Dear Lauren,

I have school responsibilities, helping at home responsibilities, friends who need me, and extracurricular commitments. Sometimes (okay, OFTEN) I feel overwhelmed. There’s just too much to do in a day! I need help. Thank you.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

Even though you sent me this question a long time ago, I’m choosing your question to answer now because I’ve just been through (am still going through) an overwhelming time of my own. How I’ve handled or mishandled the overwhelm can probably help you.

First of all, I think relief from feelings of being overwhelmed begins with certain, rock-solid knowledge that we all are only human, and we don’t actually “HAVE” to get everything done. “It is not upon you to finish the work…and you can’t completely neglect the work either.” Ethics of Our Fathers rocks! That’s what I call “balance.” You don’t have to get it all done; you just do what you can and what you should.

I understand that for someone like you, that little word in my last sentence pushes your overwhelm button. You know which word I mean: “SHOULD.” It seems to me, from your question, that you feel you “should” be superwoman (or superman). But we are all just humans. Just regular heroes, not superheroes. There’s only so much we can do in a day, and we can’t do more. And that’s okay.

I learned this lesson most powerfully when my husband was sick. I’ve told all of you about our encounter with cancer. One of the lessons I learned from cancer’s visit with our family is: “If you don’t get it done, the world will not end.” I was staying with my husband in the hospital instead of paying our bills on time. I was spending time with our (pretty traumatized) kids instead of cleaning the kitchen. And the world did not end.

Yes, it’s important not to waste money on extra fees, and to pay bills on time. Yes, it’s important not to be slovenly and to clean our abodes regularly. BUT what I learned from our cancer era was that if you don’t pay your bills exactly on time because you’re doing something more important, you’ve achieved balance. I learned to let go of the “shoulds” to a great degree. And it is so liberating.

You have to first love yourself before you can love others.

I would suggest that you examine your relationship with the phrase you wrote: “friends who NEED me.” Don’t get me wrong: it’s lovely and admirable and Jewishly correct to help friends in need. But it’s important to realize that you have needs too, and your helping your friends has to be balanced with your helping yourself. It says, “You should love your neighbor as you love yourself.” What that means is that you have to first love yourself before you can love others.

Knowing how to take care of yourself—i.e. knowing how to say “no,” knowing how to say, “It is not upon me to finish this work”—is the prerequisite for taking care of your friends. If you overwhelm the tool, the tool can’t work to fix others.

So…speaking of being overwhelmed, here’s my present overwhelmed story: we just moved into a new house. As I write this, I am surrounded by boxes. (Don’t tell anybody, but I’m going to wear the same clothes tomorrow that I wore today, because I can’t find a complete outfit yet.) We also moved in to a house that is not finished. FUN! So we can’t use our bathroom, and there are pieces of floor missing, and the whole front of the house has scaffolding and lovely Russian workers who hang on the scaffolding and do their work all day.

When I get really overwhelmed these days with putting all of our earthly possessions into boxes, taping the boxes shut, and labeling where it is to go in the new house, I re-focus myself. I re-focus on the incredible moments of grace that happen all the time. Noticing those moments can give you great joy and a sense of calm.

My best moment of grace today was when I went back to our old house to check if there were ANY items left there by the movers. IF?! Was I shocked when I found MANY, MANY, MANY items left by the movers! I spent five hours packing up all the items left there by the movers!

And because we had just moved, I hadn’t even had a drink or anything to eat all day. So I was hungry and thirsty and OVERWHELMED. All of a sudden, as I was going through the contents of a room deciding what was to be packed up and what was to be thrown away, I found a bag full of candy. The candy was all really old and hard, so I went to throw it away. But as I lifted the bag into the garbage, what should fall out but a pristine, unopened Arizona green tea juice box! With a straw attached! I was so incredibly grateful. I sat my parched self on the floor amidst the packing tape and permanent markers and boxes and random items and drank that tea with sincere gratitude to God for sending it my way.

Another moment of grace: the movers were coming at 2:00. It was snowing in the morning! And it stopped before the movers arrived. That’s grace.

Can I tell you about more grace? Our friends near our old house, asking “What can we do to help?” and coming over to help us pack, bringing us boxes and bubble wrap and tape, bringing us food because our kitchen is packed…. And new friends near our new house, asking, “What can we do to help?” and bringing over food and coming to say “Welcome”…. That’s grace, straight from God to us.

The more we notice the moments of loveliness, the less overwhelmed we tend to be.

Another part of my overwhelming experience which can probably help you: WE HAVE SOOOO MUCH STUFF! How does that help you? Like this: it sounds like you’re doing a lot. And doing a lot is great, if you enjoy it and if it enlivens you. Doing a lot is just like having a lot of stuff. If you like your stuff, then great! Enjoy it. But if you can’t find anything because there’s just too much there, then that stuff is just in the way. So too with activities we fill our lives with. If the activities are meaningful and enhance our lives, then great! Enjoy them! But if you don’t have time for what you really want to do because you’re just doing too much, then you have to assess whether some of the activities are in the way of your life, instead of enhancing your life.

When you feel really overwhelmed, perspective always helps.

From my perspective, paring down is the key. Simplifying schedules, giving away or throwing away stuff, so that there’s room for what’s really meaningful and really necessary.

Also, when you feel really overwhelmed, perspective always helps. When I was terribly nervous about packing and moving, it just so happened that I heard a few stories about the Holocaust. That’ll put our lives and our problems into perspective!

Finally: BREATHE. Just breathe. You can’t be stressed and breathe at the same time. If you breathe, and focus on your breathing, it automatically reduces your stress. Yesterday I had a client who was really upset. She was so upset that she texted me at 8:30 am and asked if she could have an appointment at 9 am. She showed up in her pajamas and really really stressed. She started talking, but I stopped her and told her, “Honey, just breathe.” She took a really quick, shallow breath, and started talking again about how upset she was. “Girlfriend,” I told her, “You’ve got to breathe better than that!! I understand that you’re upset, but you’re going to feel a whole lot better if you just take a good, deep breath.” She took another shallow breath. “Come on—you can do it!” And she finally breathed deeply—and immediately calmed down a few notches. She actually smiled! And then we had a productive session.

Just breathe.

Reduce your load so you can do what you really want to do.

Notice moments of grace.

Take care of yourself.

Remember that you don’t have to do it all.

Now I have to go unpack!