Get super clear on the steps you need to take to go from frazzled to pizazzled.
As soon as I became a mum, I had to start writing everything down because, all of a sudden, I had a million more things to do, and I found it impossible to remember everything.
Days after my son was born, I was handed a stack of leaflets and 10 appointments I needed to attend. It terrified me that I had so many things to remember.
There’s never any letup. All of a sudden, you are the eyes, ears, and brain for another human being as well as yourself.
Then, you go back to work, they go to school, and there is a whole heap of more things to do and remember. It feels like everyone wants a piece of you until finally you feel so overwhelmed that you can’t think straight.
We all have to deal with this; it’s part of being a parent. But what I’ve learnt over the years and through my therapeutic coach training is that we can unwittingly make things worse for ourselves.
Here, I share my steps for keeping overwhelm in check and burnout at bay, based on the most common emotional traps we fall into.
Trying to please everyone all of the time.
I’ll illustrate this with a story about myself. When my son was a few weeks old, my boss sent me an email asking me to come in and train some new staff members.
At the time, I wasn’t sleeping, I had postnatal depression, I had mastitis, and I was highly anxious. I agonised over what to do. I didn’t want to go to work, but I had an innate inability to say “no” to anyone.
I needed to keep everyone happy, even if it was to the detriment of my own physical and mental health. Even if it meant I had to be away from my son when he needed me the most.
Somehow, I found the courage to say “no,” but I hated myself for it. My people-pleasing habit was so ingrained that I felt agonising guilt if I ever had to potentially disappoint anyone. I didn’t know this at the time, but deep down, I needed approval and validation from other people, which made it impossible for me to say “no” to things I didn’t want to do. I hated that I did it, but I couldn’t stop.
This was easier to maintain when I didn’t have a child because I was the only one affected by this. But all of a sudden, I had these agonising decisions to make—put my son first or please everyone else.
Of course, I wanted to always put my son first, but I was always in these situations where I felt like I had to let other people down, and it created massive amounts of anxiety and guilt. So, I went about trying to please everyone all the time, which quickly led to stress, overwhelm, and burnout.
People pleasing isn’t something you can just decide to stop doing; it goes deeper than that. It’s an ingrained habit that meets an emotional need. The reason we need approval and validation from other people is because of how we feel about ourselves.
Chances are if you are a people pleaser, you are also highly critical of yourself. When you criticise yourself, you send yourself a message that you are not good enough, you aren’t capable, or you’re unlovable.
Inadvertently, our parents teach us how to be good rather than teach us how to love ourselves. So we create habits where we seek approval from others in order to feel good about ourselves. Just like a good girl. What we haven’t been taught is how to accept ourselves, love ourselves unconditionally, and give ourselves approval instead.
It needs to come from within.
So, what is the solution? It’s not something you can click your fingers and change, but with consistent and persistent effort, you can change that habit. You change the habit by changing the way you feel about yourself.
This is what I do. I keep a diary, and every day, I look for three examples of how I tried my best that day (even if I failed or got things wrong). I look for three things I’m grateful for. And I look for three examples of things I’ve done that day that make me a good person.
Start by recognising when you criticise yourself every day. See if you can change the criticism into something more helpful instead by reframing the thought. For example, instead of thinking, I’m a bad mum because my son watches too much TV. Change it to “sometimes, I’m tired, and I allow my son to watch a bit more TV than normal to give myself a break. When I’m happy, my son is happy.”
Feeling guilty when you find life challenging because you have a good life in general, so you power through.
Picture this scene. You’ve been running on empty for months. You are irritable and grumpy, and however much sleep you get, it’s never enough. You can’t think straight. Your head feels like it’s full of cotton wool. Making any tiny decision feels like walking through thick mud.
Your body is screaming to you that you need to rest. You’re on the verge of tears a lot. You’re starting to wonder if there’s something seriously wrong with you.
Even though you’re on your last legs, you don’t feel like you can utter a word of complaint, and you would never even contemplate asking for help. You tell yourself, “I’ve got a good support network, and I’m privileged, so many others have it a lot worse than me. I can afford luxuries in my life.”
You’re stressed, burnt-out, and emotionally overwhelmed, but you don’t feel like you deserve to find the situation difficult. So you force the feelings away by counting your blessings and practicing gratitude. Then, you power through regardless.
It may feel like you are doing the right thing, but actually, what you’re doing is giving yourself a message that your feelings aren’t valid. You are saying that you are never allowed to feel stressed, you always have to be upbeat and on it, and you aren’t allowed to find challenging situations difficult.
This is unrealistic.
What you have done is set yourself an unconscious rule. The rule is that you are never allowed to complain about difficulties in your life because you are privileged, and if you do, you are ungrateful.
Probably, at some point in your childhood, your feelings were dismissed, and you decided that you were never allowed to complain or ask for help.
The thing is we all face challenges in life. Everyone does. So, at some point, you are going to face a challenging situation and find it difficult. Which in turn will make you feel guilt and shame because you believe you are doing something wrong.
The thing about this unconscious rule is it may have served a purpose as a child to help you feel safe, but now, you’re a mum with a whole heap of responsibilities, it really isn’t serving you anymore.
Rules are made to be broken, and I give you permission to break your rule and find another rule that will serve you better as a busy, tired mum who deserves a break.
Here’s what you can do about it: choose a new rule to replace this one. Whenever I feel tired, overwhelmed, or burnt out, it is safe for me to ask for help because that’s the best thing for me and my family.
Start recognising when you fall into this old pattern and make a decision to follow your new rule instead. The more you ignore your old rule and listen to your new rule, the more you’ll strengthen the new behavior.
It’s not something that will happen overnight, and it requires your commitment. But it’s so worth the effort.
Aiming to be the “perfect” mum.
However hard I tried when I was a new mum, I never felt good enough. I was convinced I was doing it all wrong. I felt like a failure.
The racing critical thoughts circled around my mind. I was so hard on myself, thinking, “You are useless. He deserves so much better. You’re not cut out for this.”
Overwhelm was my permanent state, like a rabbit in the headlights.
You see, I was giving it all I had. I was really trying my best. I gave my son every ounce of me and more. But I still never felt good enough. I still believed I was the worst mother in the world.
I dragged guilt around like a breeze block around my neck. Even if somebody told me I was doing a great job, I didn’t believe them.
When I was pregnant, I told myself I needed to be “the best” mum. I needed to “get it right.” I was going to change the future with my son. He was going to “fix me.”
I had this romanticised image in my head about what a good mum is.
The good mum has to be perfect. She is full of energy. She is always fun. She is never tired or grumpy or makes mistakes. She doesn’t snap. She doesn’t cry. She never feels overwhelmed. She doesn’t get stressed.
The pressure I put on myself was immense.
This is who I strived to be. Except that the image I had didn’t exist; it was so unrealistic. That’s when I fell into the perfection trap. I believed I had to be this perfect mum, and whenever I didn’t match up to that ideal, I told myself I wasn’t good enough.
Or course, it’s impossible to meet those high standards. I didn’t match up on a regular basis. The more I didn’t match up, the more I criticised myself, the more I hated myself, the more I strengthened my belief that I was a bad mum.
Eventually, I couldn’t see anything else. All I could see around me were examples of where I had failed.
So, I started to overcompensate. I pushed myself more, I gave more, and I put my own physical and mental health at the bottom of the priority list.
The harder I pushed myself the more tired I felt, the more anxious I felt, the harder it was to meet my perfectionist ideals. So, I criticised myself more, and the perpetual cycle of overwhelm and burnout continued as I found myself stuck in the perfection trap.
I never ever felt good enough, and for some time, I firmly believed I was a rotten mother.
The first thing I want to tell you is that the “perfect mum” doesn’t exist. And she shouldn’t anyway. That’s the wonderful thing about human beings—we are delightfully imperfect.
None of us knows what we are doing when we become parents. We are all finding our way. It’s impossible to be Wonder Woman when you haven’t slept properly for weeks and doing something you have no experience in.
Striving for perfection is a way of protecting ourselves. It’s a learnt behaviour that is a recipe for disaster as a parent. It may have helped keep us safe at one stage in our lives, but it’s serving absolutely no purpose now.
Our kids don’t need us to have flaws. They need us to see that it’s okay to make mistakes, get things wrong, learn from it, and move on. Otherwise, they are just going to repeat the same behaviour.
So, what can you do about it? Did you think about what you believe a good mum is? Is that image realistic? Are the standards you set yourself rigid and inflexible? How can you be more realistic with what you expect of yourself? How do you talk to yourself when you’ve made a mistake? Instead of looking at it as a failure, see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Get excited because you have just grown as a person.
Start getting really curious. Recognise that perfection trap and choose to be kind to yourself instead. Pushing yourself to breaking point isn’t going to be good for your kids. But cutting yourself some slack and being self-compassionate and well-rested is.
Trying to do too much.
I stared at my list of jobs, my heart raced a little, and my head turned to mush. I turned the list over and turned the TV on. Absorbed in some mindless trash, I tried to pretend I didn’t have to do anything at all.
The guilt gnawed away at me. I couldn’t focus on anything properly. I tried to take back control and organise my mind, but it was all a confusing blur, and I found it impossible to make a decision.
Everything felt like a priority. There was so much to do. Look after my child, organise my life admin, do housework, go shopping, and handle stuff for work.
Even as I focused on one thing, I felt guilty about not focusing on the other. If I was behind at work, I worried about my boss firing me. If I did work, I worried about it damaging my son. If I didn’t do housework, I worried about what other people thought of me. If I didn’t get my life admin done, I worried about missing appointments or forgetting a bill.
So, when I thought about my list of things to do, all I saw was anxiety and stress. Nothing on that list appealed to me.
But when I watched TV instead of doing anything else, I felt even more stressed. The more stressed I felt, the harder it was to start the to-do list. Then, I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I would be worrying about everything. I felt even less motivated when I was tired.
It was a terrible vicious cycle I had gotten myself into.
The big problem for me was that everything was wrapped in anxiety. When we feel anxious, it’s almost impossible to think straight. You’ll never know where to start on your list of things to do because whatever you don’t do feels like it has consequences attached.
The only way to get out of the cycle is to make a positive action decision. Choose one thing at random and complete that task. Once you have completed the task, give yourself massive amounts of praise. Internalise how proud you feel of yourself for getting one thing done.
Work your way through each task like this. Don’t overthink it. Just get one thing done at a time.
If you can’t focus on the task at hand, take some long, deep breaths, close your eyes, and imagine completing the task. Imagine how you feel. Feel those feelings and turn the volume up on them. Get really excited about finishing your tasks. Punch the air and shout, “Yes, I did it!”
Once you’re in the energy, you’ll feel motivated to do the thing you’ve got to do.