How to reap the spiritual gifts of overwhelm with the four power virtues

by | Oct 24, 2011

Why do people get engaged before they get married?

To engage is to become involved in a deep and committed way. The earliest root of the word meant to pledge, and that meaning has endured over the centuries.

When you engage, you pledge your attentions and energy to something larger, more important, than the thrills and chills, attractions and distractions, of day-to-day life.

Engagement is therefore an appropriate prologue to the marriage vow, “for better or worse.”

When you are engaged, you don’t leave a person or situation just because the going gets rough. You promise to override the fight, flight, or freeze instinct and to work through the most difficult circumstances.

Your business is asking for the same thing when you are overwhelmed. And before you run screaming into the night, let me just say that, as in a happy marriage, the rewards are far greater than the sacrifices.

Overwhelm is a declaration that a problem is too big

When you’re overwhelmed, your mind tells you that you’re in really big trouble. That, because you have to do more than you possibly can do, something bad is going to happen. And it says you need to get out from under the pressure fast.

The flight, fight, or freeze response kicks in, which is great if you’re confronted with a grizzly bear, but exactly the wrong thing when you need your mental and emotional faculties to make order from chaos.

Flight, fight, or freeze recruit parts of your brain and body designed to face an emergency. These instincts are designed to help you escape, to get you out of trouble fast, and then dissipate when you’re safely away.

But in business, as in marriage, overwhelm doesn’t go away when you run from it. It doesn’t go away when you fight it. It sure as heck doesn’t go away when you freeze.

And the trouble you duck today comes back tomorrow to bite you, only harder.

What you need is deeper engagement

When you’re overwhelmed, escape is the last thing you need. What you need (whether you know it or not in that overwhelmed moment) is deeper engagement.

You need a way to come back to a state of deep connection and loving focus.
To renew and even deepen your commitment while restoring order and meaning to your situation.

The question is, how?

It begins with your core values

Whether or not you feel you have time for this, the first thing you need when you are overwhelmed is to remember your core values. You don’t need to go all dewy eyed, you don’t need to feel warm and fuzzy, but you must remember that you have values that are bigger than the current situation.

It’s nearly impossible to craft or articulate your values when you’re in a state of overwhelm, so take time when you’re not crazed to write down the handful of guiding principles by which you intend to manage your business.
Your core values are the North Pole by which you navigate even–or especially–when overwhelmed.

Your core purpose is the compass

If your core values are the North Pole, your core purpose is the compass that will tell you whether or not you are on course, no matter how overwhelmed you may be.

According to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, “Core purpose is an organizationʼs most fundamental reason for being. It should not be confused with the companyʼs current product lines or customer segments. Rather, it reflects peopleʼs idealistic motivations for doing the companyʼs work.”

Again, this is something to spell out when you aren’t overwhelmed. As the saying goes, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember you’re there to drain the swamp.”

Your core values and purpose are the reasons you got engaged in the first place.

Now you can apply the power virtues

You’ve oriented to your North Pole and take out your compass. Now to walk through overwhelm with a modicum of grace.

Here’s where you need your spiritual tool set, what I call the power virtues. They are gratitude, humility, surrender, and simplicity.

Be grateful for high quality problems

A wise friend of mine once said, “Every five years you get a new set of problems.” And I say, if you’ve been doing you homework in the School of Life, they’ll be higher quality problems.”

We should be so lucky as to have the problems we have.

We are lucky to be overwhelmed by the challenges and opportunities of doing work we love, when all over the world people are working in subhuman conditions, when they are working at all.

When you’re overwhelmed, offer up a prayer of gratitude. This works to reduce overwhelm even when you don’t mean it. Just do it. Rinse and repeat.

Cultivate the humility to request and receive help

There’s almost always more help available than you are using. Overwhelm is a call to reach out for help. To not isolate or retreat into embarrassment or self-protection.

And to ask for help means practicing the virtue or skill of humility.

Reach out to friends and family for emotional support. Ask for ideas. Ask for referrals to other people who might be able to offer support and ideas.

If you have the budget for it, hire help. Even a little help can make a big difference when you are overwhelmed. Do you have $25 to pay a student to help you solve an email problem? Or $50 to get an hour’s training on your computer?

Help is probably more available and affordable than you think. All it takes is humility.

Surrender your notion of how things ought to be

The surest way to amplify and prolong overwhelm is to hang onto your idea of how things ought to be in spite of all indications to the contrary. The alternative is to practice the skill or virtue of Surrender.

Surrender to the reality that you can only do part of what you want to get done. (30% is a good place to start. Surrender more or less as circumstances require.)

Surrender your self-image. Overwhelm is often a sign that you’ve become over-identified with your work and you goals. Remember, goals are not the same as your core purpose. You can stick to your core purpose and surrender unrealistic or impossible goals.

Along similar lines, Surrendering your self image does not mean giving up self esteem. Self esteem comes from doing estimable things. You can do estimable things in the service of different goals.

Embrace simplicity

The final power virtue in your spiritual skill set is simplicity. Overwhelm is the Universe’s most sincere mandate to simplify.

Simplicity means choosing and engaging with one thing at a time.

Remember engagement? Simplicity is a hologram of engagement in that engagement with the details is nested inside engagement with the whole. Engagement with single actions is nested inside engagement with your core values and core purpose.

If you can see your goals in the midst of overwhelm, choose one simple action at a time in service of one goal. If you can’t see your goals for the chaos, choose one simple action at a time from the chaos around you.

One action at a time. One focus in each moment. In this way simplicity calms your nervous system and begin restoring engagement.

Power virtues evolve with of practice

I like to think of the power virtues as skills as much as they are virtues. This is because they increase as the result of practice, and life is full of opportunities to practice.

Practice when you aren’t overwhelmed by being pausing in deliberate gratitude for everything, good, bad, and indifferent, in your world.

Practice humility by being right-sized and asking for help as early and often as you can. Be creative in looking for ways to receive help and people and other resources that can offer it.

Practice the power virtue of surrender by offering up everything you do each day in service of your core values and purpose. Then make plans, take action, and let go of the results.

Finally, practice simplicity by inviting yourself to do one thing at a time. Treat each task as a precious gem to be considered and polished independently of the others.

Forgiveness is the master virtue

There’s a final virtue or skill that saves marriages and businesses: Forgiveness.

Forgive yourself for lapses in practice.

Forgive yourself for getting overwhelmed in the first place.

Forgive the Universe for playing tricks on you and forgive other people, institutions, and circumstances for collaborating in those tricks.

Practice these virtues and you’ll reap the spiritual gifts of overwhelm, the gifts of full engagement in your life and work.

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