“Dictionary.com defines “overthink” as “to spend more time thinking about something than is necessary or productive.”
Ever get just plain stuck in your head? You’re working on a project and it’s going fine until you come to a place that feels like a road block or a brick wall. You can’t seem to get beyond it.
Consider cows, chewing their cud. With four stomachs, no wonder they chew so much. Picture a cow when you think of the term “ruminating.” Overthinking is very similar to ruminating. That’s why overthinking is a problem: It keeps you from moving on or taking action.
You’ll probably recognize some of these thoughts that keep you stuck, usually preceded by “What if”:
- I screw it up
- It’s the wrong choice
- It’s too late (or too soon, or not the right time)
- Everyone makes fun of me
- I make a fool of myself
- They get mad/don’t like me anymore
- I try and fail—again
- My idea works and I’m successful—then what?
Overthinking keeps you from moving on, and the first step to overcoming your fear of failure (or success, since that changes the dynamic in relationships too) is recognizing when you’re stuck in a negative self-talk loop, doubting yourself.
- Become aware of when you are overthinking.
- Take action to distract yourself. Ask, what’s the next step if you’re in the middle of a project or on a deadline. Or step away and do something else (preferably something physical, that involves movement). Walk the dog, clean a junk drawer, run an errand, take a shower. Often the answer that’s evading you will come when you aren’t focused on it.
- Be positive and trust yourself. Instead of ruminating over everything that could possibly go wrong, imagine what could go right and the best outcomes of your decision. Trust yourself that you know what you’re doing.
- Do your best but don’t get stuck thinking it has to be perfect. Perfectionism leads to procrastination which leads to paralysis.
Perfectionism leads to procrastination which leads to paralysis.
- Stay where your feet are. This means stay in the present moment, not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. If you tend to panic when caught in a cycle of overthinking, bring yourself into the present moment to fend off a panic attack.
- Run it by someone you trust. “What do you think?” But don’t be too invested in their opinion. Sometimes hearing someone else’s take on a situation makes you feel more confident of your own, enabling you to decide.
(One of us confesses to this tactic when it comes to decorating. Her husband finally says, “Why do you ask me when you already know what you want to do?” Well, sometimes it helps me to think it through out loud.)
There’s a story told about a kindergartner who started drawing only with a black crayon. The teacher became alarmed and asked the parents if he was sad about something. The parents felt troubled and started examining his scribbles more closely. Was that a frowny face? Was he unhappy? Maybe he was color blind? When someone finally asked little Joey why he colored everything black, he said simply, “All the other crayons were broken.” Sometimes it pays to ask.
- Make a decision and act on it. Don’t keep second-guessing yourself or waffling. Most dilemmas are not life-and-death situations; you can change your mind later or go a different direction if it doesn’t work out.
What did Thomas Edison say after many, many tries at inventing artificial light, i.e., the lightbulb? “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And no one reading this is sitting in the dark, correct?
Driven to distraction
There’s also a mental health condition known as obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD related to anxiety, where someone is tortured by unwanted and intrusive thoughts. This is not what we’re talking about here. If overthinking is interfering with your daily functioning, see medical help.
For the rest of us? The past is past, the future is unknown. Try the above tips, especially staying where your feet are. Just don’t overthink it—you got this!
Ideas for illustrations:
Gif should I stay or should I go
Or one of those with a cat going in and out and in and out.
-Dr. Robin Jean Bruck with Mary Ellen Hettinger