When things are just too much
Updated: Jul 20, 2022
“Overwhelmed.” “Shitstorm.” “I’m going crazy.” “It’s all too much.”
I’ve been hearing words like this a lot over the years from people like you, and maybe I’ve been hearing more of this recently. I don’t know. But the sense
that the burden and the pressure are too much and
that you just can’t take much more of it
are piling on to a lot of folks.
It’s mostly when the problems pile up:
Your teenager seems to be going down the tubes, but you’re working harder than ever. Meanwhile there’s just not enough money.
You’re older. Your housing situation sucks. Your business is in jeopardy.
You’re middle aged. Your marriage has deteriorated. Your mother needs special help but refuses to get it. Someone is suing you.
So here’s how I’ve recently found myself talking to people in a place like this. A place where things aren’t good for you and neither is your ability to cope.
There are two things we want. Two pillars of wellbeing. We want them all the time, but particularly when we’re feeling up against it:
We want peace of mind.
We want to feel effective.
And when I say, “feel effective,” I mean feel that we can do a reasonably good job of doing the things we’d reasonably expect of ourselves. If you had a day’s notice that a couple of friends were coming over for dinner, most people would be able to say, “Oh, I can handle that,” unless there was a scheduling conflict. It’s not as if the Queen of England were coming for dinner at the last minute!
Here's why these two pillars of wellbeing are so important. Peace of mind is what you have when you don’t have anxiety. Inability to achieve peace of mind leads to anxiety. And not feeling effective in areas where you should be able to feel effective leads to depression. Because not feeling effective leads to feeling helpless, which leads to feeling depressed.
Got it? Good!
So how do you achieve peace of mind and a sense of efficacy?
I’ll tell you what you need to focus on. If you just keep focusing on this—following this path—your peace of mind and sense of efficacy will grow and grow.
What you need to focus on is this ancient wisdom, which has come up over and over in many forms:
Writing around the year 100 AD, the Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote:
Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.
The 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva wrote:
If there's a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
The 11th century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabriol wrote:
And they said: At the head of all understanding—is distinguishing between what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.
And of all people, in 1695 Mother Goose wrote:
For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
Finally, coming down to our time, the great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr composed what’s called the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Many of you know that this Serenity Prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and the entire recovery movement.
You might ask why.
It’s because to the degree that addictions are forms of self-medication, the last thing any alcoholic needs is anxiety or depression.
This prayer—and this must be said—is not a mantra. It is a MAP. Or, if you like, a RECIPE. It’s something that shows you how to do something we all desperately need to do to find those tremendously healing places within ourselves: peace of mind and the sense of efficacy.
So what do you do, feeling spun around like an old dog picked up by a tornado?
You look at the things going on one piece at a time.
With each piece, you ask if there’s anything you can do to change it.
Hint, and Epictetus would agree with me: if it’s another person, you can’t change them.
The good news is that with the things you can’t change you don’t have to feel ineffective. You’re probably not going to be able to teach your cat to fetch either. That’s not on you!
And what do you do with the things you can’t change? The Serenity Prayer says you have to accept the things you can’t change. Actually you have a lot more options than that, though acceptance is great if you can do it! But you can also make distance. You can figure out why you’ve chained yourself to caring about this thing you can’t change, so you can break the chain. You can let go and mourn.
Acknowledging what you can’t change doesn’t mean that everything becomes okay. It means that by no longer pushing for change that can’t happen, you’re firmly on the road to peace of mind.
As for the things you CAN change? Well, by definition of the word “can,” here’s where you regain your sense of efficacy. But let’s look at what all these versions of the Serenity Prayer point to. Your courage may be called on. Mother Goose says you may have to try to find the remedy: it won’t be sitting on the shelf waiting for you.
There’s good news here. When things are easy, it’s easy to get a hit of efficacy. I first learned to bake with a box of brownie mix from the supermarket. No big triumph, but I was 8, and I did it all by myself. On the other hand, when things are hard—do-able but hard—you’re more likely to stumble, but when you succeed you’ll have a much greater sense of efficacy. Like when I made a chocolate cake from scratch for my youngest daughter’s first birthday. A complicated recipe from The Joy of Cooking.
Just remember what Solomon ibn Gabriol said. Success with this—achieving peace of mind and a sense of efficacy—begins with “the head of all understanding”: knowing what you can change and what you can’t. As you come to know those things, anxiety and depression melt away.