Overwhelmed: an overwhelmingly female affliction?



I’ve just finished reading Brigid Schulte’s book (“Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time”) which addresses the overwhelm faced by many women trying to juggle a career and other roles.  Working mothers (she is one herself) are a key focus in her analysis.

The book examines the three aspects of life suggested by the title.  Doing fulfilling work, spending meaningful time with family and friends and having the space to refresh your soul – these are the ingredients of a good life, according to Schulte. 

The problem is finding time to engage meaningfully in each of these areas when we’re overwhelmed by the minutiae of work and life.

A lot of the ideas in the book really resonated with me.  For example Schulte’s argument that we’re hooked on busyness (which I’ve written about [addicted-to-busyness] in my blog) and that a lot of us wear our busyness as a badge of honour.  

She praises the far-sighted companies that offer flexible working arrangements that enable women – and men – to move beyond the traditional face-time (or “butt in chair”) culture and advocates fluid career tracks of intensity and pullback to cater for different life stages.  I was lucky enough to benefit from my organisation’s enlightened flexible working policy which brought much-needed balance back into my life – so I wholeheartedly endorse this approach.

I was particularly drawn to the play section of the book. I think this may be because play – in the broadest sense – is something that has enriched and transformed my life in recent years.  In fact it was a life raft when I was overwhelmed and felt I was drowning.


I love some of Schulte’s examples relating to the importance of play in our lives.

She introduces us to Mice at Play, a New York group which aims to bring play and fun into the lives of overscheduled women.  The events which particularly caught my eye were trapeze lessons and pole dancing!

The founder of Mice at Play, Nadia Stieglitz, explains in a New York Times article that the point of the play dates is to get people to enter “flow,” the term used by psychology professor Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi to describe a state of complete engagement and focus. As Stieglitz says,  “If you can enter into flow even a few hours once a month, you carry those memories with you and can find flow in other areas of your life. To help women get into that state, we try to do something constructive and positive, like a physical challenge.” [read more at nytimes.com]

I wonder why more women than men appear to be overwhelmed?  Schulte stresses that the attribution (and acceptance) of responsibility for child care, elderly parent care, home-making – and so on –  is still gendered, leaving women largely responsible for the traditionally female roles as well as taking on increasingly demanding jobs.

I think an additional factor may be the more predominantly female tendency to perfectionism, which exacerbates the overwhelm [I’ve written about this here: Perfectionism, procrastination and fear of failure].  Schulte touches on this when she asks if you really need to be able to eat off the kitchen floor: almost certainly not, so don’t obsess about perfect cleanliness!  I agree absolutely – there are more worthwhile things to do with your time.

Although not a light read given the depth of analysis, I recommend Schulte’s book if you’re suffering from overwhelm and feel you don’t have any time (if you can find the time to read it…).  You will at the very least be reassured that you are not alone – or at fault – in feeling overwhelmed, and will hopefully be inspired to try new ways to improve your situation.  You can find the book here: https://geni.us/Overwhelmed.

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