Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Incompetent or Overwhelmed?

Sammy was sitting at his desk, crying.

That’s not his real name. It may not even be his real gender. Actually, Sammy was every kid in my class at one time or another. Sammy is you and me, sometimes.

He had been sitting there for better than 15 minutes and hadn’t completed a single problem on his math page. I asked what was wrong.

“I don’t know what 5+5 equals,” he wailed. I knew that wasn’t true. Sammy was bright. He had mastered double-digit math problems and knew how to carry.

I grabbed a piece of blank paper and covered the page of problems except for the top row, leaving just five in view.

“I don’t want you do all the problems, Sammy. I just want you to answer the last problem on this row, 6+6,” I said.

“It equals 12,” he replied. We did this from right to left until all five problems were answered, including 5+5. It took about thirty seconds.

We moved to the next row, and then the next, and so on, until the page was complete. It literally took about three or four minutes to complete the entire page this way.

Sammy was not incompetent; he was overwhelmed.

The definition of overwhelmed:

  1. bury or drown beneath a huge mass.
  2. To defeat completely.
  3. To give too much of a thing to (someone); to inundate.
  4. To have a strong emotional effect on.
  5. To be too strong for; to overpower.

Overwhelmed is how we feel when it seems life is coming at us faster than we can process it. It’s what happens to us when we lack clarity about our options or responsibilities (real or perceived) concerning our jobs, our goals, our relationships, or our spiritual condition.

The typical response to being overwhelmed is paralysis. When we’re overwhelmed we tend to stop doing anything productive or meaningful at all.

It seems too big, so we do nothing.

Practically speaking, a person who is overwhelmed will usually sleep more, turn to porn or excessive amounts of TV, overeat, overspend, binge drink, or find some other means to disconnect from reality.

In essence, to be overwhelmed is to be stagnant. And to be stagnant is to be unfulfilled.

The Answer

The answer is to eliminate irrelevant gray noise and discover the next important thing to do. This provides clarity to your situation.

For example, covering all but one row of math problems for Sammy eliminated everything that he didn’t need to do at first. He only needed to look at the next problem in line.

If you’re stuck at 5+5, you’re not incompetent. You may be overwhelmed.

You don’t have to solve all your problems, today. Just do the next most important thing. And maybe that’s something very simple, like hugging your kids, or taking the dog on a walk.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. -Jesus (Matthew 6:34)

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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7 Replies

  1. Bren

    Thanks so much for your timely post. I needed this.

    1. Bren, So glad it was a help! Keep on keepin’ on!

  2. Glenda Guest

    This is good advice that I will put to use. Thanks for keeping me on level ground. When life gets busy, I just want to take a nap. I should just do one thing at a time, not ten things at once, so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

  3. Tammy

    Ummmm so is this about me taking our son bowling on a school day? Lol!

    1. You took our son bowling on a school day? Yours or his? :~)