Have you ever felt like the weight of the world was on your shoulders? Like you have to take on all the projects, help everyone around you, just to maintain a sense of order? By modern standards, this experience is identified and defined as the Atlas Complex, thus describing a need to take on all the responsibility and all the stress of the world as you navigate through it. Why would one experience the state of mind that they must take on the world? There are many reasons that encourage the behavior of being responsible for everything around us, including internal and external factors that drive us to action in search of relief.
Need to be Needed
One external motivation for taking on the world can be our relationships. For some, the avoidance of conflict by saying yes to others’ needs is enough of a reason to take on more than we can handle, and to make do for the sake of friendship, approval, or respect. Connecting and helping others isn’t all negative, however when our own needs are sacrificed for others with no opportunity for self-care, resentment, burnout, and poor mental health can follow. So how do you know if you are experiencing symptoms of the Atlas Complex in the scope of relationships and boundaries? Below are some questions you may ask yourself:
Do you secretly resent the request to help but feel you can’t say no?
Do you feel like you are the only one who can help, so you say yes?
Do you feel like you have to say yes out of avoidance of conflict or judgement?
Do you fear disappointing someone if you don’t take on their request?
Do you need to be needed? Do you feel most worthwhile when helping others?
It isn’t uncommon to identify with one or more of the questions above when connecting with others. One way to check in with yourself around your boundaries is to explore how you are helping yourself in addition to others. Remember that you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. Similar to the airline directives about oxygen masks, you must first put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, implying you are no good to them or yourself if you aren’t conscious from lack of oxygen in trying to address others’ needs before your own.
Having solid definition of your boundaries with others can be important in having quality relationships and can also improve expectations of what you are able and willing to do to help. You may feel anxious enforcing new boundaries when they weren’t present before, especially if loved ones’ question or push back against new boundaries out of confusion around the change. Change itself can also be a trigger for anxiety. The Atlas Complex can be present out of a desire to control something because you feel out of control in other areas. For example, if you feel like you can’t control the declining health of your parent, you may find yourself controlling your living environment, cleaning compulsively, and snapping at your partner when small messes are left in the kitchen. This increased irritability and urge to control several things at once manifests in response to internal anxiety that isn’t as easily controlled, making things more difficult in your relationships, work, and home life.
Awareness of your anxiety can be a first step in addressing it in healthy ways. By being aware, you can track patterns and make changes in your thoughts or behaviors, which can then have a positive effect on your emotions. Below are some ideas of what you might say or do to address the anxiety you feel:
Change the scene. Try getting out or away from an area that aggravates anxiety to gain some relief or perspective on what’s happening in your life.
Move your body. Movement can help reduce anxiety in the form of exercise. Take a walk to think things through, which helps anxiety by both serving as light exercise and as a processing tool, giving you time to explore what’s happening that stresses you out.
Think happy thoughts. Studies show that how we interpret a challenge can impact our anxiety. For example, if we think, “nothing will ever change,” our emotional reaction will feel heavier and more helpless than if we think “this is temporary, I can do this.”
Try coping skills. Taking a drink of water, breathing, listening to music, or healthy distraction can help address the anxiety you feel to make it more manageable.
Managing the Atlas Complex and all it represents can have positive effects on your mood, relationships, and life. Check in with yourself frequently to determine the motivation behind urges to hold the world on your shoulders and you may just find that the world looks and feels lighter than it once did.
“Optimism is a happiness magnet. If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you.” Mary Lou Retton