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The Tragic Cycle of Overwhelm & Withdraw


If you often feel overwhelmed and have a tendency to withdraw when stressed, then you may be wearing the "overwhelmed/withdrawn" face and inadvertently contributing to this particular reactive cycle.  

A gentle, engaging, and welcoming response from others is the best medicine for someone who has the reactive habit of feeling overwhelmed and withdrawing.  Unfortunately the "overwhelmed/withdrawn" facial expression is one of the least likely ways to get this response.  

I was recently working with a large group of students.  One student more than any other was noticeably wearing this face, let's call him Nick.  His eyes were blank and frozen.  His mouth made a straight line horizontally across his face.  His whole face was still, lacking expression or animation.  His body posture followed suit - stiff and pulled into him.

During the introductions, the group was in a large circle and each person chose one specific person to introduce him or herself to and then that person would choose someone new until all had spoken.  I immediately knew that Nick would be chosen last and he was.  

When you wear the expression of overwhelmed/withdrawn, others often think one or more of the following:  

  • You don't want connection and would rather be left alone.
  • It will be a lot of work to connect with you.
  • You will be boring.
  • You think you are better than everyone else.

Acting on these thoughts others are more likely to forget you, ignore you, or avoid you.  This experience then reinforces the idea that you don't belong in the world, the world isn't a safe place to be you, and it is better to withdraw.

You can intervene with this cycle in at least three ways.  First, practice noticing how you are holding your face and body whether you are alone or with others.  Invite yourself to soften, relax, and open your posture and energy.  

Second, anticipate events in which you are most likely to move into the overwhelm/withdraw reaction.  As you enter the event, practice engaging with others despite the impulse to withdraw.  Engagement can be as simple as making eye contact, smiling, walking towards others, saying hello, and sitting without legs or arms crossed.

Third, out yourself whenever you can.  Let others know that you feel a bit overwhelmed and even though you might look like you aren't wanting to connect, you really welcome connection and are glad to be with the group.  This last bit of expressing what's really going on for you, is the fastest way to create a bridge between you and those around you.


If overwhelm and withdraw is a common pattern for you choose one of the three interventions listed above to practice with this week.  If this pattern describes someone you know, find one time this week to offer a gentle, engaging, and welcoming phrase or gesture.


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2 Responses

  1. Nov 29, 2013
    Nancy Pagaduan

    this piece solves a mystery for me, that I didn't even KNOW I needed solved. It describes me exactly, in stressful situations.

    I am enjoying hearing it from YOU and not those I offend. . . inadvertently.

    I appreciate your ongoing enrichment emails
    this was particularly meaningful
    I hope to remember to practice, and eventually to overcome this tendency/pattern.

    ALSO this was perfect timing, as Thanksgiving, actually, 'The Holidays', are typical times for me to be ignorantly going about this pattern, and reaping the negative rewards.
    THANKS a million

  2. Dec 01, 2013

    Hi Nancy,

    I am delighted to have been of benefit in this way. Thanks for taking the time to share with me. I hope the holidays are a whole new experience for you!

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