Overthinking is a form of self-sabotage that gets worse the more you do it.
Like a drug, overthinking worms its way into your system, getting you more addicted to it and then demanding that you use more of it to solve the problems it created.
How do I know?
I know because of years of being an overthinker and slowly learning to improve and recognize the signs of serious overthinking.
Here’s what to watch out for and how to avoid it.
1) Second-guessing becomes your curse
Second-guessing what you do is exhausting.
Nothing is ever truly over because you’re rethinking it and second-guessing your actions, decisions, words and every other detail.
You may find yourself even second-guessing the tone or wording of unimportant emails you sent or text messages.
Second-guessing everything at a granular level is both a waste of time and majorly stress-inducing.
How to avoid it: realize that many decisions which you’re second guessing are in the past.
Also realize that we have a tendency to imagine a better or preferable outcome if we’d made a different decision.
But consider this:
What if deciding differently had led to a much worse outcome? It’s just as possible as the idealistic things you may be imagining.
As for decisions you’re in the process of making or things which are happening in life? That falls under a similar category, which I’ll get to here…
2) ‘What if’ becomes your constant companion
Second-guessing’s close cousin is “what if.”
Whether this is “what if” in regard to past decisions and life paths, or “what if” in regard to fantasies and fears, the outcome is useless at best and anxiety-inducing at worst.
To be fair, “what if” can be empowering and useful if it’s geared towards how to make new inventions or ideas for what to change.
But to the extent that “what if” is purely a form of mental masturbation it’s a waste of time and a prime example of overthinking.
How to avoid it: we all ask what if sometimes. As a fun or winsome exercise in nostalgia or daydreaming it can be inevitable.
But if you find it happening too much, remember the previous point about our tendency to idealize alternative choices instead of thinking of all the downsides.
At the more practical level, what if is only useful if it helps you come up with new ideas for the future and excavating the past is only going to weaken your resolve and energy in the present.
“What if we had a whole new way to bank that changed the way society operates?” is a whole lot more useful than “what if I’d married Sally instead of staying single?”
3) Self-blame becomes your soundtrack
Overthinkers tend to do a lot of self-blaming.
Part of the reason is that those with very analytical minds are often highly self-aware.
If you’re one of these people then you have a high awareness of your actions, psychology and emotional reality.
For this reason, you tend to see things in relation to you and how you impacted them or vice versa: the downside, you often may tend to blame yourself for things which didn’t work out even if it truly wasn’t your fault.
How to avoid it: look at all the challenges and frustrations you’ve successfully overcome in life.
Do your best to give yourself a bit more credit.
Generally you’ll see advice not to compare yourself with others, but I’ve come to not fully agree with that.
In fact, if necessary, think about those who are doing even worse than you and feel grateful and proud of yourself that you’re at least doing well in some areas.
4) Sleeplessness becomes your nightly routine
Insomnia has to be one of the worst aspects of being an overthinker.
You try to go to bed at 11:30 p.m. with your body physically exhausted, but your mind won’t stop.
You begin thinking about the most random things and follow a tangent of thought that never seems to end.
You’re too physically tired to get up, but your actual sleep won’t come and if it does it’s fitful and erratic.
Before you know it the light is peeking through the window and you hear the birds chirping.
How to avoid it: get plenty of physical exercise and try supplements like melatonin, chamomile and other remedies recommended by a licensed medical practitioner.
Do your best not to pressure yourself to sleep and let it come naturally.
If it doesn’t, try meditating or doing small chores like cleaning while you wait to get sleepy.
5) Attempting to make the gray zone your comfort zone
Another aspect of overthinking is life paralysis.
You end up overthinking decisions and simple aspects of your life to such an extent that you are constantly in-between.
You kind of move somewhere, but you also kind of are just visiting.
You kind of are in a relationship with someone, but you’re also just kind of “seeing how things go.”
You try to stay in the gray zone where things aren’t really defined so you don’t feel too much pressure and are able to try to think this through.
“I really just need to figure this all out,” you tell yourself.
But somehow that clear, definitive answer just never comes. And you keep trying to exist in a space where you don’t make a firm decision on anything.
How to avoid it: keep in mind that no decision is ultimately a decision. The only constant in life is change.
If you try to sit still until the river stops flowing, you’ll just become a passive observer.
You can’t stop time or change and eventually the gray zone where you try to avoid decisions becomes its own gray-walled prison.
6) Deconstructing simple things becomes an obsession
Overthinking makes even the simplest of things into a puzzle when they don’t have to be.
Why is your work using new software and is it part of a larger trend?
Is this workout machine at your gym slightly better or worse than those other machines?
Whatever the topic you manage to find a way to overthink it!
How to avoid it: practice daily meditation and learn to accept that some simple things are just simple.
There doesn’t need to be a complex explanation for everything, and even simple things that have more complex explanations aren’t always necessary to research and study.
Why is polyester and synthetic fabric so much more popular nowadays than 50 years ago? There are numerous reasons ranging from the social and political to the economic and stylistic, but unless you’re doing a research paper on it for work your time would probably be better spent on something else.
7) Simple answers start to seem suspicious
Simple issues start to seem suspicious or strange when they’re really not.
This can be especially difficult in personal relationships where you may stop trusting a partner too easily.
You may suspect an affair, for example, where there really isn’t one.
How to avoid it: use the principle of Occam’s Razor that often the simplest explanation is the truest. To be fair, history, economics and many issues do have complex explanations.
But if your partner tells you she can’t meet tomorrow because she has a business meeting and work is getting crazy, try to consider that it’s probably true.
Could she be lying? Absolutely. Is she? Probably (and hopefully) not. So sometimes it’s necessary to just accept the simple answer.
8) The hunt for perfection becomes an unhealthy fixation
Trying to be perfect is a recipe for misery.
If you’re an overthinker it can become an obsession…
But the reality is that life rarely fits in such a neat box or the neat definitions and categories that perfection demands.
How to avoid it: remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Seeking perfection in your personal or professional life will lead to enormous anxiety, depression and frustration.
Having ideals and standards is great, but learn to find perfection and beauty in imperfection.
Balancing thinking and action
Not thinking enough is just as serious a challenge as overthinking, and plenty of lives have been ruined by pure spontaneity.
Nonetheless, as the above signs show, overthinking is a real issue that can damage your ability to get things done and experience real progress and satisfaction in life.
The solution is to balance thinking with action.
If you find yourself engaging in a lot of deep analysis and thinking, try your best to align it with actual real life and decisions.
If you’re having trouble doing this or it’s become too much of an addiction, get an overthinking “accountability partner” who can help you stay accountable when you spiral out.
Also ensure that you’re getting plenty of exercise and using your body as this is often overlooked by overthinkers and an overabundance of physical energy can easily be channeled into the mind and lead to anxiety and too much unnecessary thought.
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