Overwhelm and Confusion: Managing Common Workplace Stress Patterns

September 29, 2020

by Pam Boney


Stress Symptom # 3: Overwhelm and Confusion

Which can lead to chaos if it becomes chronic.

The third stress reaction pattern is about a perceived loss of certainty and stability driven by an unconscious fear of incompetence in managing one’s life alone. This pattern often arises because parents may have feared giving you enough autonomy to experience learning on your own, sending the message that you are not OK to handle your affairs without help. The story (life script) manifests itself in the psyche as an exaggerated show of emotion that worked as an unconscious appeal for the attention you needed to get control back. Later in life, stress can arise when one suddenly feels overcommitted and unable to deliver on commitments. The first reaction is to exaggerate emotions and get attention so others will help. What it’s about underneath is a perceived loss of approval and recognition that comes along with concern about one’s image with authority figures. Since the underlying desire is to have a good reputation with others, the fear is about not being able to control how others may think you are irresponsible for not meeting expectations. The concern is that one can’t keep up with so many people and so many ideas at once. And this concern is legitimate because the precursor for this pattern originates in being too approachable to others who might take advantage of your generosity, coupled with a childlike fascination with novel ideas that distract one from focus. This combination means one is prone to prioritizing others' needs and ideas at the expense of self, all in service of being well thought of by others. Paradoxically the strategy often implodes on itself, and you end up disappointing instead. The stress comes when demands are overwhelming and come crashing down all at once.


Two Internal Needs:

This stress reaction helps one save face internally by temporarily propping up the ego with a false feeling of being the one who helps others and, therefore, blameless and deserving of attention and appreciation precisely because of the same selflessness that invites the trouble. This short-term reaction, where the ego strives to get attention and confirmation that they are the “good helper,” is harmless unless it becomes chronic or extreme in a harmful way to self or others.

What’s good about it?

The positive aspect of this reaction is that it gives the person a quick boost of energy to focus on what they are doing to themselves by overcommitting. What is needed is some boundaries, structure, and discipline to put oneself first and serve others or explore novel ideas in balance with organization and responsibility for completion. A person who experiences this stress reaction may need to prioritize their inner voice and learn how to deal with disapproval by others, especially authority figures. The inability to keep unreasonable or impractical commitments is a good lesson to learn and will help one learn to assert better boundaries in the future.

What often happens instead:

Instead of appreciating the spontaneity and likable nature that created this situation, others often worry that decisions are not being made and results will not be on time. When this happens, it can trigger alarms in others that bring judgment, such as “I always have to clear up the confusion and chaos for this person” or “be the one to follow up and get the job done” because the person isn’t capable of finishing difficult tasks in general. No one enjoys disappointing others or letting themselves down, even temporarily. It is rarely this person’s intention to give up and throw their hands in the air in despair for they genuinely want to do a good job and are very capable when they feel competent. There’s a better way to handle it when we encounter someone experiencing overwhelm. Suppose we can learn to simply notice the pattern, validate the person’s temporary stress, and respond accordingly. In that case, we can help them do what they do best - cross-pollinate novel ideas through their expansive network. This response requires not getting caught up in the drama of our own fears, where we react to their stress with judgment or dismiss them as incapable.

A better way to respond more consciously:

A stress reaction always contains some positive effects if it doesn’t go too far. As such, it can be helpful to point out that you are noticing their distress and inquire about how you can help them structure a plan. Merely listening to them can help them see the situation they’ve invited into their lives by being too open, curious, generous, and approachable. This action can alert them to the unintended effects of their behavior and how it impacts them and others. Only then will they become aware that they can benefit from being more assertive and focused. If we can remain curious about their reactions and listen, it can help them think out loud and learn from good coaching questions. Saying, “I am noticing you have too much on your plate and may have promised more than is possible. What help do you need to request?” Just the act of caring and sharing your observations can help them realize the cons of their boundless receptivity and optimism.

The positive result:

An acknowledgment that “all of us get overwhelmed sometimes” is greatly appreciated by someone in this situation. Some empathy is usually enough to de-escalate the emotional charge that could make them spin further out of control. It will not help to pile on more rejection or criticism than they are already feeling inside themselves. When they feel normalized by your acknowledgment that everyone gets overcommitted at times, they can relax and pull out of the stress reaction. When this happens, new energy and passion begin to flow, helping them finish what they started and assert better boundaries going forward.

What happens if it becomes chronic?

Although acute stress can help us become more alert in the moment for a burst of energy, if it becomes chronic, it can turn into bad stress. Being constantly overwhelmed will trigger a cortisol response and become habitual. In this case, there will be activity, ideas, and talk, but very little productive action or tangible results. If this becomes a regular pattern, it can result in loss of trust and confidence in oneself and from others. Concern about image and recognition will morph into embarrassment, guilt, and even shame. If this happens, the best thing to do is use laser coaching to help them stop repetitive storytelling or blaming of circumstances, which will free up energy to get organized and be productive.

How to use laser coaching to help someone who is spinning in overwhelm:

Laser coaching sessions can help others become aware of their patterns and how they are harming themselves or others.

Coaching questions that can increase awareness:

  • What’s the potential cost of the stories you are telling yourself?
  • What part of you needs to grow up and take responsibility, if any?
  • What has you blaming people or circumstances you can’t control?
  • What do you need to do to increase self-respect right now?
  • What can you do to give yourself more control over your time?
  • What do you need to ask for in order to get this over the finish line?
  • What do you fear most, that others need to know right now?

Sometimes asking questions like these is all that’s needed to raise self-awareness in someone under stress. Don’t try to solve their problems or take on their work for them. As a coach, leader, or colleague, you should not try to rescue a person in overwhelm by doing something for them as this will only serve to validate their belief they can’t do it alone. Click here to learn more about how to manage stress in your team.

Note: This stress reaction is most common in a CONNECTION True Tilt Cross Pollinator personality profile. How can you actually use this? Learn more about your specific stress reaction pattern by taking the True Tilt Personality Profile™.

View related posts: Stress Symptom # 1Stress Symptom # 2Stress Symptom # 4