I love definitions. They take words or concepts and turn them into living, breathing beings. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to overthink is “to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing something in a way that is more harmful than helpful” (Overthink, n.d.).
Overthinking is a finely-honed skill I have been perfecting for as long as I can remember. When the below list popped up on my Facebook newsfeed a few days ago, it kind of stopped me in my tracks. I am very aware of my tendency to overthink pretty much…well…everything, so it wasn’t a surprise to me that I am an overthinker. It was for some reason surprising that every single bullet point was ME. I am having a quiet night in with my pup, which means it is the perfect time to overthink the overthinker list.
- Second guess everything
I approach every decision assuming I will make the wrong choice, whether it’s moving to a different state or whether I want ranch or ketchup with my fries. I agonize over pros and cons, ask for advice from everyone I meet, brainstorm, journal, compare different options, review financial risk, think about how it will affect those close to me, print off a tree’s worth of papers supporting any outcome, make myself physically sick, and on and on and on. When I finally do decide, I then agonize about the fact that I probably made the wrong decision. Why on earth would I be so stupid to choose this option? Clearly the other was better.
- Analyze things to death
This is certainly a source of sleepless nights for me. What I analyze is myself – my actions, my words, my behaviors, my abilities, my shortcomings. I share this trait with many kindred spirits who also deal with social anxiety. It’s common to hear people say things like, “I thought of the perfect response 10 minutes later.” Imagine thinking of every possible response (perfect or otherwise) for days or weeks afterwards. I wonder constantly if I said the right thing or behaved in a socially acceptable manner. The world is so full of normal people, which means I don’t fit in. I study every minute detail of my day to see if I’ve made a fool of myself at any point or if I have made a passable attempt at pretending to be normal. I still have many situations or conversations that come back to me years after the fact. There is always something I could have differently…could have done better.
- Catastrophize or expect the worst
Anyone who knows me will tell you that saying I “expect the worst” is the greatest understatement of this entire century. I function (using the word “function” a bit loosely here) with the constant assumption that something devastating is going to happen to me or anyone I know at any given moment. Here are a couple recent examples:
Friend: “S took her husband to the ER because he’s coughing up blood.”
Me: “OMG. He’s dying of tuberculosis.”
Friend: “Um…no. He probably has pneumonia.”
Me: “Has he spent any time in prison? It’s a huge risk factor for TB. Has he been having night sweats?”
Me: “What’s so funny? TB is not funny!”
After leaving my groceries in the car for a couple hours on a cool fall day, I threw everything away because I couldn’t risk the inevitable botulism. I don’t care that it is extremely rare. “Extremely rare” means it happens.
I always put the parking brake on in my car just in case I forget to put the car in park. I suppose this habit comes from driving a manual Jeep for nearly a decade. Forgetting to use the parking brake genuinely can lead to disaster in a manual. I now drive a vehicle that will not let me remove the key from the ignition if it is not in park. But there’s always a chance that will fail. So…parking brake it is.
Good time for PSA: medication can be of great benefit if used as directed by your physician.
- Have insomnia
Some of my best overthinking is done at 2:30 in the morning. It’s not uncommon for my friends or family to wake up to text messages sent at some ungodly hour of the morning. I take enough sleeping medication to knock myself out for a couple hours early on, but inevitably find myself awake and searching my own head for answers to the universe’s greatest mysteries. I’ve probably solved one or two of them, but was so tired the next day that I forgot. The most tragic part of it all is that I usually fall into a deep sleep about three and a half minutes before my alarm goes off. Moral of the story is…if you are having a bad time and need someone to talk to, I’ll probably be awake.
- Hate making decisions
See point 1.
- Would rather someone decides for me
Wait…this is an option?!
- Regret often
When I was younger, I always swore I would live with no regrets – to see every mistake as an opportunity for growth and personal development. I failed at that life goal (yes I have spent far too much time analyzing that perceived failure). Regret is a natural part of life for most people. When you spend as much time as me questioning decisions and examining behavior with a microscope, it’s a very slippery slope towards continuous regret. There are things I have done or said that I will regret for the rest of my life. I know I should let these things go. I know I am only hurting myself by dwelling in that regret. However, it is so much easier said than done. To let go of regret, one must forgive themselves. That is not a skill I have spent my life honing and will likely struggle with it for the rest of my life.
- Can’t let things go
See point 7.
- Take things personally when they aren’t
In the process of analyzing every little detail, I often get lost in this fog of irrational fear that I have in some way caused everything to happen. So-and-so hasn’t responded to me because they can’t stand me and are just too nice to tell me to go away. That other person quit working for our company because I wasn’t pulling my weight. Someone else is embarrassed to be seen in public with me because I’m wearing the same shoes I wore yesterday. In reality, So-and-so has their own crap going on and may be busy slaying their own dragons, that other person simply had a better opportunity at a different company, and someone else hasn’t noticed my shoes in weeks. When it comes down to it, other people pay far less attention to us than we think. What we do has far less impact on someone else’s decisions than we care to admit. Unfortunately points 2, 3, and 7 make it difficult for me to not see every potentially negative change or outcome as my fault.
- Are a perfectionist
It’s amazing how our own expectations can cause an unhealthy amount of stress and anxiety. My mom jokes sometimes that if I say I failed a test, that means I received 98% instead of 100%. In fact, the lowest grade I have received on an exam was a C+ and it almost did me in. This C came hours after finding out my husband had a girlfriend on the side and they had a baby together, but even then I was unable to cut myself any slack. The amount of pressure that comes with demanding perfection from yourself is immense. To make matters worse, I generally do not expect perfection from those around me. I beat myself up for every little thing, but do not hold anyone else to the same gold standard, which means every disappointment is somehow my own fault. See points 2, 7, and 9. I share in Brené Brown’s struggle: “…There are days when most of my anxiety grows out of the expectations I put on myself” (2010, p. 37). She goes on to say, though, that “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight” (Brown, 2010, p. 56). Someday I hope to fly. It won’t be today. But maybe someday.
- Criticize yourself a lot
See point 10.
- Never feel 100% certain
See points 1, 2, 5, and 6
- Feel tense
I was once told that I guppy breathe on a regular basis and am visibly in fight or flight mode most of the time. A massage therapist once commented that one shoulder was sitting at least a couple inches higher than the other because of how tense the muscles were on that side of my body. I must remind myself constantly to relax my jaw, lower my shoulders, unclench my fists, and to stop pushing my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I am so frequently lost in thought that I don’t realize my whole body has become one big clenched muscle. It’s physically exhausting. Deep breathing helps sometimes, but I usually am so easily distracted by anxious thoughts that the deep breathing ends before it really gets started.
- Feel like you can’t turn your brain off
I recently found this magnet and it instantly became my favorite. With so much to agonize over, so much to analyze, so much to internally debate, I sometimes feel like I don’t even know which tabs I have open in which browsers. It’s incredibly easy and dangerous to get lost in my own mind. No wonder I don’t sleep and have difficulty with word recall and short-term memory.
These are all difficult things see in myself. To me they are weaknesses. I am imperfect. Someday soon I hope to learn that it is okay to be imperfect. I am who I am. I worry. I overthink. But at the end of the day I am me. And that’s okay.
Brown, Brené. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Overthink. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overthink