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  • Lynn Findlay

Can we ever just feel whelmed?

I love this question and as someone who loves exploring the use of language, meaning and metaphor in my work, I am keen to explore further what it means to be whelmed. Is it possible to achieve a state of being whelmed in life, without this spilling over?


Right now, life is the most uncertain many of us have ever experienced it. I don’t need to list those uncertainties, our metaphorical buckets are full of the unknowns, the what if’s, when and how. We are overwhelmed by questions without answers, and that there are few people, if any, who can give us those answers. We are overwhelmed by thoughts of what may happen in the future, by feelings of fear and emotions escaping into physical responses, such as aches and pains. We are overwhelmed by grief and loss, of both people, routines and familiarity.


Our ability to seek control, have options, and hold true agency in our own choices has largely being taken away. It all feels very overwhelming.


This experience is both physical and emotional. The OED makes a distinction between being physically overwhelmed, such as being buried or drowned (or submerged) beneath a huge mass of something, especially water, and being submerged by a strong emotional effect, such as guilt or grief. Right now, I often hear overwhelmed being used to represent feeling submerged by all life’s thoughts, feelings and emotions rolled into one huge wave, which can lead to feelings of immobility and a sense of being frozen in thoughts and actions.


I have noticed that language in the therapy room is becoming more rhetoric. Questions are asked without seeking answers, or with people no longer seeking the answers in themselves.


There is no doubt that life is overwhelming, but can we ever just feel whelmed, without the over? Or the under? Is there a balance of being whelmed which may be an ok place to be or to aim for right now?


Interestingly, dictionary definitions of whelmed are similar to being overwhelmed; to be engulfed or submerged, to turn something upside down, or be overcome in thought and feeling. Whelm is old English word deriving from overturning a vessel or meaning to capsize, which likely explains these nautical associations. However, it is interestingly noted in Urban Dictionary to also represent a modern state of being calm and satisfied.


Whelmed and overwhelmed are commonly analogised with being on a boat. Whelmed is when the waves are rocking the boat, some water may be coming but it’s OK, it may not be comfortable, but you are safe, and you will get to your destination. Whereas overwhelmed is when the waves are coming into the boat, they are in control, and the boat may be on course to capsize or sink. You may feel afraid, fearful and the journey is uncertain. [1]


Both whelmed and overwhelmed then become metaphorical for that sinking feeling, but let’s consider them to be on a continuum to help explain where we are amongst those thoughts and feelings, and consider what we can do in our own boat to keep the submerging waves at bay.


Using imagery and a narrative to explain feelings can be helpful when you are struggling to put exactly what you are experiencing into words. If you would like to try this as a technique read on. Start by creating a mental image of your boat or find a picture online or in a magazine to represent it. There is no rush to do this at once, it maybe something which takes time to emerge as a formed imaged or for you to search for the right picture.


When you have your image, ask yourself some probing questions about it such as:

  • What type of boat have you chosen? (a rowing boat, a barge, or a cruise liner perhaps?)

  • How is your boat powered? (Is this all down to you or do have assistance? Is there an engine?)

  • Who is on board with you and why? (Who is missing?)

  • Where is your boat and how close are you to land? (can you see land or are you adrift in the sea. Maybe you are still moored in the harbour? Tied and cannot get loose to sail away)

  • Describe the water underneath and around you using your emotions? Calm, angry, still, shifting.

Let your boat pause for a moment and rock gently – where are you on the continuum between whelmed and overwhelmed? What do you need to happen to move along or down? Can these feelings or emotions move with you as you picture your boat moving?


By creating an analogy or picture which can emotionally change with you, enables you to assign as much detail as you wish to your picture. You can make it safe and be in control. When you know what may feel overwhelming in your picture, try to imagine what it may feel like to just feel whelmed. Is this a sense of being calm and satisfied, or just generally being ok with what is happening right now. “It’s whelming but its ok”.



Can we ever just feel whelmed? It is both an invitation and a rhetoric. I would love to know your answers.




[1] Analogy adapted from https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/19430/why-do-people-say-over-and-underwhelmed-but-never-just-whelmed

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