Overwhelm: are you an outie or an innie?

Overwhelm can lead to shutting down. Photo by Tim De Pauw on Unsplash


Overwhelm is the state of feeling unable to cope with an experience.  Our mind and body either shut down, or spiral into uncontrolled activity.  An overwhelmed person can look motionless and unresponsive, or they can look animated and hyper-responsive.

Things that can overwhelm us include:

  1. Immediate sensory experiences (bright lights, loud noises, lots of people, lots of movement)
  2. Life experiences (death, separation, change of circumstances)
  3. Conceptual experiences (inner conflict, memories of the past, future speculation)

The anxiety caused can manifest in two main ways – outer-directed, or inner-directed.


Outer-directed anxiety is where we convert our overwhelmed response into anger, pickiness or criticism towards other people.  For example, a boss who is worried about the business may suddenly start picking on their staff in an unfair way; or a partner who is feeling pressure may suddenly become critical towards their loved one.

‘Outies’ rarely come to counselling, as they have solved the pressure problem by projecting onto others.  When they do come, they are hard to treat, because getting better would involve realising how unkind they are.  However, their victims often come to counselling, because they do suffer, and need to learn to stand up for themselves, or to distance themselves from the source of the behaviour, for their own self-care.


Inner-directed anxiety is where we convert our overwhelmed response into negative thinking about ourselves.  Our self-esteem suffers, and we start to feel ashamed and inadequate.  We become avoidant and fearful, unable to take initiative to rectify the situation.  We may even self harm.

‘Innies’ do come to counselling, but they take a bit of persuading, as they like to cope as long as possible without affecting others.  Often their friends would be surprised at how self-critical they are.  They are normally very good at appearing to be easygoing and amicable.  But inside, they are churning with worry, replaying incidents in their heads.


As with many psychological problems, the answer is often to find a moderate response between two extremes.  ‘Outies’ (those who project) need to learn to become more self-contained and less blaming in their response to life.  ‘Innies’ (those who internalise) need to learn to convert conflicted energy into positive external action.  Both outies and innies also need to learn acceptance, since if we truly accept all situations, then nothing can disturb us or make us anxious.

Here are six tips for dealing with overwhelm – three for outies, and three for innies.


If you are an outie, overwhelm leads you to hit out at others.  You can learn to

  1. See others as allies, not enemies
  2. Show your vulnerability, instead of hitting out
  3. Accept your situation first, and consult others, before deciding on any action


If you are an innie, overwhelm leads you to go quiet and blame yourself.  You can learn to

  1. See others as equals, not people to appease
  2. Demonstrate that you have boundaries
  3. Replace the inner critic with a positive inner voice


When we are overwhelmed, we can fall into two types of unbalanced response.  We can think too negatively about others; or we can think too negatively about ourselves.  Both imbalances cause suffering.

Those who tend to blame others can work on mutual acceptance and constructive collaboration.  Those who tend to blame themselves can work on self-acceptance and assertive, boundaried behaviour towards others.