So a client and I are humming along the other day and she mentions how when she starts to think of all the things she’s going to have to do to get her amazing ideas off the ground, she gets really overwhelmed.

Totally natural, I said. And also, totally not coincidental. Overwhelm is a little-recognized form of resistance.

Overwhelm often feels like something that happens to us. One minute, we’re flying high, everything is under control, we’re gliding along making shit happen while somehow managing to feed and clothe ourselves properly and even have time for the occasional social gathering. The next minute we’re in the scheduling equivalent of a ten-car pileup on the I-95 corridor (or the I-5 corridor if you’re a West coaster, or the security line at Heathrow if you’re neither), cursing and making bargains with your god(s) about how if you ever get out of this, you swear you’re never taking this way again.

But overwhelm is not accidental. It’s one of the many ways our fear and resistance gets sneaky and paralyzes us without us even realizing why we are suddenly increasingly attracted to the couch, cookies, and Netflix, where twenty minutes ago, we were all raring to go.

What did you do to get into this overwhelmed place? You said yes when you should have so no, you got all excited about doing a bunch of things that would require way more than 24 hours in a day to do, you jumped on a fact-finding train that started with an innocent question about an idea you have brewing and ended with a mental to do list of everything you will need to do in the next five years to make that idea happen. I have done all of these things and more.

Why? Was it because I was just being unconscious with my time? Partly. (Which is its own form of resistance.)

But, I think it goes deeper than that. I think I get overwhelmed as a form of resistance to moving forward. Because my reaction to overwhelm is usually to freeze and panic. Anytime your reaction to something is to freeze and panic, and there is not an actual bear in front of you (or any other real danger) you can be pretty sure that there is some resistance there, dressed up in the drag of “shoulds,” trying to convince you to stay put.

Resistance is especially good at this when you have learned how to navigate its usual fear tactics–it pulls out a really compelling statement, that seemingly every good human being would have to agree with, and it puts it on like a dress, before greeting you in the morning.

Statements like:

If I’m going to start a business, I should read every blog post, book, and free download ever written about it.

If I’m going to be visiting a place, I should see as many people and places there that I possibly can.

If it’s the holidays, I should make as much effort as possible to do as much for as many people as I possibly can.

Sound familiar? Notice the maximizing tendency in these? To do as much as possible?

When you entertain shoulds with a maximizing tendency, you get overwhelmed by all that maximizing you didn’t really have the time or energy for, and then you freeze and shut down and quit (if you’re allowed) or you muddle through it as well as you can (which, in my case, is usually pretty poorly), praying for the day when you can just lie down again.

It’s not an accident that overwhelm leads to burnout, which leads to quitting, which is what your resistance really wanted all along–for you to quit rocking the boat and stay exactly where you are, because where you are is a known entity and wherever you are trying to go isn’t one (yet).

Fact finding, aka “doing a little research,” aka “googling” is one of the root causes of overwhelm I see in a lot of my clients. Some fact finding is great! I am actually a very big fact-finder. I love it! A little goes a long way though. And it’s easy to tell the difference between productive fact-finding and fact-finding that is just resistance telling you that you will never be prepared until you READ ALL THE THINGS in order to keep you from making any real progress.

It’s the same way I tell the difference between fear and intuition–fact finding that is useful and productive and not a method my resistance is using to stay stuck in one place gives me momentum that I can feel it in my body! I feel inspired to act by the information. I feel inspired to learn more. I feel inspired that I can actually do this thing I want to do!

Fact finding that is really just resistance dressed up in the drag of “gotta cover all my bases” feels different in my body–it feels slow, sluggish, blocked, paralyzed, pressed down, trapped, etc. It’s like when I’ve been watching too much TV or on the internet for too long–I get up and I feel almost physically ill.  It multiplies my fears of inadequacy instead of multiplying my sense of competence. I feel afraid that I won’t ever learn enough and even if I did, that I wouldn’t be good enough to put into place.

There’s good overwhelm–I can’t believe all this amazing stuff I get to experience! And then there’s the other kind. Keep the good, ditch the bad.

So, the next time you find yourself overwhelmed, ask yourself where it came from, how you got here, and whether it could be a form of resistance. What are truth or strength or future are you avoiding by slipping into overwhelm? And take it back.