To better understand “overwhelm”, I looked up the definition of “whelm” which is listed in the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect.” I would have thought that “overwhelm” is even more serious and dire, but it turns out to have the exact same definition as whelm, which I find curious, and helps explain why English is a hard language to learn.
I have spoken with scores of writers who reported feelings of overwhelm, and while none of them ever reported being whelmed, if they had, that would have been equally accurate. At any rate, the question is; what happens to writers that makes them feel “engulfed completely with disastrous effect,” and why is this disastrous effect so often manifested as a decrease in productivity or a block of some sort?
This question itself is more than enough to whelm your average blogger, but I will try to answer it anyway, in about 300 words. Insofar as writers are concerned, being whelmed is a cognitive and emotional experience that negatively impacts one’s ability to write. When you are thinking of too many things, or of difficult things that generate feelings of distress, or both, then feelings of engulfment may ensue. We become whelmed by our own thoughts and feelings.
Deadlines, big projects, ultra-ambitious goals, fears of failure, criticism and traumatic memories are examples of situations and inner experiences that will dispose a writer to whelm. External demands and inner contemplations can both activate our problem solving brain lobes, which then send out signals to emotional centers, which then sound the alarm. These alarms can be useful to motivate us into action, but if they sound loudly and longly enough, we become engulfed by our own emotional reactions, and our ability to think and write becomes impaired. A disastrous effect.
Your degree of vulnerability to whelm is dependent on both the actual demands that are placed upon you and your own unique psychology. We’re all different and some brain lobes are more equal than others when it comes to being able to process emotional intensity. If you are whelmed, maybe you need to let go of some external commitments, and maybe you need to train your brain to keep its cool better. Maybe both.
Unlike overwhelm, underwhelm has a very different meaning than whelm does, but it can contribute to whelm. For instance, if you told me that you were experiencing underwhelm after reading this post, I might become whelmed, and be unable to write tomorrow.