Overcoming Overwhelm

Getting to the Bottom of What’s Bothering You

Overwhelm is most often not about whatever sets us off, but rather is connected to something deeper below the surface.

Like the time I flipped out on my mom over broccoli.

Every Sunday, my kids and I have dinner with my parents. We’ve been doing this for years. This tradition is awesome for a number of reasons, one of which is having at least one night off from dinner duty every week, while my kids get time with their grandparents.

You’d think I’d be especially grateful for this, but in the worst years of my marriage all I could focus on was everything that wasn’t going well. One of the ways I unknowingly coped with the chaos was by ensuring everything else in my life was “just right,” which included making sure every food group represented at dinnertime. 

(I was a nutritionist specializing in family nutrition at the time, so I heaped extra pressure on myself to be “the example.” I cringe at all of this now, but this is where I was at the time.)

On this particular Sunday, Mom had prepared a generous spread of kid-friendly foods, but hadn’t included any kind of vegetable my kids would eat. With everything else that was already slipping out of my grasp, it now seemed I could add my kids’ nutrition well-being to the list. 

I lost it. 

Exasperated, I exclaimed, ”Is it too much to have a green thing at dinner!?” My parents stared at me, confused. Silently, my mom retrieved a bag of broccoli from the freezer and started heating it up. After I calmed down, I apologized, but all of us were very thrown off by what had just happened.

Getting to the Bottom of Your Overwhelm

My meltdown had nothing to do with my kids’ nutrition. Truth was, I’d had these kinds of episodes throughout childhood, into my marriage, and after my divorce. 

Overwhelm comes from things that have happened to us in the past, our traumas, which create a sense of powerlessness, that life is out of control.

We react to this sense of powerlessness in a variety of ways. Some of us will fight against it, grappling to regain control. Others of us will avoid it all costs and seek ways to distract ourselves. And still others will shut down our emotions and disengage from the pain.

My drug of choice was achievement, and I learned to cope with my childhood traumas by relying on myself and my own capabilities. Sadly, I had no idea that this was my tendency until my divorce in my mid-thirties. My marriage had failed, and there was no amount of performing or overachieving that was going to fix it now.

On top of all that, I felt I had lost the security I had in performing for God. I’d relied on “being good” and “doing the right things” to ensure He’d be pleased with me. I became terrified, fearful of offending Him with my now “substandard” lifestyle. Doesn’t God hate divorce? Is He mad at me? Am I getting what I deserve.

Compassion as the Antidote

For months, I nervously poured over the pages of Scripture, looking for answers. But in all my seeking, something beautiful and unexpected happened. God began to give me the perspective that He was not only okay with me, but that He still had plans for me. This was not the end, and I was not suddenly disqualified. As I continued on, He allowed me to see that my divorce was actually an avenue for His mercy, and He was using it as part of His rescue plan for me. 

Bet you’ve never heard that in church before.

But perhaps the most stunning thing was what God revealed He wanted to rescue me from. For the first couple of years post-divorce, I knew plainly that God desired to rescue me from a sin-steeped marriage (which you may have been led to believe is not something God does, but He does). 

But He didn’t stop there. He began showing me that He also desired to rescue me from the longterm damage of childhood woundings I never even realized I had

For some of us, the wounds of our youngest years are unmistakeable—abuse, neglect, abandonment. But for others of us, we had “good enough” upbringings that didn’t leave us with obvious lack, but nonetheless propped us up on shaky foundations. These unstable footings gradually eroded under the unkindnesses of life, and became liabilities to us over time, leading us into unhealthy coping practices and toxic relationships. 

However our childhood injuries come, they mar us in similar ways. We aren’t able to understand God as He is, and because of that break, we can’t see ourselves as God sees us. We may self-reject and/or self-protect, because we perceive our imperfections and needs as a source of disconnection and disappointment. We may learn to stuff our feelings, or rely on ourselves, because trusting others has only proven to expose us to the likelihood of being hurt.

Over time, we begin to feel powerless and overwhelmed, as we wonder if this is really all there is.

But God showed me that traumatic experiences I had internalized as “just the way things are,” were never part of His design for His sons and daughters. God gently exposed the dysfunction I had normalized, as well as the accompanying lies I believed about Himself and myself. He showed me where I had closed off my heart to Him, as a protective response to the injuries inflicted upon me by people who were supposed to have loved me. 

As He gave me His perspective on these experiences, the words to describe them finally came. Rejection. Exploitation. Spiritual abuse. And while God had led me to this place of sorrow, it was to shelter me in His all-encompassing compassion.

Going Forward Before Going Back

The unraveling of my childhood trauma did not occur immediately after my divorce. For the first two years following my initial separation, God nurtured me. He taught me how to trust Him and find security in Him. He brought safe people into my life and moved unsafe people out. He did all of this in advance of the heavy lifting only He knew was to come, so I’d be ready for the rebuilding season.

He knew I had to first taste hope in the present in order to have the strength to revisit the past.

Rebuilding sounds easy, but shoring up a fissured foundation is anything but. After first being re-established, God then gently exposed the cracks in my heart—the things that were done to me and the things I had done to myself as I attempted to survive.

Our survival strategies serve a purpose for a time. But when we want to move forward, they end up holding us back, because they do not have the power to heal or transform. God shows us where we are vulnerable, not to humiliate us, but to show us the source of our overwhelm, and invite us into a new way of responding to pain that will bring wholeness and life. He beckons us to turn away from our survival tactics and instead move toward Him, to receive complete acceptance and compassion.

And as His compassion fills in the broken places, our overwhelm loses its power. It instead becomes an invitation to His love. We heal. We grow. We thrive.

Same Story, New Perspective

God has shown me in the last few years that He can work miracles in the midst of anything. That’s why it’s really such a miss that we don’t talk more about things like divorce and single parenting in the Christian community. When we do, the conversation typically centers around whether or not it’s “against the rules.”

But if we could stop worrying about “the rules,” we’d be able to see that God is present in all of it. And not just present, but moving—redeeming. And from what I’ve seen, the very thing that would threaten to shame us, God will use to bring rescue and purpose.

I went to the Word looking for the laws, and what I found was love. Through my divorce, God lifted me above the lifelong brokenness that had distorted my view of myself and my life. And I can now tell my story with a new perspective—His perspective. 

Our stories matter, and more than we realize.

Revelation 12:11 says:

And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.

We are able to conquer the enemy by the blood of Jesus. But this verse also says that we also overcome the enemy’s attempts to steal from us, kill us, and destroy us by our testimony.

What’s a testimony? It’s our eyewitness account, the first hand evidence of God stepping into our lives and giving back more than what was lost.

Having a new vantage point is critical, because it changes the entire narrative. Instead of sharing our stories from a place of powerlessness, He gives us the ability to speak from the point of victory.

Our stories matter, because they are part of God’s greater rescue story. God’s rescue story spans our entire lives, spans all of redemption history. 

And He’s not done yet.

Michelle Donnelly

Michelle Donnelly is the President and CEO of PlusONE Parents, a ministry devoted to helping single parents overcome overwhelming situations to rebuild God-empowered lives and raise up a new generation. A mother of three, Michelle is also the host of The Christian Single Moms Podcast and author of Seen: Hope & Healing for Single Moms as well as Safe Haven: A Devotional for the Abused and Abandoned.

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