Emotional Overwhelm – When Your Feelings are Just Too Big

Have you ever cared about something so much that it hurts? Maybe a person – a loved one, or a cause? Have you ever felt a lump forming in your throat just thinking about the what-ifs? An emotional overwhelm so big it threatens to engulf you?

I have.

Or should I say, I do.

In the abstract, my raw emotional edges are most on show when I think about situations where people – usually vulnerable people – are in a powerless position and cannot speak out for themselves. Cases of child abuse (and animal abuse), domestic violence particularly when I can feel that another human being’s last hours have been wracked with pain and suffering… and an inability to change the outcome.

I’m not sure whether I’m unusual or completely normal in this. Maybe I just haven’t figured out how to cauterise these raw nerve endings like other people have. But my recently released book includes an introduction where I talk about two specific cases that cause me deep distress. To write that introduction I had to read about the situations involved…

And they continue to haunt me.

On the one hand, I want to find a way to make the pain go away… and on the other I worry that doing so is a type of numbness that will prevent me from doing what I am called to do.

So today I’m going to talk about the tactics I’ve been using to try and cope with really big feelings, in the hope that it might help – either me or you – deal with emotional overwhelm.

Grievances you perceive…

Firstly, I am the first to acknowledge that everybody is different. I know that the things that upset me, don’t upset other people, and that the things that upset other people often don’t upset me.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone thinks that child abuse is acceptable, I simply mean it doesn’t overwhelm everyone. Some people are able to process it and not have it haunt them. I’m really glad about that.

But there will be something… Something that tugs on your capacity to cope… and to hope.

I recently wrote an article about my visit to the Victor Frankl Museum in Vienna. There was an exhibit there that included the quote:

“Grievances that you perceive in the world are references to values that are important to you. Just to complain about them is not enough. Through your activity you can change grievances. This is your mission.”Click To Tweet

Now the challenge – if you accept this is true – is that you are now required not to turn your back on that thing that makes you uncomfortable. That thing that causes you pain. Avoidance is not an option.

So what can you do?

Spend time looking into the void…

There is a gap between what is… and what could be. What should be. This is the source of the emotional overwhelm. The bigger the gap – the wider the void – the more uncomfortable it’s existence seems to feel.

So, if you are strong enough, look into the void. Give it words. Give it shape. Give it form, if you can. Name it.

I cannot accept that child abuse and domestic violence are inevitable. I believe there are ways to solve this wicked problem, though I do not yet know what they are.

What I do know is that assuming it is inevitable guarantees that no-one is looking to solve it. So I refuse. I ask questions of myself about what causes it. What sustains it. Active, open-ended questions that are designed to force my brain to seek solutions. To work hard. To avoid slipping into a resigned acceptance of what is, and instead focus squarely on what should be.

Seek forgiveness…

In my case, I think that some of the reason why I find the emotional overwhelm so strongly is that I feel like I should have been able to do something about it.

Intellectually, I know that this is silly. I don’t know the people involved. I don’t work in one of the agencies that might have been able to intervene.

Yet I can see their beautiful little faces before me in those last hours, begging for help.

So I (mentally) wrap them with love and ask for their forgiveness.

They always tell me it’s not my fault… and even though this is a process running entirely in my own head, it seems to help.

…but do not run away

'Despair is a narcotic. It lulls the mind into indifference.' ~ Charlie ChaplinClick To Tweet

But I do not let myself off the hook here.

Emotional Overwhelm

I do not self-medicate (I don’t drink alcohol), I don’ try to make the feelings go away. I just acknowledge them for what they are, and I ask myself what am I called to do. What is it that would enable me to make a difference here. What is the problem I am being called to solve.

Focus on what you are grateful for…

I do, however, need to function in the world. Luckily, the human soul is generally fairly resilient. It’s capacity to remember pain and suffering is relatively short-lived.

So when I need to put on my big-girl-pants, I focus on listing the things I am grateful for. Family, friends, my work, the time and place that I find myself in, and the beauty of the world around me.

I figure that when I am ready, the answer will appear.

In the meantime, I will thrive without becoming numb.


My new book, More Than This: Your Heroic Quest to Find Inspiration, Intent, Impact and Insight in a Broken World, is exactly what you need to:

  • Clarify and articulate your passion – to find your why
  • Gain the courage and commitment to do something about it
  • Learn and strengthen the skills you need to create massive impact
  • Stay true, analyse your results and gain powerful insights

More Than This

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com now.

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