Most of us have felt overwhelmed at some point in our lives and no matter the circumstances that bring that feeling, it’s a safe bet that we would all agree that it’s an awful thing. The first time I remember feeling overwhelmed was when I was a budding adolescent at thirteen or fourteen years old on vacation with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. One of my cousins and I were playing in the ocean when all of a sudden I got crushed by a huge wave and subsequently ground into the sandy floor of the ocean. I remember tumbling, out of control, over and over again unable to get my footing or catch my breath. Every single time I would begin to get up another wave would come crashing down and take me back under. I was scared like I had never been scared before. I was overwhelmed.
Eventually, I made it out of the water but I was several hundred yards down the beach from where my cousin and I had placed our towels and entered the ocean in the first place. So, I started making my way back down the beach. Lots of concerned people who had noticed me struggling in the water were on the shoreline by this time and coming towards me asking if I was alright. I barked “I’m fine!” to all of them, refused to make eye contact, and just kept walking quickly back towards my beach towel. As I got closer, I could see my cousin sitting on his towel and eating a sandwich. When I got ten to twenty feet away from him, he started grinning and then broke out in all out laughter. He was laughing at me! Then he began pointing at me. I plopped down beside of him, exhausted. He was laughing so hard I could hardly make out what he was saying, but finally his words became clear, “Pull your top up, it’s around your belly!” Sure enough, I looked down and there was my bathing suit top hanging around my midsection. I had no idea! I had walked all that way in front of all those people with no top on! I was horrified. I was overwhelmed.
Both of my experiences with being overwhelmed were awful. The first one was so powerful that it could have literally killed me. The second one was so powerful that it could have made me want to die from embarrassment! And both left me with me a very important takeaway…
In the first experience, I learned that there is something about being under water that makes it possible to truly listen to ourselves. Even in the midst of being thrashed around, I noticed that there was a still, almost calm feeling that came with the noiselessness of being down under that water. It was in the moment of not hearing anything else that I could hear, with absolute clarity, my own voice calmly telling me what to do. In the case of being pummeled by the waves, it told me to stop fighting, to go with the flow of the water, and it told me to relax. That surrender probably saved my life that day.
In the case of realizing that all those people on the shore had seen my adolescent breasts, my own voice told me to remember what is most important, and having just felt close to death, it helped me put my trivial embarrassment into perspective. That clarity definitely saved me from feeling debilitating humiliation.
You don’t have to be under water or have a near death experience to listen to your own voice, but you do have to go to a place where the other noise in your life doesn’t drown it out. Not to be too dramatic, but it really can be a matter of life and death.
Get still. Get quiet. Listen to what you know. It’s powerful.
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