What to Ask When You Don’t Know What You Need
I don’t remember where I was in our office building, only that a panicked team member came to find me, and pulled me into a conference room. “Why are they packing up his desk?” she probed, referring to our shared boss. She told me his personal items were being placed in an old file box, the universal symbol of a really rough day at the office.
As second-in-command on the team, I could see why she asked me, but I was as shocked as she was.
What unfolded from that morning was a downward spiral; a season of overwhelm unlike anything I’d experienced before.
It had started with the best of intentions, as such things usually do. A few days prior, I’d accepted a promotion that I thought would be a fantastic growth opportunity — my first leadership position — and I was motivated and ready to dive in. And then, just like that, the floor fell out from underneath me when my boss was let go. Sink or swim.
The nature of modern life is that we all sometimes find ourselves in these downward spirals, where everything seems to be getting busier and crazier and harder, and it all feels so inevitable. We feel like we can’t stop. We just push through, trying not to let anything important fall through the cracks.
I’d heard of this idea of “early intervention” when it comes to children: If we take proactive steps very early on, we can prevent a crisis. I think we need to learn to do the same for ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to maintain margin, to NOT push to our very limits.
But how do we stop the cycle before it spins out of control? Or, how do we begin to reverse the tide when it’s already out of control?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do think it helps to ask more specific questions. We need to ask questions that get to the heart of the issue without requiring us to evaluate our entire lives. We don’t have the energy to look at the big picture when we’re overwhelmed.
Start with this:
- If you could start or stop one thing immediately, what would it be?
Start a particular self-care practice. Commit to one evening a week away from the madness. Stop a particular activity. Find a way to sleep in once a month. Say no to an expectation someone else placed on you that doesn’t belong with you.
Practically speaking, you may also need to consider:
- What is most important to you right now?
- What is 100% non-negotiable? Why? For how long?
If you are going to take time for yourself, you may need to give up an activity to make that happen. Chances are, someone will be disappointed when you make that choice. But, assuming it’s not something absolutely mandatory like feeding your kids, you are 100% allowed to make that decision.
- What support or help are you giving to others that you wish was being given to you?
Very often, what we give to others mirrors what we want to receive. Sometimes it’s the little things that make us feel less alone. Or, maybe you bring food, run an errand, or let their kids come over. Can you ask for this kind of help?
This line of thinking can also provide an opportunity to suggest a swap. Or perhaps you can find a more fun and life-giving way to accomplish daily tasks that would make them feel less like a burden. Sometimes it’s more about managing our energy than our time.
- What would make you breathe a sigh of relief, or feel like a weight was lifted off your shoulders?
This relates to the first two questions, it’s just another way to look at it. What feels the heaviest? What resolution could bring you relief? This is also a good place to look at whether you are carrying heavy expectations — either your own, or those placed on you by others. Do you feel like you need permission to start or stop something? Do you want someone to tell you it’s okay to put something on hold?
- Can you give yourself permission? Can you accept that permission?
- Are you willing to validate yourself and your own effort? If your best friend was in your place, would you tell her she had done enough?
- If you have a contractual obligation, or a responsibility that needs to be adjusted, is there someone you need to have that conversation with?
One advantage of early intervention is that we are able to bring much more flexibility, creativity, and grace to the conversations we need to have. These seasons start with really great intentions, so it can feel like betrayal when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. It’s worth asking the question:
- Who else can provide support besides the ‘obvious’ choice of spouse, boss, etc.?
- What help is available that you might not be fully utilizing?
It’s all about practical steps. What is one specific way you can take a step back from the edge, even if it’s a baby step? Even if it’s something that’s important to you but not THE most important? Especially if it’s not at all important to YOU?
Sometimes we hesitate because we don’t want to have the hard conversations, but sometimes just ONE hard conversation can bring a tidal wave of relief. Ultimately, the prize is a life that contains a lot more goodness and a lot less stress, and that’s worth trying for.