Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively


Response Options to
an Overwhelmed Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/overwhelmed.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

       This article offers useful responses to someone you experience as overwhelmed. It assumes you're familiar with...

If there's an overwhelmed or burned-out person in your life, keep them in mind as you read.


       Around 1400, the English word "whelm" meant to completely cover something with water or an overturned dish. Now overwhelm means being "completely taken over" by something, like emotional intensity or environmental events. Have you ever felt overwhelmed or overloaded? If so, how would you describe that state to someone who hasn't felt it? Common symptoms include...

  • feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted, depleted, numb, weak, hopeless, paralyzed, and spent;

  • thinking "I can't bear / endure / do (something) one more time;" and/or...

  • feeling "wiped out," and "unable to think," concentrate, make decisions, and/or to do routine activities.

       If you're not overwhelmed, what are you? Can you think of an appropriate word besides normal?  What would you say causes overwhelm?

  • seeing no acceptable options in a critical situation

  • having to make too many major decisions at once (too many simultaneous inner conflicts among your personality subselves, with a disabled true Self)

  • working too hard without rest, and seeing no end to this

  • feeling unable to do what must be done

  • having too many people depending on you for too much, and/or...

  • being overpowered by environmental forces or stimulations.

Each of these can be amplified by physical exhaustion, disability, weakness, illness, and/or pain.

       The point - when you encounter an overwhelmed adult or child, be aware of factors like these to guide your behavior toward them.

Response Options

       Perhaps the greatest support you can offer an overwhelmed adult or child is empathy. People raised by unempathic parents often have trouble feeling what other people feel. How empathic are you? This brief YouTube video can help you answer that question:

       If you sense that an adult or child is "significantly" overwhelmed...

  • Accept that asking them for a response may be more than they can manage for now.

  • Notice your feelings with and about the person. They point to what you need - e.g. to vent, to learn, to empathize, to encourage, or something else.

  • Unless it's an emergency, avoid rescuing and enabling. Both are disrespectful, and can block personal growth;

  • Watch your language. Using loaded words like catastrophe, weakling, baby, childish, doom, impossible, and hopeless, can amplify the overwhelm;

  • Remind yourself of your definition of an effective response, and these preparations;

  • Get clear on what you need, and guesstimate what the overwhelmed person needs e.g. - validation and empathy, realistic encouragement, a chance to vent, patience, companionship, solitude, and gentle help to identify their feelings and prioritize their needs;

  • Keep your boundaries clear. In non-emergencies, taking responsibility for reducing an able adult's problem may raise your stress and block their growth.

       Then consider options like these, as appropriate...

"(Name), I'm concerned about you. can you tell me how (or what) you're feeling) now?"   If you get something like "Not really," respect that!  If the person is able to describe feeling (overwhelmed), use good eye contact and empathic listening to affirm what s/he says. That could sound like...

"So you're feeling like things are just too much for you now."

"I'd like to know more about that."  If the person goes into more detail, continue to use respectful empathic listening. Use questions sparingly - just affirm what s/he says, and wait.

"You're worrying about / feeling responsible for / struggling with / trying to /   _____________,  _______________,  and  _______________.  That feels like a LOT!" 

"(Name), can you say what you need (from me) right now?" Be prepared for "No," "Nothing," and "I don't know." That may be true, or it may be the person isn't able to identify what they need currently, and/or they may be uncomfortable asking for help.

"I wonder what would help you feel better."  This is a statement that invites the other person to muse, but doesn't require an answer.

"If you could make progress on just one thing now, what would it be?" Option - be alert for the chance to ''dig-down'' to identify the person's current primary needs.

"(Name), please count on me if you ever need to talk  /  vent  /  let off steam  /  brainstorm  /  get suggestions." This leaves the choice to the other person, and doesn't force help on them.

"What would you say your main priorities are right now?" This may lead to sorting things out - or not. Avoid telling the person what their priorities ought to be!

(Name), I sense that a false self has taken over for now." This is only useful if the person accepts the reality of personality subselves. When  a false-self rules, an effective way to reduce (and prevent) overwhelm is to free the person's resident true Self. Lesson 1 here shows you how.

       Implication - if you or someone else feels significantly overwhelmed, suspect that's a symptom of the real problem - inherited psychological wounds and false-self dominance.

"I'm interested to see how you resolve your situation."  This expresses your support, your boundary ("this is your dilemma, not mine"), and your confidence that the person can find their own solution. This contrasts with suggesting solutions - "fixing" or rescuing the person.

       Try saying these samples out loud for full effect. How do they compare with how you would usually interact with an overwhelmed person? If you were overwhelmed, how would you feel if someone said them to you?

       Note the theme of these sample responses. They're brief, non-directive, focused on the other person, and express respectful concern for him or her. Contrast them with these...

  Responses to Avoid

       Unaware people risk adding stress to the overwhelmed person by saying things like...

"C'mon, (Name) - get a grip!"  (instructing, shaming)

"Cheer up, it could be worse!"  (discounting, distorting)

"Hey, other people have it much worse."  (discounting, guilt-tripping)

"Well, we all have problems."  (generalizing instead of empathizing)

"What you need to do is _____________."  (advising instead of empathizing)

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going!"  (trite moralizing, preaching)

"A good night's sleep will make a new person  out of you."  (maybe - or maybe not)

"Maybe you ought to get professional help."  (implies "You can't take care of yourself.")

"If you'd followed my advice, you wouldn't feel like this!"  (blaming / shaming)

"When I was in your shoes, what I did was _______" (focusing on you)

       Responses like these usually indicate that the speaker...

  • is ruled by a false self, and is unaware of that and the other person's needs; and they may...

  • need to lower their own discomfort by discounting the problem, changing the focus, or "making" the overwhelmed person "feel better." It also probably means...

  • the speaker isn't aware of Lesson-2 basics and the response options above.


       This is one of a series of articles suggesting effective responses to common social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on feeling overwhelmed, and (b) specific options for responding effectively to an overwhelmed person, and (c) sample responses to avoid.

       These response-options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge;

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude;

  • clarifying your feelings, needs, and mutual rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

       Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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