The Best Laid Plans… Dealing with Overwhelm, Illness, and Spoonlessness

What this post is about is awareness and vulnerability. It is about understanding that people may have good intentions for themselves and think they’ve “got this,” when really they’re just trying to stay afloat. It is about how to surround ourselves and others with gentleness, compassion, and understanding so that we can take the time we need to get from point A to point B.

We Can Plan All We Want

The best laid plans cannot always account for lives. Our plans do not account for numerous obstacles that may surface randomly at any time such as a death in the family, an accident, or the loss of a job. They don’t account for us getting sick out of the blue, leaving us bedridden for days. Nor do our plans account for things like chronic illness, especially when we’re in an upswing and we have that bottomless enthusiasm that screams from within, “YOU’VE GOT THIS!”

We don’t always “have this” no matter what we might tell ourselves. If life were so simple and black and white, the world would be a much happier and healthier place. But, we are human. Messy. Alive. Unpredictable. It is a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking reality. It’s what we’ve got.

At the end of the day, we can plan all we want, but that doesn’t mean those plans are always going to go our way.

When We Hit Overwhelm

Overwhelm can look like a lot of things. Dissociation. Anger. Anxiety. People experiencing overwhelm might get up and go to work. When they get home, they may snap easily, be prone to addictions, or go into a catatonic state. These sorts of behaviors or reactions might exist even without going to work. Perhaps all of those random obstacles have stacked up, and someone is stuck in that rut thinking, “Geeze, I have the worst luck.”

Overwhelm is not often something we think to prepare for, so when it strikes, we’re left reeling and stunned. What can we do?

We can certainly try to prepare for overwhelm by engaging in excellent self care, but even the most zen of us will still experience moments, days, weeks, or months of absolute resource-less-ness when life fails to stack in our favor. Let’s be realistic, though, life rarely does as we “want.”

The Chronic Illness Layer

I live with several chronic illnesses. I try not to make a big deal about them and for the most part, they’re rather invisible if I don’t talk about them. In fact, many people who are even “close” to me have no idea the things I face. This post isn’t about laying out the laundry list of illnesses, though. It is about announcing that reality and relating to you who may also face something similar.

It’s my guess that many people live exactly like this: hiding in plain sight with some sort of chronic illness or pain.

If you’re a person who experiences chronic illness or pain, it wouldn’t surprise me at all for you to still think you need to act and behave as if you were a person with NO health concerns. This minimization is chronic in our society. I believe most of us probably live with some sort of chronic illness or pain, but we’re trained to pretend it doesn’t exist in ourselves and others.

It is also a societal attitude to believe we understand the full picture of what someone is going through. We see a person who LOOKS happy, has a smile plastered on their face, and is going to work every day. They go to church or out drinking with friends. They’re in a band. They’re an accomplished artist. They are always available with a shoulder to lean on. But, what is really going on within? How often do we know? Again, vulnerability and sharing our suffering is not something we do easily.

When You Just Can’t Seem to Do Anything… Out of Spoons?


There are times when we cannot do much. I wanted to introduce the concept of Spoon Theory to those of you who might not already be familiar. Here is a handy chart, snagged off of Pintrest.

Spoon Theory.jpg

I believe that Spoon Theory applies not just to people with chronic illness or pain, but anyone who has hit a state of overwhelm regardless of their circumstances.

  • How many of you have become so stressed with your job/career that all you can seem to do is go to work?
  • Have you ever found that there are so many things you WANT to do, but you only have the resources for what you NEED to do and barely even that?
  • When is the last time you remember having all of the mental and physical energy needed to do something really fun and be fully present?

How many spoons do you have left at the end of the day? If you’re anything like me, you’re running on empty before you even make it to evening.

Gentleness, Compassion, and Understanding

We need to admit that our society does not deal well with being gentle, offering compassion, or being understanding of our own or others circumstances. We don’t like to sit still. We don’t like to listen. And we certainly don’t like to admit we’re suffering. Even on the best of days, as a hive mind we’re often judgmental, reclusive when it comes to being vulnerable, harsh, and sometimes even cruel. Many of us are awakening to the importance of compassion, but it would seem even more of us still struggle with vulnerability. To lay ourselves open for one another is a huge challenge, but a familiar experience that many of us can use.

Imagine how hard it is for you to open up to someone else. This in of itself can be a eye opening concept to ponder. How many people can you tell your secrets to? How many people can you talk to when you’re feeling ashamed? If you are one of the rare few that has no problem opening up, that’s great! Most people in our society, however, struggle. They struggle hard. Knowing what your own struggles feel like can help you to understand the concept of empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – when you put yourself in their mindset or situation.

When we can step into empathy, we can blossom into our gentleness, compassion, and understanding. When we struggle to give these things to ourselves, we can ask, “How would I treat someone else in the same situation?” This can open us up to some new possibilities. It is easy to imagine beating ourselves down, but harder to imagine doing it to someone else.

The path to recovering, to getting back our resources, is not in trying to force ourselves to do more. It is in allowing ourselves the rest we need and taking our limited resources one moment at a time and working, sometimes centimeter by centimeter, towards either  improving our health or circumstances.

Setting Up for Spoonless Days

What if you could set up for spoonless days in advance? For those of us that are chronically ill, that might be hard to ever achieve, so sometimes we might need to ask for help. Figuring out what works for us when we’re out of resources and what helps us to feel okay even when we’re not okay is essential to setting up for those times when we’re absolutely overwhelmed.

In general, some restorative activities can help lead the way to feeling healthy when we have the spoons. These might be:

  • Gentle Restorative Yoga
  • Coloring or a non-stress inducing crafts
  • Playing with thinking putty or a stress ball
  • Breathing
  • Listening to soothing music or a meditation
  • Getting some extra sleep
  • Ensuring we hydrate
  • Trying to maximize the amount of healthful food we eat while minimizing food that does not serve us (every meal counts)
  • Drinking a beverage mindfully that you truly enjoy (tea, cocoa, a refreshing lemon water, whatever!)


I don’t know what it is about Thinking Putty, but I find it EXCEEDINGLY cathartic to play with when I am overwhelmed.

When you DO have the spoons/resources to improve your situation, work towards managing that self care plan that you don’t have the ability to when you’re out of resources. Improve your space, set up for restorative practice in the future, pre-pack some meals, and reach out for help. That last one is probably the most important, but the one we’re least likely to do.

Let your family members, loved ones, or close friends, if you’re able and comfortable enough, know what you need when you’re overwhelmed. For me, I need to be talked to with a soft voice as any remote hint of anger or loudness can set me over the edge into a spiral of crying. Perhaps you need them to support you in resting or help you stay hydrated. Maybe you need their company, but in silence. Working out what helps you and requesting it of your loved ones can help you manage when you have no resources, and can help them to feel they’re meeting your needs.

If there is anything you can take away from this though, please take away the importance of community. There is nothing more powerful than tribe and being able to reach out to someone when you’re in need.

Vent. Advice. Share.

I once heard of a lovely “game” called “Vent. Advice. Share.” It is a simple way to get clear with someone you’re talking to. You say, “I need ____” and fill it in with what you need. “I need to vent” communicates that you want to JUST be listened to. “I need advice” indicates you want practical advice from the other. “I need to share” indicates you want empathy around whatever you’re feeling, such as how they’ve also felt that way, or just to have your emotions mirrored back: “I am so excited! I got a new job!” “Oh my gods YES! That is so exciting!”

But, we don’t always have the resources to remember to be super clear about our communication. If you know a friend or loved one is overwhelmed, it can help to ask what they need around their conversation with you when they do reach out.

A Note on Suggestions…

While it can be very tempting to offer others suggestions, remember that the suggestions I make here are offered as a part of my blog to a reader knowing they’re looking at an advice column. Giving advice to a friend without spoons when they do not ask for it may cause them to feel even more helpless. When you can, always ask someone how you can help or if there is anything you can do. When in doubt, you can even ask if they are seeking advice in the moment. Often, people without spoons just want us to listen and give them that gentle compassion and understanding.

Final Takeaways

  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • Be gentle with others.
  • Try and live with as much empathy for yourself as you give to others.
  • Know that it is okay to be vulnerable, overwhelmed, out of spoons…
  • Know that it is okay to take care of yourself.
  • If and when you have the resources, prioritize yourself by making a plan for what to do when you are overwhelmed (or rather, how to be).
  • Find what works for you when it comes to self care.
  • Remember that you are not alone.

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