The thinking game: How overthinking stands in the way to progress
Originally published from HF Volume 36 Issue 3
The mind is constantly churning out different kinds of thoughts, from the most profound ones to those that are out of the blue. From thinking to ignore our 6AM wakeup call to sudden thoughts of changing our career path, we always make choices in our every day routine. No one in this world has not second guessed their decisions at least once in their lives – may it be the mundane or life-defining ones, including a wide array of scenarios that are unlikely to happen.
At the moment of planning, we tend to mull over decisions to be made and every possible outcome, leading down to the spiral of overthinking. Overthinking is a roadblock that many people fall into, but what does this say about how we view the steps we need to take to move forward?
An endless mind wheel
Getting stuck in a distressing cycle of overanalyzing thoughts and weighing matters of concern may appear like going around in a hamster wheel without solving anything. In the research article Rethinking Rumination, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky theorized that overanalyzing everything interferes with problem-solving, causing us to dwell on the problem rather than find solutions. Spending more time understanding the causes and meaning of our thoughts creates these constant loops of thought, which becomes an automatic self-protection mechanism.
The severe habit of overthinking could be developed early in life, often as a child, as expectations and frustrations are pressured upon them. From being conscious of how well we excel in our monthly exams to more pressing dilemmas of adulthood, this brings us to another reason to overthink with the illusion of being in control whenever worrying goes out of hand. However, it only does little to no improvement when thinking about the course of events and possible outcomes turns into an unproductive way.
Planning ahead with repetitive thoughts could make simple decision-making seem challenging. There is this certain illusion of certainty that often manifests as a form of being in-denial of uncertainty. Keeping ourselves stuck in problem-solving mode makes us assume that there is a solution at hand to the problem if only we keep thinking about it repeatedly.
Down the rabbit hole
Going down the spiral and being stuck is more likely than you think, especially when it involves the perception of others about us.. Falling down the rabbit hole of overthinking can be fueled by our fear of failure, wanting to avoid disappointing others, or the pressure to be successful in life.
Pondering over the details can be beneficial when preparing for the crucial decisions, but nitpicking these little details can be counterproductive at times and trap you in a loop of questions that prevents you from taking action. Even as you carefully consider all the possible advantages and disadvantages behind the choices you have to make, the worry may still remain and cause distress.
Therapist Vicki Botnick once underscored that in the usual decision-making process, we picture a list of the full range of possibilities, and narrow it down easily, crossing out outliers and unlikely choices. However, when stuck with analysis paralysis, one gets mired in the possibilities behind the choices we make. “They feel ever-expanding, endless, and all equally probable,” Botnick explained.
Possibilities are often viewed in a positive light, wherein we are free to choose what we want. However, this can lead us to obsess about problems that don’t even exist in the first place, further hampering our progress. Overthinking can make us second guess every bit of decisions we make, constantly placing us back to a one tireless place of endless circles. While a healthy self-reflection can help in making wise choices and realization of actions, overthinking could sometimes be a form of mental torture that takes its toll, according to psychotherapist Amy Morin.
Stemming from the desire of achieving a goal, we tend to develop the habit of overthinking without realizing it underlies our imperfect expectations to turn it into a perfect reality. Our minds tend to create a constant replay of events once in a sudden, letting you think what could have happened had you done things the other way around.
Of course, there are no direct escapes to steer away from perfection as human nature always tells us to do things right: getting straight A’s in exams, finishing a degree to land our dream job, submitting your scripts on time to amaze your superiors, and more. However, the other side of the coin also tells us that too much contemplation attains nothing but unproductive overthinking– and it doesn’t hurt to set it aside at least once in a while.
While it is true that striving for perfection can be productive, the problem comes when we get stuck and overthink the ways that we could get there. The almost but unachieved moments, the one point mark that could make a difference – these are the things that we keep to ourselves hard enough, and so we do not settle for things that are less than perfect. Striving for perfection all the time can make us believe that we failed if we do not make the correct choice, as if there is only one best option in a million of choices surrounding us. Instead of the all-or-nothing mentality that overthinking makes us believe, it is much easier to take things one step at a time and determine which decisions are worth your time to mull over.
It does not take much to get caught up in the choices we make and the possibilities that we have yet to explore. But amid these choices come the struggles in deciding what we want and the regrets we get along the way, which sometimes blinds us to the simple wonders of living in itself. To move forward in life, weighing life decisions and planning for our future is only the beginning. Thinking less may seem too much for us to bear, but it can also lead us somewhere that we can grow and thrive best.
Graphic art by Charles Howard Gaa