I originally got this metaphor from my mentor, Steve Finn. Thanks, Steve!
Think of your emotional capacity like a bucket that can only hold so much. Everyone has different-sized buckets, and buckets can grow and shrink. When this emotional bucket overflows, it can lead to various reactions, from feeling depressed to getting anxious to getting angry. This post explores the importance of understanding these emotional limits, what happens if we ignore them, and the steps to help us recover.
Inside the Emotional Capacity Bucket - Limits and Reactions:
Everyone has a limit to how much stress they can handle and must find the right stress balance. Lack of “good” stress is also a form of “bad” stress, but that's for another article. Going beyond this limit can make some people feel sad, while others might get mad. In extreme cases, it might make someone think about making big changes in their life, like leaving their job, filing for divorce, or even suicide.
Once the emotional capacity bucket has been maxed out, every new stressor adds water to the emotional bucket, bringing you closer to “overflowing.” Even good stress pushes the person closer to the edge. People react differently to stress, so it's important to recognize that each person has their own limit. Expecting someone to behave or have the same capacity as you is misguided.
Coping Requires Emotional Strength:
Figuring out how to deal with problems requires emotional strength. If you’re already overwhelmed, it can be hard to express what you need or want. This is why typical “fix it” or “bootstrap (do-it-yourself)” interventions don’t work when someone is maxed out. Has anyone ever given you a lecture on mindfulness or told you to “take deep breaths” while you were overwhelmed? Or maybe they started giving you solutions saying, “Well, if you just did ‘xyz,’ you probably wouldn’t be feeling this way.” How did that feel?
I personally believe coping should be used sparingly because it is much more efficient and effective to validate and allow difficult emotions to process through rather than trying to quell them with coping strategies. “Quelling” or soothing is really just gentle dismissing.
Allowing emotions to process unburdens the person. The therapist or friend acts as a saucer who catches the overflow from the emotional capacity bucket. Listening and validating are the tools that help the excess water out of the bucket into the saucer of the person with more capacity in that moment.
The beautiful thing about receiving the support of a good “saucer” is your bucket's capacity grows. Not only do you get relief in the moment, but you also are less likely to be overwhelmed by the same things in the future because you had the experience of surviving the hard situation and were supported enough to digest and reflect on what was hard about it. When you encounter something similar, your body and nervous system draw on the memory that you got through it before while in connection with a caring other. The embodied felt sense of that connection makes your emotional capacity bucket bigger, often even when no one is around.
I want to note that in a world where good "saucers" and people with large buckets are limited, the vast majority are coping. I agree with Hafiz:
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions.”
Seeking Therapy Requires Emotional Strength:
Telling an overwhelmed person to “just go to therapy” is harmful. Going to traditional psychotherapy requires some wiggle room in the stress bucket. If someone is already dealing with a lot, therapy might not be as helpful. It's a bit like trying to teach someone to swim when they've fallen off a boat—it might not be the right time. Getting bodywork that is focused on relaxation, neurofeedback, or supporting the person in carving out time for exercise, forest bathing, or alone time to do whatever they want can be much more helpful. Somatic Trauma and Attachment Therapists know how to work with the body without speaking and provide a viable alternative to traditional therapy for an overwhelmed person.
See Emotional Injuries Like Physical Injuries
When someone’s nervous system is maxed out and their bucket overflows, you must treat that person’s emotions like a broken bone or like the person who fell out of the boat in the earlier example. It is much harder for people to see emotional injury the way we see physical injury, but they are the same and often impact the nervous system similarly. Once you see it this way, you will feel silly if you find yourself arguing, dismissing, lecturing, or explaining to someone with an emotional injury. It will feel the same as arguing, dismissing, lecturing, or explaining to someone with a broken bone, like so:
“Why are you crying? Everyone breaks bones. Don’t be such a drama queen.”
“Why are you crying? Everyone gets anxious. Don’t be such a drama queen.”
“Why can’t you help me with the groceries? It’s only a little broken.”
“Why can’t you help me with the groceries? You’re just a little stressed right now.”
“You know, I broke my arm once, and I was fine with it. It really made me a stronger person overall.”
“You know, I had a panic attack once, and I was fine with it. It really made me a stronger person overall.”
“Well, if you had paid more attention and not let things get out of hand, you wouldn’t have broken your bone. I’m not sure I want to take you to the ER. You need to learn your lesson.”
“Well, if you had paid more attention and not let things get out of hand, you wouldn’t have become suicidal. I’m not sure I want to take you to the ER. You need to learn your lesson.”
“Aw, come on, don’t complain about your broken bone. How do you think I feel?”
“Aw, come on, don’t be angry. How do you think I feel?”
“Oh wow! Your broken bone hurts so bad you've been in bed for days. Have you tried breathwork?”
“Oh wow! You’re so depressed you've been in bed for days. Have you tried breathwork?”
“You still have chronic pain? You’ve had that for 18 years! You should just get over it.”
“You’re still sad about your childhood? You’ve been an adult for 18 years! You should get over it.”
If you're the person with more emotional capacity, you may be thinking, “Well, it's not MY responsibility to coddle the emotionally injured person! What if I give in to their theatrics and make them weaker?” That is exactly the point I am making here. Validating and helping the person process the emotion makes them stronger. Dismissing and denying makes them weaker.
You are actually making more of a problem for you and them down the road by trying to get rid of their problem rather than treating it like the injury that it is. It is the same as ignoring a broken bone. If I ignore a broken bone, it heals in such a way that the bone is weaker and more likely to break again. If I try to use the limb with the broken bone before it is healed enough, I reinjure the bone, and the recovery time is longer.
Recognizing the Need to Stop:
When something is wrong with our mental health, the first step is to recognize it and take a break to figure things out. Just stop. Then observe. That pause is so important. It can feel like swirly chaos, nauseating, clenched, imploding, exploding all at the same time. This is why people avoid stopping, but it is 100% necessary.
Then observe. Take on a beginner's mind. Watch how you think, feel, and behave without trying to make any changes at all—just notice.
Take the Pressure Off:
Just like we wouldn't put weight on a broken leg, we should avoid things that add stress to our minds during the recovery time. Clear your schedule if possible. Taking medication might be a good idea. If you have to work, do the bare minimum. Take as many goals and deadlines off your plate as you can. Focus on the present moment for the most part. You may need to update your identity. The sooner you can take the pressure off, the sooner you will be able to reengage with life.
The clients I have worked with who can stop quickly (and quickly is usually a six-month process!) have less to recover from because the pressure has not been piled on top of being totally maxed out for years or even decades. Clients who have been maxed out and who have had to “carry on” in that state with added pressure to “keep it together” take a lot longer to heal.
I often have to sell stopping to people because social pressures to perform, achieve, and produce make people who stop feel shame.
Choose the Right Professionals:
Seeking help from professionals, like talking to a doctor for a broken bone, means working together to figure out what will help. It is important to find someone who understands the power of listening and validating. It does not matter how many degrees, how much clout, how many fancy techniques or medicines they wield. If your provider does not listen to you, they will waste your time and cause a lot more damage. If you feel ignored, dominated, or dismissed by your provider, leave immediately. This can be so, so, so hard when you’re already emotionally maxed out. You may not be able to do it, and that’s ok. Once you can muster the strength, start interviewing other providers. How you feel with a practitioner matters.
Taking Small Steps to Recover:
After taking a break, it's important to take small steps toward feeling better. This is like doing exercises to help a broken bone heal. You should move to this phase only once the bone is strong enough to do gentle physical therapy. On the other hand, not moving to this phase when it is time is also injurious. There are a lot of reasons people might avoid moving on to the active recovery phase:
Make Intentional Life Changes to Stay Healthy:
Once the gentle recovery process has begun and we start to feel better, we can start to think about overall changes to make in our lives. Intentional changes that begin to emerge as a part of the healing process come with the belief: “Something wasn’t working, and I have agency to live a life that works for me.” Intentional change takes into account ongoing stressors like chronic illness, demands of your culture, needing to work, paying down debt, and other facts of life that might be present for you. Intentional change does not come from a place of ignorance or naivety. Rather, it takes stock and inventory of what is true now and what is possible from here.
This differs from the changes made during a crisis. Changes made during a crisis often involve projecting all of the “bad” and blaming one person or situation or making broad sweeping generalizations about all of life itself (which can lead to suicide). Changes made during a crisis come with a belief that “if I just get rid of this one thing, it will ‘throw-away’ all the bad stuff in my life.”
Understanding and respecting our emotional capacity is not only a personal responsibility but also a collective endeavor to develop a culture that truly understands and prioritizes mental well-being. Through awareness, validation, and intentional actions, individuals can navigate the complexities of their emotional worlds, promoting resilience and creating a foundation for lasting positive change.