Burning Questions 2: What If I Get Overwhelmed?

by Judy Stone-Goldman on May 18, 2010

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The view outside my window, full of many concrete details.

This is the second entry on questions posed at my recent ASHA Institute workshop, Reflective Writing for Personal-Professional Balance.

Today’s question deals with one possible reaction to the writing process.  Posed by a participant in the workshop, the question was, “I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. What should I do?”

The person who asked the question indicated that even within the short exercises we were doing, she was feeling the strength of emotions evoked.  This can be viewed as both good and bad news:  the good news is that she had deep feelings, readily available to her—a rich source for reflecting, writing, and deepening.  The bad news was that it felt uncomfortable and unsettling: too much emotion, building too quickly.  What should she do?

Emotions come from our inner world, and if they are coming too quickly we can choose to return our focus to the external world.  This means interrupting the writing and turning our attention to the environment.  To do this, look around you, wherever you are, and use your senses to redirect yourself outward.  State what you see, hear, feel (tactilely), smell, and taste.  Use concrete, descriptive language to connect with the world outside yourself.

“I see beige walls.  I see a white tablecloth with a stain on the edge.  I see straight-back chairs.  I hear a buzz from fluorescent lights.  I hear footsteps in the hall and the sound of people talking.  My feet are resting on the ground. My hand is touching the table and I feel the rough cloth. My mouth is dry and I can taste the coffee I drank 20 minutes ago. I smell the aroma left by someone who was wearing perfume.”  By focusing on specific, concrete details, you pull yourself away from the emotions within and interrupt the thoughts that were swirling in your mind.  This can help you feel grounded and more in control of the circumstances.

Feeling emotions when you write is, of course, desirable.  Getting to our emotions so we can process them and understand them is a boon to our well-being and a step towards our goal of balance. For some of us, getting to emotions takes time and extended writing.  If you get to your emotions quickly, you may want to think of that as a strength, even if a sometimes-uncomfortable one.  You can learn to manage and moderate the speed of emotions.

One of the messages I like to repeat at writing workshops is this: you are in charge of your writing and your experience.  You may be surprised by what you discover and what you feel, but you always have choices.  Choose to write, choose to enter into yourself, and choose to come back to ordinary life.  It’s up to you.

Questions for Reflection: Have you had the experience of having emotions come up too quickly or too strongly? How did you react? Do you consider yourself slow to come to feelings or quick to fall into feelings? How does this affect you?

Writing Prompts: Feelings are most likely to hit me when ________ (then keep writing) .  What helps me get to my feelings is ________ (then keeping writing).  Having feelings come up quickly makes me ________ (then keeping writing).  I know I feel overwhelmed when ________ (then keep writing).

Exercise for Getting Grounded: Look around you.  List everything you see, hear, feel (tactilely), smell, and taste.  Be descriptive and concrete.  Do it now.  Practicing this when you are calm can prepare you for when you are more emotional.

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