Many of us rehash worrisome thoughts and over-analyze them. Stir up inner battles in our minds, particularly at 2:00 a.m. when we have to be up in four hours.
You know them. The age-old: “Are they mad at me?” The more existential: “Am I doing the right thing with my life?” Or the newly-invented and most deadly: “It says he/she read my text but hasn’t responded in 17 minutes.”
Overthinking is normal, and it definitely doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. However, most of us know over-analyzing does no good; but we buy into a few beliefs that this hamster-ball overthinking actually helps us. As a therapist, I have come to believe that we can identify the beliefs and use tools to reduce this nail-picking, melatonin-popping process. See if any resonate below.
1. If I stop obsessing about this, I am going to miss the epiphany to my problem.
Do you guys remember the bit in He’s Just Not That Into You when Ginnifer Goodwin stays up all night obsessing as usual about her less-than-successful dating history? Her obsessive thinking, though adorably relatable in the film, is clearly a struggle for her. (Justin Long sets her straight. It’s jarring yet endearing.) She finally gets a breakthrough, realizing her exes were just not that into her. She’s very excited. But instead of her mind calming down, she swoops right back into the cycle of obsessive thoughts. Let’s try to figure out why.
To understand the cyclical pattern of obsessive thoughts, we must visit the psychological theory of behaviorism. As we over-analyze, we often get Ginnifer Goodwin’s “aha!” moment–a delightful epiphany that made the whole obsessive process worth it. Basically, we just received a clear, positive reinforcement to keep over-analyzing in the future.
However, let’s not forget all the negative effects of our overthinking. Poor sleep, low mood, frazzled behavior. They are countless, but they’re subtle! So while clear epiphanies reinforce us to over-analyze, only subtle side effects like brain fog discourage us. In the field of psychology, clear reinforcements almost always win over subtle discouragements.
To get around this conditioning, the key is to remember that obsessive thinking has a regressive quality to it. Regression means it sends us back to our average state of mind—anxious worrying. You, me, and Ginnifer Goodwin.
The “aha!” moment is an ephemeral moment that’s not worth countless hours of obsessing. No matter what our over-caffeinated, well-meaning brains tells us–we come to better conclusions at peaceful states of mind. (So does Ginnifer Goodwin, but I won’t tell you how it ends).
2. My anxious, obsessive thinking is a sign I made a mistake–if not, why would it bother so much?
Perhaps you recently took a new step in life. Moved to a new city for a job or started dating someone new. It is easy to overanalyze the new problems they hand us. It is also tempting to mark your anxiety as a red flag. If this new step in my life was the right choice, I should feel constant peace about it.
Sometimes we take the adage, “If it’s right, it will feel right,” a little too far. Perhaps it will feel right in the end, but the beginning of an adventure often starts out scary. I don’t reject the possibility that you took a wrong turn. I just encourage you to question whether your obsessive thoughts alone are signs from the Universe that you must correct a mistake. Especially if obsessing is a natural habit for you. If you don’t question it, you may turn down many good relationships, job options, and other opportunities in your life.
3. Obsessing over issues led me to the success I have today.
To all my over-achieving, boss readers who only need wifi and coffee to take on the world, I tip my hat to your achievement and concede that there is truth to misguided belief #3. Obsessive thinking is a form of anxiety. Anxiety can be motivating. You remember Yerkes -Dodson’s Inverted U theory, right? Anxiety increases positive results only until a certain point after which performance drops. The key is to find the optimal level of anxiety.
Your optimal point of anxiety is different than everyone else’s–your parents, your colleagues, that girl who always had amazing makeup in your 7:15 a.m. class who still got straight A’s. Don’t try to copy them. It leaves you with resentment and eye shadow you will probably regret because you were half sleep when you put it on.
In order to find your optimal point, I am afraid you will have to be brave and unleash the experimenter inside of you. Allow yourself to act on different levels of anxiety and monitor your performance results. It is extremely difficult to change. However, if you stay locked up, you may never discover your full potential. Step into the lab, my friends. Take control of your life and start testing.
4. Obsessing shows that I care about an issue.
When you are deeply committed to a person or a job, worrying about them is part of the package. It is normal, and I see it often in clients who come to see me. They come in anxiously worrying about their children, their spouses, their jobs, and various other circumstances that consume their energy. The other end of the relationship may perceive my client’s behavior as obsessive or overbearing, but the client just assumes that’s what caring about someone looks like. Sometimes it’s all they know. Telling them to worry less is like telling them to love less. The goal is to find a healthier way to manifest how much you care.
Let’s say I have a client who comes to see me because she is worried constantly about her daughter. Who am I to tell my client to stop worrying about her child? However, when that worry turns into calling her adult daughter 30 times a day in a deep panic, a healthy balance will help both parties. When we love people, we do worry about them. Just remember that worry does not equal love.
Let’s turn the tables around. When someone obsesses over a problem concerning you, do you feel cared for? Or do you prefer a calm, stable approach that gets the job done? To let this idea sink in and feel applicable, picture someone who has a huge heart but a cool, steady mind.
5. If I don’t constantly analyze this, I am losing control of the situation.
Not everyone thinks this one. That is why I saved it for last. If you need to over-analyze something in order to feel a sense of control, my guess is you know firsthand the devastating feeling of having someone control you. For that, I am sorry. However, we both know deep down that obsession by definition makes us lose control. The word “obsession” itself comes from the Latin to be besieged or even possessed. If you struggle very much with this last myth, I encourage you to talk to someone about your underlying issues. It doesn’t have to be with a therapist like myself, but at least try working through it with someone you trust. You’ve broken free from someone else’s control. Now it’s time to break free from your own mental prison.