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Feeling anxious, upset, or sad? Natural.
Feeling reflective? Non-productive?
You may be overthinking. Overthinking is:
- Going over a failure or conflict, again and again, to see how it could have gone better.
- Ranting and raving about the wrongs that have been done to you.
- Trying to figure out why life isn’t living up to your expectations.
- Constantly reflecting on your sadness.
Overthinking is so common that many consider it natural, sometimes even productive.
No. Sorry. Overthinking is not productive.
Overthinking is a modern phenomenon that's unnatural and counterproductive.
Overthinking? Don't you mean correct thinking? It's better to confront a problem than to ignore it.
Sidebar: One of the simplest ways to stop overthinking is to declutter your mind. This book can help you make that happen.
Spend more time thinking about it and you’ll discover an insight you missed.
That's why your attention keeps coming back to it. The underlying concerns and emotions haven't been addressed.
Overthinking is poison.
Most problems have causes which no amount of reflection will uncover. (3)
And what you'll learn in this post – overthinking was designed by evolution to trigger depression and abandonment, not effective problem-solving. (4)
Are You an Overthinker?
Here on Happier Human we want you to increase your happiness. We like to teach how to be happy. And overthinking is the opposite. It is a path to increased anxiety, worry, stress, and paralysis. So to help you figure out if you are an overthinker, we have a little quiz for you.
When you feel upset – sad, angry, nervous – do you:
|1. Think about how alone you feel?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|2. Think about your feelings of fatigue or achiness?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|3. Find it hard to concentrate?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|4. Think about how passive and unmotivated you feel?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|5. Think, “Why can’t I get going?”||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|6. Go over and over a recent situation?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|7. Think about how sad or anxious you feel?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|8. Think about all your faults, failings, and mistakes?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|9. Think about how you don’t feel up to doing anything?||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
|10. Think “Why can’t I handle things better?”||Never||Sometimes||Often||Always|
You're not an overthinker. Congratulations! You may not know it, but you've got a huge life advantage. Try to be more compassionate of others. Unlike you, they can't get over things as quickly.
Don't let others tell you that you're not sensitive enough. Your response to being upset is more emotionally healthy than those who overthink.
You're an overthinker. That's normal, but just because it's normal doesn't make it healthy. Those who tell you to get over yourself aren't cold or uncaring. They're right – you've got a problem. Of course, what they don't understand is that you're fundamentally different from them. You've never learned the skills required to do what they do effortlessly.
There are no known quick fixes.
You're a chronic overthinker, prone to fretting about your feelings and your life instead of effectively managing your emotional life. Those who tell you to get over yourself aren't cold or uncaring. They're right – you've got a problem. Of course, what they don't understand is that you're fundamentally different from them. You've never learned the skills required to do what they do effortlessly.
There are no known quick fixes.
How do we know that overthinking is unnatural and counter-productive?
1) Less than 20% of adults older than 65 are overthinkers. (5)
2) Overthinking is the opposite of effective to problem-solving; it burns bridges, triggers abandonment, saps motivation, ruins relationships, and causes depression.
Less than 20% of adults older than 65 are overthinkers.
“Have you ever found yourself thinking for long periods of time about how sad or anxious or angry you felt, or why something wasn't going your way?”
Well, maybe every once in a while, but not usually. That wouldn't be a helpful thing to do, would it?
Grandpa's got it right. Unfortunately, overthinking is on the rise.
Percent Which Are Overthinkers
Could it be that baby boomers are less likely to overthink because they have decades of life experience that the rest of us don't? Unlikely.
According to interviews done by Susan Nolen, former chair of Yale’s department of psychology, although seniors had confronted war, recession, the death of loved ones and other hardships, few had ever done much overthinking. (6)
That's because until recently, overthinking was the exclusive domain of the depressed.
If you were overthinking, you were either depressed or about to relapse. If you weren't overthinking, you weren't and never had been depressed.
Overthinking Is the Opposite of Effective Problem Solving
If you've ever been depressed or talked to someone that was, you know that their view of the world has been warped. They have difficulty coming up with effective solutions to even simple problems. Why? They've given up before they even started. Overthinking is the same.
Scientists have developed techniques for causing people to overthink.
If overthinking is actually correct-thinking, than those who're overthinking should be able to come up with more effective ideas than those who aren't.
In one study, participants were asked to solve one of several hypothetical social problems. (7) Some had been made to overthink, others hadn't.
What would you do if a friend was avoiding you?
Those who had been made to overthink came up with solutions like, “I guess I’d just avoid them.” In other words, they’d given up. Without even knowing it, they'd assumed the problem was unsolvable.
In contrast, those who weren’t overthinking came up with solutions like, “I’d ask the person I was closest to in that group what I was doing that made them avoid me.” They looked for and found potentially effective solutions.
Yes, those who had been made to overthink spent more time thinking about the problem. But that's like you trying to build a space rocket. You're not an engineering genius – even decades spent putting together parts would be useless.
Your prefrontal cortex is a genius, able to analyze problems involving hundreds of variables.
The part of your brain responsible for overthinking is an idiot.
The problem with overthinking is that it pollutes your thinking with negativity to the point where you are defeated before you begin. (6)
Overthinking Burns Bridges
(Again, if you struggle with overthinking, then be sure to check out this journal.)
When is it rational to rant and rave? To be so aggressive that you risk burning bridges? When there's no hope of compromise.
Back when I lived in New York City I wanted to cancel my monthly payments to my karate dojo.
According to their marketing materials I could cancel at the end of any month. According to the contract I had signed I was responsible for two years of monthly payments of $159 each.
So they refused.
I was angry. I thought about what greedy people they were. In my spare moments, I imagined getting my revenge, unleashing my righteous fury.
So I told them I refused to pay and would fight them in court if I had too.
Why did I do that? Getting angry rarely gets you what you want.
I encountered a small sliver of resistance, which in turn triggered overthinking, which in turn caused me to subconsciously give up before I even began, leaving me with just one seemingly viable solution – aggression.
Overthinking clouds our mind with so much negativity that we forget the possibility that the other people involved in the dispute are basically good people who had good reasons for acting the way they did.
Overthinking is not the same as deep thinking. Negative emotions don’t give us a direct line to our truest, deepest concerns. Instead of providing us with a clear window, negative emotions impose a lens that shows a distorted, narrow view of our world. (6)
We look through that lens, and instead of seeing the unvarnished reality of our past and our present, we see only what our negative mood wants us to see — the events in our past that are negative, the aspects of our present situation that are negative, the things that could go wrong in the future.
In the midst of overthinking all of my interactions with my karate instructor took a negative tone. The times he went out of his way to be nice was forgotten, the times he was neutral were interpreted in the least charitable way, and the one time he had been mean was played over and over again, with no consideration given to extenuating circumstances.
After a few days I was able to calm down and reach a compromise, but by then lasting damage had been done.
Many people rant and rave about their stupid boss, uncaring spouse, or unfair life situation. It feels good. So good that they do it over and over again.
Snorting cocaine also feels good. Why is cocaine consumption uncommon? It makes you feel good in the short-term at the cost of the long-term. Ranting and raving is the same.
Overthinking Triggers Abandonment
Once a month I take stock of where I'm at with Happier Human.
A few months ago I thought to myself, “I’m not making as much money as I want, I wonder what I should do? Is there something wrong with my current strategy?” Good questions. But what started off as productive contemplation was hijacked by overthinking.
At the time I thought I was looking at the issue rationally – finally confronting fears I'd been ignoring. Instead, anxiety over my business caused me to focus on the negative, which in turn made me more anxious, which caused me to focus even more on the negative, until finally, I thought, “maybe I should give up and do something else.”
Our network of thoughts about different issues in our lives is connected through our moods and emotions. Situations that have aroused negative moods tend to be connected in one network of memories, while situations that have aroused positive moods tend to be connected in a different network.
As a result, when you are in a bad mood of some type—depressed, anxious, just altogether upset — your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. (6)
Because my anxiety had put me in a bad mood, all I could think of were the cons. The failed experiments. The slower than expected growth. I had forgotten all about the successes, the encouraging e-mails, the sales prospects, and my slow but steady monthly growth.
Instead of an objective look at reality – sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, he loves me but occasionally makes mistakes, I’ve lost someone I loved but I’ll recover – overthinking awakens the doubts, worries, and failures and makes them more prominent than they should be.
We see problems that don’t really exist or that aren’t actually as big as our thoughts make them out to be. That causes us to make bad decisions. Acting out our bad moods and exaggerated concerns, we confront others, we quit our job or school, we grow defensive when instead we could have learned.
Sometimes abandonment is the right response – I’m glad I quit my old job. But usually, it’s not.
Overthinking Saps Motivation
Because overthinking brings to mind negative thoughts, it will cause you to become pessimistic. If you're pessimistic, you'll wrongly believe that you're less likely to succeed. If you believe that you're less likely to succeed – that your effort is unlikely to result in any gains – you'll put in less effort.
Most people have zero motivation to become a billionaire. That's reasonable.
Overthinking can cause even common problems to seem as hard as becoming a billionaire. For example,
Women with chronic ruminative styles suffer heightened distress upon discovering potential health symptoms and, consequently, delay seeking a diagnosis. (10)
“Oh no! I have a lump on my breast. I must have breast cancer. I’m going to die.”
You'd expect thinking about that lump more often would cause them to quickly seek help. Instead, it leads to pessimism and avoidance.
Overthinkers take 2 months longer than non-overthinkers to seek medical attention once they detect a lump on their breast. With cancer 2 months can be the difference between living for one year and living for ten.
Overthinkers not only get stuck on big problems, but overthinking seems to sap their motivation to take even little steps toward solving their problems. (6)
Overthinking Hurts Friendships
I’ve dated women who overthink, women who don’t, and women who pretend they don’t.
Of those three, women who don’t come out on top.
I’m compassionate, I’m patient and I’m interested in their emotions and struggles, but there’s a limit.
If overthinking was uncontrollable or productive I'd be the one at fault. I should be more accepting. But it's not.
Overthinking can be controlled and is usually harmful. That's why I've stopped associating with people who overthink and think that's an unchangeable part of who they are.
I’m not the only one with a limit.Overthinkers are more likely to reach out for social support after the death of a loved one, but they report receiving less emotional support. (13) Friends and family members become frustrated with their continued need to talk about their loss and its meaning for their lives many months after the event. (14)
Overthinkers are more clingy, are more aggressive, are more likely to seek revenge after an interpersonal transgression or slight, are more likely to respond to a provocation with aggression, and are more likely to assume undue responsibility for the well-being of others. (15, 16, 17)
As a result, overthinkers are perceived less favorably than others. (18)
If you're an overthinker, you're perceived less favorably than others.
Don't run away from that fact. It isn't a matter of having been born more sensitive than others. You've been poisoned.
Overthinking Causes Depression
According to evolutionary psychologists, the function of overthinking is to trigger depression. (4) Let me repeat that.
Our best understanding of fear is that it evolved to keep us away from danger. Likewise, our best understanding of overthinking is that it evolved to trigger depression.
Not to acknowledge emotions that are being suppressed. Not to better solve a problem. To trigger depression.
Those who frequently overthink are more likely to become depressed and for a longer period of time. (4)
One reason that rates of depression have skyrocketed? Overthinking is more common.
Recalling my own descent into depression when I was 13 if I had been taught the skills required to identify and then properly deal with overthinking, I wouldn't have slid as far as I did.
Let’s tally the score – overthinking is the opposite of effective problem solving, it burns bridges, it triggers abandonment, saps motivation, ruins friendships, and causes depression.
Take overthinking seriously.
Finally, if you'd like to build habits to help you stop overthinking, then I suggest focusing on mindfulness and other “head-clearing” activities. This book can help you do all this and more.