When You’re Overwhelmed with Being an Adult
Working, paying bills, making meals, managing a household, running errands, making important decisions….adulthood isn’t for the faint of heart. Responsibilities regularly pile up. And it becomes a lot to juggle and handle on a regular basis.
And there isn’t exactly a class we take that prepares us for the nitty gritty of the day to day.
In fact, many of us go off to college with little to no training about how to handle the basics—like bills, budgeting and taxes. Psychotherapist Alyson Cohen, LCSW, works with many young adults who have a hard time “adulting.” In particular, her clients struggle with money: budgeting their expenses and spending above their means.
Many of us also make adulthood needlessly harder. We set sky-high expectations and rigid rules around our responsibilities. Christina Cruz’s clients often tell her: “I have to, should or must do _______.” For instance, she worked with a mom who thought she had to stay up late to prep meals for her husband and kids because that’s what good moms do. Cruz helped her realize that she was a good mom regardless. Her family also was completely capable of making their own meals, and doing so gave her more time for herself.
Similarly, our self-worth may get wrapped up in “how hard we work, how much we do, what we have acquired, and what we have, or have not, achieved,” said Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, a social worker, therapeutic arts facilitator and life coach who specializes in ADHD and family coaching. “As a result, we push ourselves too hard, take on too much, and feel as though we have failed when we are unable to meet the demands we have placed on ourselves.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re straight out of college, a seasoned mom, an expert in your field or recently retired, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with being an adult at any stage of life. Below you’ll find suggestions for navigating the emotional overwhelm, along with practical, tried-and-true tips to simplify and streamline. Because often taking small, strategic steps can significantly help to lessen our stress, make our lives run smoother and create more satisfaction.
Keep a dragon journal. Dragons are tasks or projects that feel scary, boring, tedious or difficult, said Debra Michaud, M.A., a professional organizer and ADHD coach. “If you get a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you think about doing it, or if your heart tightens when you see it on your to-do list, then it is a good dragon to tackle.” Michaud suggested tackling one dragon per day, which can be one step of a bigger project.
Don’t underestimate the power of help. You don’t have to go it alone, and you don’t need to know everything on your own. Cruz, Psy.D, a life coach who specializes in perfectionism, anxiety, depression and body image, has worked with many moms who’ve hired mother’s helpers, babysitters or nannies to reduce their task load and give themselves a much-needed break. Another option is to hire a sitter so you can tackle important tasks (like taxes), Cohen said.
Cohen also mentioned attending workshops; hiring a financial planner, therapist or coach; and asking loved ones you trust for tips. What are you currently struggling with? Who can help?
“If you do not have money to enlist help in many areas, then prioritize which tasks you have the most difficult time with and decide the value of your time versus the cost of enlisting help,” she said.
Eliminate tolerations. Tolerations are “usually small things that we put off doing or ignore because they seem insignificant or unimportant in the moment,” said van Rikxoort. However, “over time they add up and start to affect our productivity and contribute to feelings of overwhelm.”
For instance, one toleration is mail: Letting mail pile up creates clutter, and means you’ll lose important papers and forget to pay your bills. Over time a nuisance becomes a big problem. Other tolerations include piles of laundry and unfinished household chores and projects.
Sometimes we think we’re too busy to tackle these tasks on a regular basis—but we usually end up expending more energy and time in the long run. As van Rikxoort said, it’s much easier to sort through a day’s worth of mail than a month’s worth. Plus, when we eliminate tolerations, we can refocus our energy on more meaningful activities, she said.
Start detaching your self-worth from your successes. Cruz has her clients do this exercise: She asks them to tell her about their achievements, followed by the traits that underlie them. Clients might say hard work, dedication, strength or standing up for themselves. “I point out to my clients, if their accomplishment was taken away from them, their traits and qualities would not be less true.”
Create routines. According to Michaud, routines minimize decision-making. “Without routines, you must expend a lot of mental energy deciding, moment by moment, how to spend your time. This opens the door for avoidance, procrastination, and wasting time on ‘pseudo-productive tasks’—tasks that feel productive but that are very low priority.”
If you don’t have them yet, start with creating morning and bedtime routines, which supports restorative sleep. (Many of Michaud’s clients go to bed later so they can work, but this only backfires the next day when their focus and energy nosedives.) You also might have a routine where you tackle one or two dragons first thing at work.
Take a Kaizen approach. “We often overwhelm ourselves trying to take too big a bite at one time,” Michaud said. Kaizen is the Japanese word for “improvement,” which is all about taking tiny steps. Michaud shared these examples: You want to get more sleep, so you start going to bed 5 minutes earlier, and keep decreasing your time by 5-minute increments. Instead of finishing an organizing project in one day, you set a timer for 15 minutes. To tackle a task you’ve been avoiding for a while, you set a timer for just 1 minute.
Refocus. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re probably frustrated, anxious, confused and sad. Van Rikxoort stressed the importance of pausing, breathing and naming what you’re feeling. “When you do this, you bring the problem-solving centers of your brain back online and become able to navigate the situation more effectively.” She suggested asking ourselves: “What is my priority right now? What am I trying to accomplish?”
Get some space. Cruz underscored the importance of creating space between your emotional reactions and the problem. This gives you time to choose how you’re going to respond, look at the bigger picture and consider an alternative perspective, she said. Small changes also are powerful in creating this space.
For instance, one of Cruz’s clients was overwhelmed with work and home life. Instead of showering at night, she started showering in the morning to clear her mind. She also started listening to inspiring speeches while getting ready. “She still had the same responsibilities waiting for her but her ability to change how she approached her roles improved her mood and made her more productive.”
Being an adult is hard. It’s rare that we’re prepared for all the responsibilities. We also make it harder by setting unrealistic, rigid expectations. “Be kind to yourself and remember that you are a worthy human being with unique talents, strengths, and skills regardless of how clean your house is or how much money you make,” said van Rikxoort.
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). When You’re Overwhelmed with Being an Adult. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-youre-overwhelmed-with-being-an-adult/