It’s hard to think of a more universal cause of anxiety, frustration, and stress than overthinking.
Whether it’s worry about the future, rumination about the past, or hypercriticism of other people, our ability to think critically is a double-edged sword we’d all do well to be more careful with.
But before you start trying to stop overthinking so much, it can be useful to understand why you tend to overthink in the first place.
Over the years working as a psychologist, I see the following seven reasons show up over and over again among people who struggle with overthinking.
1. Childhood Learning
Most people with a severe habit of overthinking developed the habit early in life, often as a child. And they usually developed it because, at the time, it was the only way they had to deal with scary, difficult experiences.
For example, as a child of an alcoholic parent, the habit of worrying obsessively about what would happen if dad came home drunk might have served a very useful function then of keeping you safe or out of harm’s way.
But here’s the thing…
The initial cause of overthinking is often very different than the maintaining cause.
While it’s important to understand the origins of your overthinking habit in the past, if you want to stop overthinking so much, you need to understand what’s maintaining your overthinking habit in the present…
“There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.” ― Sherman Alexie
2. The Illusion of Control
More than any other painful emotion, human beings seem to have an especially difficult time with helplessness. We hate feeling helpless!
This is especially true when it comes to the people closest to us — spouses, kids, parents, bosses, etc. When someone we love or care about is suffering, obviously we want to help.
Unfortunately, our ability to help other people is often far more limited than we would like to believe. But rather than confront their helplessness, many people live in denial about it.
Even though they can’t actually do anything to help, they think a lot and worry a lot and ruminate a lot. Because, while it’s not always helpful, thinking almost always feels helpful.
We overthink things because it gives us the illusion of control and keeps our helplessness at bay.
Unfortunately, the long-term costs are rarely worth it. Chronic anxiety that comes from always worrying; low self-esteem that comes from always ruminating; stress and overwhelm that comes from never feeling like we can shut off our minds.
All these can usually be traced back to our intolerance of helplessness. Which means that if you want to stop overthinking, you need to get more comfortable with your lack of control.
“You learned to run from what you feel, and that’s why you have nightmares. To deny is to invite madness. To accept is to control.” ― Megan Chance
3. The Illusion of Certainty
A close relative of the illusion of control, the illusion of certainty is based on the fact that another thing we human beings just can’t stand is uncertainty.
As a rule, we love to feel confident in how things are going to unfold — especially in situations where there’s a lot on the line. And in fact, we’re often so anxious to avoid feeling uncertain that we resort to denial, pretending things are more predictable than they are.
One form of denial about uncertainty is overthinking…
Keeping ourselves stuck in problem-solving mode makes us feel like there’s a solution to the problem if only we think long enough and hard enough about it.
All too often the nature of reality is profoundly uncertain. The trick is to realize that facing up to uncertainty is actually the best way to navigate it in the long-run.
It’s only when you have the courage to live with uncertainty that you can minimize its negative effects on your life.
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
Here’s the thing most people don’t get about perfectionism…
Perfectionism is not about being perfect. It’s about feeling perfect.
People who struggle with perfectionism have a hard time moving on from things because they don’t feel perfect about them:
That blog post you’re about to publish.
That report you’re about to submit.
That piano piece you wish you could play live for others.
Nobody actually believes they need to be perfect — which is obviously impossible. But their tolerance for feeling less than perfect about some things is very, very low. And the result…
Perfectionists overthink to distract from having to feel less than perfect about their work.
If you convince yourself that there’s more you need to do, that means there’s more you need to think about. And that means less time having to feel inadequate and imperfect.
If you struggle with perfectionism, there’s a good chance your overthinking problem is an emotional tolerance problem.
Practice tolerating the feeling of inadequacy so that you can get on with life however you feel.
“On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.”
― Tara Brach
5. Secondary Gain
Some people get stuck in the habit of overthinking because it has secondary or non-obvious benefits.
Some people maintain their habit of overthinking because it leads to sympathy and pity from other people in their lives, which feels good.
Overthinking can also be an excuse for procrastinating or avoiding decisions: if you tell yourself you can’t make a decision because maybe you haven’t thought enough about it, then you can’t ever be blamed for making a bad decision.
If you keep overthinking, it’s probably because you’re getting something out of it.
So, one approach to ending the cycle of overthinking is to figure out what the non-obvious benefits are of your overthinking and then generate less stress-producing strategies for getting the same thing.
For example, if you tend to overthink because it gets you attention and sympathy from your spouse, maybe you could work on being more emotionally vulnerable and assertive about your relationship?
Habits stick around for a reason. Changing them begins when you understanding what that reason really is.
“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” — Goethe
Overgeneralization means that because a lot of thinking helps in one area of your life (school or work, for example), you assume that it will also work in other areas of life (conflict with your partner or grief, for example).
Thinking is a tool. But many people are so good at thinking, and so rewarded for it in certain aspects of life, that they have a hard time putting that tool down in other areas of life where it’s less helpful.
It’s like the old saying goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Well, to the expert thinker, everything starts to look like a problem to be solved with lots of thinking.
If you find yourself overthinking, it’s worth making a list of different areas of your life and asking honestly whether more analytical thinking is really the most effective approach.
“I often wonder why the whole world is so prone to generalise. Generalisations are seldom if ever true and are usually utterly inaccurate.” ― Agatha Christie
7. Fear of Conflict
Most of us don’t especially enjoy conflict. And so, understandably, we tend to avoid it when possible.
Unfortunately, this means we don’t get much practice in handling conflict well. And this makes us less confident in our ability to handle conflict well in the future.
Which leads us to avoid conflict even more….
See where this cycle is going?
Like any phobia, the problem with always avoiding conflict is that you’re assuming conflict is always dangerous.
Just because some spiders are poisonous doesn’t mean that all spiders are a cause for alarm. But the more you treat spiders that way, the more they begin to feel that way.
So too with conflict — the more we irrationally avoid it, the more afraid of it we become.
And if all conflict feels dangerous, you’re going to spend a lot of time and mental energy each day trying to figure out how to avoid even very small bits of conflict. And then once you do avoid it, you’re also going to need to do lots of mental gymnastics to make excuses for it.
Excessive fear of conflict leads to a lot of unnecessary thinking.
Some conflict you absolutely do want to avoid. But most of it could actually be handled well and with a minimum of stress if you gave yourself the opportunity to practice.
If you insist on avoiding external conflict, be prepared for a lot of internal conflict.
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” — Seneca
All You Need to Know
If you want to stop overthinking so much, it’s helpful to understand why you fall into this trap in the first place.
The following causes are the ones I see most commonly:
- Childhood learning
- The illusion of control
- The illusion of certainty
- Secondary gain
- Fear of conflict
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Engin Akyurt.