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During the last couple of weeks, we have noticed increasing overwhelm levels in our household. I believe we can avoid much of that overwhelm.

You see, overwhelm happens when the people around us fail to stop, pause and “tone it down.” Observers miss the subtle and sometimes not so subtle cues we show that scream, “You’ve passed my limits, and it’s time to back off!”

The more subtle signs are when we slightly pull back or look away while other signals involve crying, walking away, or even verbally saying “Stop!” The ability to accurately read these cues, in ourselves and other people, and then respond accordingly gains the reward of earned trust and new-found security that leaves us and others feeling protected, valued, and respected.

Can you remember the last time someone blew past your limits?

Maybe it was a friend or family member who overwhelmed you with their anger, and you were “blasted.” Possibly the person who insisted on having the last word in a conversation left you feeling run over. Or, it could be the person you had to cut off because they wouldn’t stop talking and you had to leave for an appointment.

We become guarded, tense, and suspicious around the people who do not notice and respect our limits. Let’s face it; we are just not comfortable letting our guard down with people who fail to honor us by staying tender to our weaknesses and attentive to our need for a breather.

Relationships with people who tend to stay sensitive and attuned to our limits leave us feeling peaceful and allow room for trust to increase. We know that person will protect us from their anger and big emotions.

The ability to recognize overwhelm cues in ourselves and others is no small task, especially when we do not learn the skill growing up. In an ideal world, our parents, siblings, grandparents, coaches, teachers and community members were able to recognize our overwhelm cues and respect our limits. By experiencing the skill first-hand and watching it modeled, we learn the pattern and use it with other people.

Sadly, for many of us, this is not our experience, so we are left to figure it out on our own.  More likely, we do not even realize it is our responsibility to stay aware of other people’s capacity and back off at the first signs of overwhelm. Many of us do not even know what the signals of overwhelm are both in ourselves and in other people.

The ability to share in pain with other people and respect overwhelm cues is one of the most important and most difficult skills taught at our Thrive Training events because there is a severe shortage of expertise in this area. Also, the potential for relational blowouts increases when we have wounds in our lives from people who did not protect us from themselves.

I’ll be honest with you. Neither Chris nor I possessed these skills when we first met. Learning to stop and respect limits has been one of the harder skills for me to learn. When I start to see overwhelm in others in response to my intensity, it is hard for me to stop. In childhood, my brain learned a faulty coping mechanism where I think, “Oh good! Now we are finally getting somewhere, and you can see how important this is!” when I see I am overwhelming someone. Indeed, this is not a helpful response, and I have worked hard to change this non-relational approach. Amending this pattern is helped by the fact that I am highly motivated to practice this skill so I can model it for our young boys.

I use the moments I fail as a learning opportunity to repair, review what I could have done differently, then outline steps for how I can handle a similar situation next time around. Repairing ruptures after we mess up is crucial to rebuild trust and restore joy in our relationships.

Since this is a skill that has taken a lot of work, we must stay intentional and proactive so that our boys learn and use the skill in their lives. This brings me back to the last couple of weeks. I have noticed an increase in arguing and bickering between my sons. It is clear neither boy wants to back down, and no one wants to be the first to end a disagreement. There is a lot of interrupting each other where they both talk at the same time. Additionally, there is radio silence whenever my husband or I ask them to stop doing something. Because of this, Chris and I decided to change our tactics.

We have added the “fun factor” to the skill learning curve. We believe that some purposeful attention along with tangible rewards might increase their motivation to apply the skills they are learning. You see, both boys have “marble jars” where they can earn marbles for various behaviors we want to reinforce. A full marble jar results in a one-on-one date with Mommy or Daddy. We implemented this concept a year ago to encourage them to stay in bed at night rather than pop back up ten or more times. The marble jar has successfully inspired them to cooperate during bedtime.

So, we explained to the boys we are going to play a “game” to see who can be the first to stop whenever there is an argument, or when they are speaking simultaneously, when they are asked to stop, or when they notice Mommy (or anyone) is getting overwhelmed. If and when they stop immediately, they earn marbles for their jar.

While they still struggle in some areas, we have noticed the boys are indeed more motivated to pay attention and stop at the right times. When it comes to learning and spreading relational skills, in many cases the motivation to use a skill (especially a difficult one that does not feel natural) can be the biggest hurdle. This reality occurs for children as well as adults. In the case of recognizing and respecting overwhelm cues, we hope that the reward of earned trust and security is enough to motivate all of us to utilize this skill.

The first to stop does, in fact, win and this is a gift all of us can cherish!

For more information on this skill and further description of the 19 skills, check out Transforming Fellowship.


This blog originally posted on January 27, 2017.

Posted in Parenting

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  1. Hee-Choon Sam Lee

    Great idea, Jen! Thanks for sharing. It reminds me of a cuss word jar soldiers maintained at their shop that someone caught saying a four letter word had to put a quarter into. Your marble jar is better for the positive reimforcement 🙂

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