The hidden meanings of whelmed

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A man seems ‘whelmed’. Although the definition of ‘whelmed’ is said to be a sweet spot between overwhelmed and underwhelmed, the actual definition is not so sweet. Photo by Thirdman via Pexels.

I learned something absolutely shocking this week: the true definition of “whelmed”. As a freshman, I, along with all the other honors students in my orientation group, heard the “whelmed” speech: “We don’t want you to be OVERwhelmed, we don’t want you to be UNDERwhelmed — we want you to be whelmed.” The implication, of course, was that being “whelmed” is to be in a certain sweet spot between being completely bogged down by school and not pushing yourself hard enough — and as honors students, we had to understand that our mission in college was to find it. As a gullible freshman, I took this definition of “whelmed” to be a fact. There was even a gesture to accompany the word, which we all were encouraged to replicate while we said it so that this fundamental concept of being a successful student could be ingrained into our minds.  

I discovered this past week that the true definition of whelmed is to “Engulf, submerge, or bury”, or to “Flow or heap up abundantly”. It’s not really the sweet, balanced spot where you have enough time to be aware that what you’re doing is what you enjoy doing while also still being aware of the world beyond you, which is what I thought whelmed meant when the term was first introduced to me, a term that continues to be peppered throughout emails, event advertisements and almost any communication from the honors program.  

In defense of the term in its true meaning, whelmed is a fantastic word. The word whelmed implies a definitive loss of visibility to your immediate surroundings, so while it is a milder degree of being overwhelmed, it isn’t milder to the extent I thought.  Yet it does differ from “overwhelmed” slightly — whelmed lacks the finality of overwhelmed. Whelmed expresses the experience of being challenged in a potentially uncomfortable, perhaps risky and unmanageable situation, but it isn’t interchangeable with “overpowered” or “defeated” or “drowned” in situations where “overwhelmed” might be.  

Whelmed is an important word. I think there are many situations where I have used the word overwhelmed to describe what feels to be an insurmountable challenge, but that I also know I can accomplish if I get down to it. Some weeks when deadlines and exams seem to all collide at the same time, I might say I’m overwhelmed. Yet whelmed would be a much more accurate term to describe the situation — though I feel as if I am engulfed or submerged in these situations, I’ve never actually drowned.  

Whelmed provides us with a way to distinguish between levels of engulfment. This is important because it can help us to appreciate and act upon the difference between moments that are truly and finally disastrous, and moments where we can exercise self-agency to solve a problem, to have a difficult but necessary conversation or to find help. Whelmed also provides a way to distinguish between levels of emotional experience to express small moments of spontaneous encounters with beauty without risking the drama of over-sentimentality. I heard “Cactus Tree” by Joni Mitchell for the first time this week and was completely swept up and engulfed by the beauty, depth, motion, and gentleness of her voice. I was whelmed by its sublimity, and have listened to it many more times since. However, I was not overwhelmed by it — I did not fall off my chair or begin to weep when I first heard it.  

A final example of how whelmed can be used: As college students, it’s easy to be comfortable feeling whelmed and to be completely submerged and focused on school work, or on the small world created by the structure and norms of a college campus. This isn’t entirely negative, and to a certain degree tunneling is necessary to find community, to form meaningful relationships within that community and to be effective at completing what’s at hand. Yet it’s also important to question the bounds of your “whelmed” space, and not to always “stay whelmed” in your usual way. It’s important to reserve moments to not be buried in your immediate surroundings and defaults — but instead to be whelmed by someone else’s world, to be whelmed by a creative pursuit, or to be whelmed by something completely surprising like a beautiful song or interesting tree

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