Are You Overthinking Everything?
At any given point in life, it is possible to direct our thoughts in such a way that changes our perception of the same set of circumstances from bright and sunny to dark and stormy. Take a first date, for example. One minute, we may be thinking, “I’m so excited about this guy.” A moment later, the thought morphs into “I wonder why he hasn’t called me yet. Was he not really into me?” And finally, as we slip down the sneaky slope of overthinking, our mind floods with attacks like “He was probably just a jerk anyway. No one will actually be interested in you. Why do you even try?”
The not calling example is an easy one, because most of us can relate in the early stages of a relationship to the chaotic tangle of thoughts that flood our minds, interpreting and over-analyzing, combing emails for tone and decoding ambiguous emojis. Yet, the problem of overthinking extends into many areas of our lives. While time spent in reflection is an important part of being a mindful, curious and self-aware individual capable of growth and change, time lost in destructive rumination perpetuates a cycle of self-limiting and self-destructive thinking and behavior. So how can we learn when, where and how to focus our attention? How can we stop the vicious cycle of overthinking?
The Problem with Overthinking
Oftentimes, when people get in their heads, they get into trouble. A recent U.K. study of more than 30,000 people showed that focusing on negative events (particularly through rumination and self-blame) can be the biggest predictor of some of today’s most common mental health problems.
“Time spent alone in thought can be positive – a rich environment for personal growth and creativity,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone co-author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. “Yet, getting ‘in our heads’ can also be dangerous when we are negatively turned against ourselves.” Dr. Firestone states that there is “an important difference between introspection and rumination.” While introspection involves “healthy self-reflection and exploration, rumination is more like a “vicious cycle” of negative thinking and critical, demoralizing self-talk. While introspection can lead to self-understanding, insights, solutions and goal-setting, rumination can make us feel self-critical, self-doubting, stifled or even self-destructive.
Much of the time, when we are overthinking, we are engaging in a destructive thought process that leads to unfavorable outcomes. We are listening to what Dr. Firestone refers to as a “critical inner voice” in our heads that hones in on the negative aspects of a situation. This “voice” is like a sadistic coach that feeds us a ceaseless stream of criticism and undermines our goals. It’s that thought that pops up when we are about to go on a job interview: “You’ll never get this. You’re going to embarrass yourself. Just look how nervous you are.” It’s the dialogue that plays in your head analyzing your relationship: “Why is she so distant today? I must have said something stupid. She’s losing interest. She probably likes someone else.
So, why do we harbor this internal enemy that feeds us such negative commentary and terrible advice? The truth is, we are all divided. All of us are split between our real self and our “anti-self.” While our real self is life-affirming, goal-directed and represents our true values and desires, our anti-self is like an internal enemy that is self-denying and self-critical, paranoid and suspicious, both toward ourselves and toward others. Our real self is built from positive life experiences, healthy developmental events and characteristics we witnessed in our parents and early caretakers. Our anti-self is shaped from our negative experiences, harmful events and attitudes we were exposed to early in life. For example, if we had a parent who saw us as no good, our critical inner voice will likely mimic this hurtful attitude toward ourselves. As adults, we tend to self-parent, telling ourselves the same things we were told as children. When we side with our anti-self and listen to our critical inner voice, we can be led down a painful path that isn’t based on reality. We may engage in a destructive cycle of rumination, a type of overthinking that has been linked to depression and even suicide.
How to Stop Overthinking
Stand Up to Your Critical Inner Voice
The negative thinking we all experience can be hard to label as the nasty and alien enemy it truly is. We can spend hours berating ourselves about details from our day without even realizing how unrealistic and cruel we are being. By identifying these thoughts and recognizing when they are triggered, we can challenge our critical inner voice and actually change our way of thinking. There are three important steps to standing up to this inner critic:
1. Take note of what the critical inner voice is telling you and when it comes up.
At those times when you notice yourself overthinking, it’s helpful to verbalize what that destructive coach in your head is telling you. Are you having mean thoughts toward yourself, attacking your performance at work? “You sounded so stupid in the meeting today. Everyone thinks you don’t know what you’re doing now. You’re incompetent! Just keep your head down and maybe no one will notice you.” The coach may also be tricky and come across as self-soothing. “You should relax. You don’t have to get to that project tonight. You deserve a break. Just have a drink and settle down.” Of course, that same soothing-sounding voice can turn on a dime and beat you up for not achieving your goals. “You’re so lazy. Look at you just lounging around all night. You never finish anything.” Both self-attacking and self-soothing voices lead you to the same undesirable outcome. That is why it is so important to catch on to these thoughts. Notice when they arise and what specifically they’re telling you.
2. Think About Where These Voices Come From
When you become aware of the specific thoughts you have toward yourself or others, you may start to see a pattern. Do you often feel more critical of your spouse when he or she brings up a certain subject? Do you turn on yourself when you’re talking to your kids, your parents, your boss, a sibling or your partner? Once you come to know the types of critical inner voices you’re experiencing, you can think about the real source of these thoughts. You may be surprised to learn they actually have very little to do with you and your real feelings in your current life or in the current situation. For example, did someone treat you like you were stupid or incapable as a child? Were you taught to fend for yourself or not to trust others? All kinds of attitudes your parents or important early caretakers had toward themselves and toward you can seep into your consciousness and manifest themselves as your critical inner voice. Understanding where these attitudes come from can help you to separate them from your real point of view, while having more compassion for yourself.
3. Stand Up to Your Critical Inner Voice
Journaling is a very helpful way to track what your critical inner voice is telling you. One very helpful exercise Dr. Firestone recommends in Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice is to write down these “voices” or thoughts as “You” statements instead of “I” statements. i.e. “You’re so ugly” as opposed to “I’m so ugly.” “I’m useless; I always mess up” becomes “you’re useless; you always mess up.” This small-seeming alteration helps you to view the voice as an enemy and to see where it may have originated from in your past. It also paves the way for you to then respond to these voices from a more realistic and compassionate perspective.
Dr. Firestone recommends that you write down or verbalize a reply to each of these thoughts the way a friend would talk to you, i.e. “I’m an attractive person with a lot to offer.” “I’m valuable and competent in many ways.” The idea of this exercise isn’t to boost your ego. It really is about taking on a more honest and kind attitude toward yourself, the sort of attitude you’d have toward a really good friend.
As you come to know your inner critic, you can see how listening to it can influence your behavior. Pay attention to how your critical inner voice perpetuates that cycle of overthinking. Notice when it tells you to do harmful things like, “Just isolate yourself. Have that third piece of cake. Don’t tell her how you feel. Keep him at a distance.” Then, make a conscious effort to act on your REAL point of view and go for what you want. Although the voice may get louder at first, like an angry toddler throwing a tantrum, eventually it will quiet down, as your real self is strengthened.
Use Mindfulness to Choose Your Thoughts
One proven tool that is incredibly effective in helping people to choose their thoughts and stop overthinking is mindfulness. “Mindfulness is actually a way of connecting with your life, and it’s something that doesn’t involve a lot of energy,” said mindfulness expert Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. “It involves a kind of cultivating attention in a particular way… It’s paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment non-judgmentally as if your life depended on it.”
For the overthinkers out there, mindfulness can be a life-saver. Learning to control or focus your attention can enhance an inner sense of calm and lead to increased self-awareness. With this awareness, you are better able to understand and take power over your behavior. “Attention is the faculty that allows us to navigate our lives in one way or another and to actually know what’s happening or know that we don’t know what’s happening and find ways to be in a wiser relationship to things that are going on in our lives [rather] than being at the mercy, say, of our own emotional reactions and crazy thoughts and fears and so forth,” said Dr. Kabat-Zinn.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you to know your thoughts and react more calmly to them, without catastrophizing or allowing them to spiral out of control. Psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell refers to the mind as often jumping around “like a monkey or a wild horse.” She describes mindfulness as a way of coming to know your own mind. “When you’re sitting in meditation, it’s like you’re watching a movie of all your thoughts, said Dr. Rockwell. “Over time, what happens is that you just come to know that movie so well, and it can no longer take you off your spot…They say thoughts are like passing clouds and if we can come to observe them that way, they don’t have control over us.”
Shift the Way You See Problems
Reflecting on an important decision before making it is usually a wise course of action. However, when we start ruminating on or overthinking an issue in a negative sense, it can lead us to feel stressed or paralyzed in relation to taking action. If we find ourselves having an exaggerated focus on a specific problem, how we are viewing that problem matters a lot. Dr. Salvatore Maddi, founder of The Hardiness Institute found one of the most essential factors to psychological resilience or “hardiness” involves seeing obstacles as challenges or as opportunities for growth and change. According to Dr. Maddi, the hardiest of people are typically the most successful in all areas of their lives.
By accepting that we have a great deal of control over our circumstances, by seeing problems as challenges and committing to stay the course and work hard through these challenges, Dr. Maddi says we can each become much more resilient and successful in getting what we want in life. If, on the other hand, we find ourselves overthinking a problem, seeing it as out of our control, bigger than us or unresolvable, we undermine our own strength, ability and resilience. Developing our hardiness can change our perception of and relationship to problems. Rather than falling victim to them, we can shift our thinking so that we feel powerful and action-oriented in relation to whatever challenge we are facing.conquer critical inner voice, critical inner voice, hardiness, mindfulness, negative thoughts, positive thinking, self-critical thoughts, thoughts