5 Lessons from The Age of Overwhelm by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with an image of the book cover over a forest

5 Lessons from The Age of Overwhelm

In her newest book, The Age of Overwhelm, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky follows up on her previous book Trauma Stewardship to discuss ways for addressing the overwhelm so many of us are feeling for shared and varied reasons. Trauma Stewardship led me to many powerful conversations about healing, sustainability, justice, and healthy non-attachment eventually leading to a collaboration on navigating trauma and burnout that we discuss on this podcast episode and a publication that will be out soon. When we released this podcast conversation Lipsky sent each of us some of her materials and a copy of The Age of Overwhelm. Here are five of my key lessons.

1. States of Overwhelm and Antidotes

Lipsky outlines four states of being that can result from overwhelm; distracted, disconnected, attached, and depleted. She also offers an antidote to each state of being and organizes chapters around these broad intentions to help folks be both proactive and reactive in addressing these states of overwhelm.

  • Less distracted, more intention
  • Disconnect less, be present more
  • Less attachment, more curiosity
  • Less depletion, more stamina

2. Reconnecting to Practices

Within these themes, Lipsky offers dozens of practices pulled from her own life, experiences as a trauma specialist, and realms of knowledge including mindfulness, psychology, and social justice work and liberation theory. These are also realms of knowledge that I’ve pulled from and many of Lipky’s suggestions connected with recommendations from others that I return to regularly. Here are some key practices that Lipsky’s suggestions reconnected me to:

Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.

Author unknown, often misattributed to Steven Covey and Viktor Frankl
"Scared pause and widest perspective helps us solve problems with creativtiy and compassion rather than rigidity and reactivity. from Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with image of Black man and flowers.
  • Sleep. Get activity. Eat well. It is amazing what can be cured by good sleep, getting activity, and meeting our body’s needs for healthy fuel. As Tom Rath succinctly puts it Eat Move Sleep.

Am I going to choose to roll on as is, or should I change my circumstances? (Understanding, of course, that eitehr way, I am accountable for the consequences).

What can I do in this instance to eliminate or mitigate harm?

What can I do that would be helpul?

Lipsky, The Age of Overwhelm, p. 9
How can I give up as much control as possible over what is beyond me & simultaneously claim as much agency as possible over what is within me?
  • Shift from reactivity to choosing a response. I connect this with the quote above from The Book of Joy. This comes up so often with my coaching clients as they manage their emotions in very difficult situations. Lipsky describes this as the difference between “being responsive without being reactive.”

The impules to reaction tends to mimic the animal brain and is a fight-or-flight action, while a response tends to be a more expansive, thoughtful activity.

Additionally, when the unexpected arises and requires us to find that gear we’re not sure we have

Lipsky, The Age of Overwhelm, p. 9
  • Be clear about the difference between stressors (beyond us) and the stress response (within us). As I first learned from the Emily and Amelia Nagoski, as they explain in this short TED conversation.
  • Avoid the second arrow. As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield often shares, avoid the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm that happens to us from difficult situation or a unkindness. The second arrow is the arm we do to ourselves thinking we deserve this, aren’t worthy of anything else, self-blame, rumination, and more. The first arrow we can’t do anything about. The second arrow, we can learn to manage or even avoid.
  • Ask, does this contribute to my well-being? A therapist offered this question, which I find both evergreen and widely applicable.

Our goal, of course, is to focus on doing less of that which erodes us and more of that which sustains us.

Lipsky, The Age of Overwhelm, p. 54
  • Less ruminating, more reminiscing. This is a very summarized version of Barbara Fredrickson’s lesson to revel in and relive the good moments more and re-experiencing the not so good moment’s less.

3. The Both/And of the Inidividual and the Systemic

We continue to get stuck thinking that there is an either/or to our attention to how individuals navigate unfair or inequitable systems or address systems change. The reality is that if we want to change those systems we have to do our individual work to be as effective as possible in creating systems change. And until that work is successful, we have to help those harmed by those systems navigate them in ways that mitigate harm and foster liberation within these oppressive structures. Connie Burke points out in the foreword how Lipsky pushes past these false binaries (individual or system, idealist or practical, psychology or sociology, and more).

For those of us who advance practical steps toard achieving idealistic goals, this faulty continuum is a pain in the ass…Indeed, her instructions and reminders demonstrate how we can and must commit to resolving this tension and coming back to a sustainable center in our lives.

Connie Burke, from the Foreword to The Age of Overwhelm, p. xiv

We have have our shit together enough in our individual control arena to show up effectively for the collective control arena.

Lipsky quoting collaborator Connie Burke in The Age of Overwhelm, p. 5

4. Less is more.

Throughout the book, Lipsky offers many suggestions but regularly cautions the reader, less is more. You don’t have to do all 12 of the practices, less is more. You don’t have to meditate for 60 minutes a day, less is more. You don’t have to exercise every day of the week, less is more.

I was struck by the grace and gentleness of this regular reminder as well as the guide away from perfectionism. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed about how we should be addressing our overwhelm. This call to essentialism is as pragmatic as it is powerful.

5. Cynicism

Lipsky devotes considerable time to how tempting cynicism can be, how destructive it is, and what Buddhists and Brené Brown would call its “near enemies.”

On temptation:

As we grow up and learn to be cynical, we gradually stifle [our] inherent love of learning, turn off our curiosity, and become calcified. Out of that cynicsm springs the impulse for instant gratification – the very opposite of the pleasurably protracted callenge of learning.

Lipsky quoting Maria Popova in The Age of Overwhelm, p. 73

On near enemies:

I have been intrigued by this intimacy of cynicism, fear, anxiety, and anger for a long time. James Baldwin wrote, “I imagine that one of the reasons p[eople cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” It’s worth emphasizing the distinction here between feeling anger, rage, or cynicism and acting on those feelings. The acting piece is where we all get to hold ourselves accountable.

Lipsky, The Age of Overhwelm, p. 73
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