Overthinking is exhausting – and it can lead us almost to the edge of madness. It isn’t ‘ordinary’ thinking – it is intense and relentless… and not everyone engages in it. If you are reading this, I bet that you have been told at least once during your life that you “think too much”. I know that I have. And my response is always “well, maybe you don’t think enough.” The same response that I give when I hear “you need to slow down a bit” – “maybe you need to speed up a bit.”
Some people don’t think outside of their box or too deeply; on one hand I envy them (kind of) – on the other hand I’m pleased not to be them. I’d rather be an intense overthinker than a not-too-much-of-a-thinker. Or, should I say, I’d rather be an overthinker who recognises the fact and makes a concerted effort to bring it under control. I couldn’t bear to have nothing much to think about – I’m quite attached to thinking and would miss it if it was suddenly outlawed or banned (which doesn’t seem too far fetched, given the current global political climate).
Overthinking has many causes. Anxiety is one of them. Insecurity is another. Fear is a big one… as is the need to feel more in control. And overthinking and paranoia often go hand in hand. What did they mean by that? What are they implying? What does he/she really feel about me? Does he/she really mean what they are saying… or are they lying to me? Do those people really like me – or are they just pretending? Was that comment aimed at me? Paranoid overthinkers replay conversations, or snippets of them, over and over again in their head, agonising over tiny details. They think about the things they themselves have said and cringe, or feel defensive. I know, because I’m a seasoned paranoid overthinker – who suspects that the other people involved are not replaying or dissecting the conversations I had with them. They’ve just cleared off home thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or what they need to pick up from the supermarket. They aren’t aware that I am analysing myself and how they perceive me – because I appear to be relaxed and am very interested in their lives (genuinely). I have a habit of saying too much, or of asking too many questions, or of not filtering things enough; at least, that’s what I believe. Others might not even see me that way. However, I know that I’m known for being outspoken, for having passionate views, and for digging for information – and I know that that can be uncomfortable for some people. So I try to monitor myself – at least with people I don’t know very well. Which isn’t very comfortable for me. Having analysed this behaviour a million times, my conclusion is that I fear rejection from people I like or wish to associate with – which has its roots in a childhood that was awash with rejection. Also, I never seemed to know how to behave with others, often feeling second rate and not good enough. And so, even though I’m confident and appear to be extrovert in nature, the self-doubting, not-as-good-as-others little girl is very much alive and kicking, deep within the dark recesses of my mind. It’s so damned frustrating because it leads me to feel cross with, and bad about, myself. Have I not grown out of that yet? Why do I consistently put myself down in this way? Why do I feel unworthy of just being accepted as I am – by people who are obviously just being who they are? And so the overthinking goes on. In my defence, I do pull myself up about it and reason it out, but still, it’s an ongoing struggle. And at least I do recognise what’s at the core of it. I have come across too many others who are engaging in the same kind of thinking, but without seeming to have an ounce of control over their own racing thoughts – and I know how painful that can be.
I recently asked a young woman for her view on overthinking, and she said that she tends to do it more obsessively where social situations are concerned (similar to what I described, above). And I know that a very high percentage of my customers over-analyse and over-think their love lives, sometimes starting from the very point of attraction – so social anxiety is particularly prevalent amongst us. The young woman told me that she picks apart conversations she has had during the day, especially whilst teaching, and agonises over whether or not she came across as too harsh or too impatient. I have seen her teach and have never been aware of either of those things – but it doesn’t prevent her from unfairly judging herself. She also admitted that her mind runs away with her, and usually in the most catastrophic direction. For example, she’ll suddenly wonder if she turned the oven off before leaving the house… and even though she knows that she did, she’ll sweat as she imagines the house catching fire… and then the cats being trapped… and, as a result of her mistake, dying. She also mentioned the ‘night time voice’ – you know, the one that starts banging on at the very moment you are about to drop off to sleep. “You screwed up there, didn’t you? You wasted most of your day and achieved none of the things you said you were going to. Your finances are a bit low, and yet you didn’t apply yourself properly today. Why did ‘they’ make you feel defensive? You don’t really fit in, you know – and ‘they’ know that. Christmas isn’t too far away and you still haven’t put enough money to one side. Oh no – when does the car MOT run out? Has the date passed by – and you forgot? Get up and check now… otherwise you won’t sleep at all. You’ve eaten too much today – I bet you’ll have put on pounds by tomorrow. Remember all of those things that made you sad and angry – why not revisit them for an hour or two? Remember that little hog you saw being eaten on that wildlife program? And don’t forget about that poor puppy you saw in that horrible internet article. Or all of the animals that are appallingly treated in all of ‘those’ countries. Oh, and when you’re finished with that lot, think about the poor guy you stood up in the 1980’s – what kind of person are you, that you could leave a perfectly nice person standing, waiting… just to end up feeling rejected? I bet he hated you. Or worse – himself. I hope he found a really nice girlfriend to put right what you did wrong. You don’t deserve your kickboxing belt, by the way – you’re a fraud. You can’t even kick as high as the others can because you’re older and have an old person’s hip – they’ve given it to you out of pity. Oh, and now here comes the biggie – the government and their evil vaccine and passport plans. And the media/internet censorship. We’re all doomed, and most people can’t see it. How dare they impose all of this upon us? And who are they, the actual puppet masters? There’s a lot more to come… and you have no idea what it is or how bad it’s going to be. And you’re in a minority – virtually alone. You can’t fix this, and so you’re stuck with it. You’re outnumbered – and no one else cares. Even ‘he’ doesn’t want to hear it – what’s the matter with him? There’s no future…” As you will have guessed, all of these are the mournful rantings of my own mind… and that’s just a small sample! Of course, this kind of thing doesn’t go on every night – just most nights. I am sure that you can come up with your own early-hours list of accusations and reminders, courtesy of your own nagging, finger-pointing mind! I do sometimes listen to something soothing or hypnotic, to drown out my inner critic – but not as often as I need to. Typing this has renewed my pledge to get back into the habit of quieting my mind through meditation music (especially space music, which works well for me). I think that I have been stubbornly trying to control my own night-mind through the use of brute force – which is clearly not working.
So, what’s the answer? Is it possible to quit overthinking for good? For a very small number of human souls, yes, it is. Where the rest of us are concerned, we can probably only hope to lessen it to a more bearable degree – and in order to achieve that, we need to be constantly on the ball. It’s largely about retraining our mind and reminding it who’s boss! In order to intercept our thoughts, first we have to be aware of them – and because it is so easy to live and function on auto pilot, it is also easy to not be consciously aware of what is most consistently running rampant through our mind. Once we become aware, we can start to talk ourselves down – a bit like persuading someone to come down off that bridge before they go over the edge! We have to talk to ourselves as we would to someone we love and know we can be honest with. We can double check that we aren’t being a little unreasonable, a little bit over the top. If I’m feeling angry with someone I try to identify my own contribution, and find that that really helps. When we are seeing ourselves as the victim, we are also feeling powerless and weak – which increases our anxiety. So, if I can pinpoint something that I can accept responsibility for, I feel more in control – because there is something I can do or change. If I can honestly and truthfully find nothing to own, then I can deal with the anger in a more empowered way. I can either say “screw you, I’m not letting the likes of you hurt and demean me!” or I can decide upon an appropriate plan of action.
Being aware of our own thoughts also means that we can consciously choose to distract ourselves from them. Of course, if what we are thinking about demands genuine, urgent attention, then we shouldn’t shut it out. However, if that’s not the case, then a bit of diversion is in order. If a thought is going to cause us to feel bad, sad, angry, fearful, or anxious, and we know that we can do nothing about the situation, we need to push it away – even though we sometimes don’t want to… even though we say that we do! We’ve got to be willing to let go of that bitch, because her intentions are not positive. Of course, this is easier to do during the day than it is in the early hours of the morning – but, still, it does work. The moment that that disturbing thought pops in, maybe for the hundredth time, we need to immediately think about something else. Something more productive, something that causes us to feel better. You see, we have programmed our mind to think in the way that it does, usually over a long period of time – and we can definitely reprogram it to think differently – with effort, persistence, and patience. I am sorry to say that I’ve become lazy recently, from the point of view of monitoring my own mind. I had it under reasonable control for some time, but, for whatever reason, I let it slide. Actually, as I type this, I know just when that slide started: when it became clear that the covid situation wasn’t just going to go away following the lockdowns – and when it became even clearer that most of what we were being told was seriously edited and manipulated. And when it became obvious that this is not going to be over for a very long time – and that there is a lot more to come. That’s when, for me, the night-voice broke out of its cage and started to become the day-voice, too. All of the above still exists but I have to find a way of regaining the upper hand – and so am dusting off the diversion tactics and reinstating them. I am no use to man nor beast if my undisciplined mind is allowed to continue to run the show.
The nature of our destructive thoughts doesn’t matter too much. I have worked with thousands of people who continually brood about their past and how they’ve been let down. It is akin to watching the same miserable movie, the one with the unhappy ending, again and again. It has become a habit, and in some weird, unhealthy way, there is comfort to be gained from it; however, it isn’t the kind of comfort we should be seeking. We don’t have to keep on watching that movie and reviewing it. We can close it down every time the opening credits appear – and replace it with something more rewarding and encouraging. Even the toughest life will have produced some smile-inducing memories! The subject matter of our insistent, ranting mind is less important than the impact that it is having upon us. We need to put down the white flag of surrender and stand up and face the enemy – in other words, our own inner-selves!
As for thinking too much, I don’t believe that it is possible. I do, however, believe that it is possible to think too little. Or, at least to think poorly. We are what we most consistently think about and believe; after all, thinking was what we were born to do. However, we have to learn how to do it correctly… a course in study that is always going to be a work in progress. Whenever anyone tells me that they “think too much” I know that what they really mean is “I brood too much”; they are not the same thing. There is low-level, chattering thinking, something we all indulge in – which is like a diet of bread and water to the mind. There is mid-level thinking, something most of us indulge in – which is like a ham sandwich and glass of milk to the mind. Then there is critical thinking, something few really engage in – which is like a sumptuous banquet to the hungry mind. Reactive, emotional thinking belongs in a category all of its own, probably on a par with, or even just below, the bread-and-water level. The internet is awash with this kind of thinking and unfortunately it appears to be contagious – not to mention dangerous. Stuff just pours out of millions of people’s heads like muddy flood water, through their choice of technology, and straight onto social media – without an ounce of consideration, editing, or filtering. And opinions no longer need to be educated or informed – emotional and reactive is good enough. Which is a crime, because thinking is our greatest gift – albeit one that has the capacity to make or break us. And it is more powerful than anything else that exists in our physical world. So, on that note, I will end by saying may the force be with you – and may you use your mind to create a better experience for yourself… and may you be an example to others, through the positive power of your own productive thinking.