website to reveal the existence and nature of inner passivity, along with its many self-defeating aspects. Inner passivity can be seen in areas as diverse as addictions (“The Astonishing Basis of Our Addictions”), in the complexity of global systems (“Our Global Strategy for Self-Defeat”), in terrorism (“Terrorism and the Death Drive”), in panic attacks (Panic Attacks Arise from Within Our Psyche”), and in clinical depression (“The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression”). In this post, I’m showing the role that inner passivity (metaphorically, a “helplessness trap” in our psyche) plays in the feeling of being overwhelmed. (Read also, “The Helplessness Trap in Cravings & Addictions.”)

When psychological experts discuss the misery of feeling overwhelmed, they overlook its roots in our psyche. The superficial behavioral advice offered at About.com is typical of what mainstream psychology contributes to the resolution of this suffering. This failure to get to the heart of procrastination and other forms of suffering and self-defeat follows the example of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatry, which discusses only the symptoms, not the origins, of mental-health dysfunction. Yet when we understand the origins, we’re greatly empowered to heal our conflicts and to practice self-regulation.

As an example of inner passivity in action, a person who frequently complains about being too busy, or who constantly reiterates, “I’m so busy, I’m so busy,” is in that moment feeling more acutely the sense of being overwhelmed. With this behavior, this person is likely unconsciously accentuating or intensifying that painful feeling. It’s as if he or she is at a banquet stuffing down the greasiest, fattiest food. This is what, to some degree, we all do with inner passivity—we go looking for the feeling of it, and then we stuff ourselves with it, no matter how unpleasant that is for us in the moment. Feeling overwhelmed is just one of many symptoms.

Feeling overwhelmed can be produced through the common tendency to churn up mental speculations and considerations that are difficult if not impossible to resolve or to answer. This is the mental equivalent of “spinning our wheels.” This futile, out-of-control thinking gets us nowhere, but it does accentuate the feeling of being overwhelmed by life’s many choices or by the complexities of life. In other words, people sometimes think in this frantic manner for the unconscious purpose of intensifying the feeling of inner passivity and, hence, the feeling of being overwhelmed. This happens because we are compelled to recycle and replay whatever is unresolved in our psyche. Inner passivity is an unresolved negative emotion that we’ll continue to experience in ways that are self-defeating unless or until we make the process conscious.