We've all been there. Handling the million little things women handle in any given week-- catching up on work assignments, making dinner, checking in on that friend in crisis, running food over to the new mother down the street, buying the last-minute gift-- and then we're thrown that final straw request. The one that sends us over the edge. "Honey, could you grab my dry cleaning while you're out?". Suddenly it's all too much. The balls we've been juggling for weeks feel like they're crashing to the ground and with them come our emotions.
What just happened? Whether you call it the tipping point, breaking point, or something else every woman has one. Some of us can bear the weight of expectation (especially our own) for a long time but eventually, enough is enough. Why does this happen more often to women than men?
Typically, women carry more of what's called 'The Mental Load'. This is not just the completion of a task. It is everything that goes along WITH the task. It is everything that surrounds a task and the ripple effect that doing or not doing the task will have on other people. Here is an example: Fall clean-up.
Men will think "I will be helpful and rake the leaves into the street this weekend". But the woman is thinking three steps ahead of him and knows "No, this is not helpful because the town sent a flyer that there will be a repaving effort on Sunday and requested residents not put leaves out yet. And beyond that, leaf removal is not conducted for 3 more weeks which means those leaves will blow around or get rained on, creating a mess in the rain grates that I will have to deal with, so you may as well wait".
Another example might be when it comes time to buy a new winter coat for teenager Jack. Dad wants to buy the less expensive knock-off but Mom knows Jack has been struggling lately with friends and everyone seems to be fixated, right or wrong, on a certain brand. She sees the look on Jack's face and reads it quickly. Dad thinks this is just a coat but Jack sees this purchase as possible acceptance from his friends. She knows which coat they need to buy for a few bucks more.
The point is this: Women are typically more attuned to the nuances and details that matter to all the people around them. They pay attention and follow the rules. They know what is expected and make attempts to fulfill those expectations. Are there men who do this too? Absolutely! But especially in heteronormative couples, women carry more of the mental load and that takes a toll UNLESS she has become really good at understanding her Stress O.S. signs and gets out ahead of them.
WHAT ARE STRESS O.S. SIGNS? These are the early warning signals that, if you pay attention, will help you avoid overwhelm and burnout!
From an activity perspective, burnout begins when women start sleeping less, giving up their self-care routines, shortening workouts, skipping meals, and/or seeing friends less when things 'get busy'. If you have replaced your calendar of things you LOVE with tasks you "have" to do, you will surely reach overwhelm soon. Stress O.S.!
For some women, shopping is a signal that they feel undervalued and overwhelmed. Are the Amazon trucks on a non-stop loop past your house? Stress O.S.!
For most women, the emotion they start feeling when they have overburdened themselves with too much is frustration. Their temper quickens and their fuse shortens. Notice yourself yelling at your kids more frequently? Stress O.S.!
Frustration is quickly followed by resentment. "I can't believe my in-laws never offer to bring a dish to Thanksgiving. What do they think this is, a Michelin 5 star restaurant?". Stress.O.S.!
For me, I know I've reached the point of no return when I start to cry and want to crawl into bed. I'm tired. beat down and feeling unappreciated. It has taken me years to learn that a few days before that I begin needing affirmation and words of praise from my spouse. When I start looking for pats on the back I know I'm a walking martyr just headed for the cliffs. This is one of MY Stress. O. S. signs. What are yours??
Pro Tip #1: Take some time now to think about what your behaviors are when you get overburdened BEFORE the next stress cycle. Can you think of any? It's not easy. You may have the wait for the next stress cycle and just observe (see Pro Tip #2). If you are able, think about ways to mitigate your overwhelm. For instance, when you notice yourself giving up your morning yoga, STOP. Renegotiate. What else could go? Is the task REALLY worth the trade-off is the outcome is burnout before Christmas?
Pro Tip #2: During the next stress cycle, just observe. Simply watch your behaviors and emotions. See if anything changes now that you are aware that your body and mind send you signals. How much do you take on before you break? How many "Sure I can do that for you" statements do you make? Are they all necessary? Who do you resent and why? What do you give up in order to make it all happen? How does that make you feel?
Anticipating your overwhelm and mitigating it is a game-changer, my friends. I hope you consider proactively managing your overwhelm cycles so that you can enjoy more of the fun of life and less of the burdensome aspects we pretend matter so much. At the end of this wild and precious life, I doubt any of us will wonder if we spent enough time at the grocery store.