Being able to plan ahead using abstract thought, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the human race. It’s the main reason we have managed to conquer nature, go to space, dramatically improve our life spans and lay the foundations for our science and technology.
But as is often the case, our biggest weapon can easily turn into our greatest downfall. Thinking and planning ahead are useful tools, and essential in mastering our trade, profession or art, building our business and finding success in our lives. When used excessively or inappropriately however, they can quickly turn against us. They lead to anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt and negative thoughts.
I have two Birman cat pet companions, and what I admire most about them, is their ability to effortlessly connect with their authentic selves. Without this overthinking getting in their way, they exist in a state of pure being, and often one of flow. They eat and drink when they need to, visit the toilet when they have to, seek attention when in the mood for playing and sleep for the (considerable) rest of the day.
Overthinking is the enemy of being in the moment. It takes us away from an associated state to ‘looking at ourselves in the picture’ (to use Neuro Linguistic Programming terminology). Excessive self-awareness and self-criticism deny us the opportunity to connect with the moment, that condition where we just are, in a present state of focus and flow.
It is not always easy to beat overthinking, as many of us (and in this I include myself) have been conditioned by years of subjecting ourselves to it, and as a consequence have become expert overthinkers. One of the main reasons is the fact that we often grow up in environments where others are regularly triggering our feelings of guilt to manipulate our behaviour.
As children, we are constantly told what not to do out of fear that if we let our guard down, we will hurt ourselves. Later on in life, we are made to feel bad about the way we look ( I vividly recall a middle aged woman breaking down in tears on a training session as she remembered her mum exclaiming ‘who will look at you‘? when she, as a child, once wore a pretty new dress for a social occasion). We are also made to feel bad about our privilege (growing up in Greece, the biggest threat used against a child not eating their food, was: ‘Aren’t you ashamed? What about the children of Ethiopia, who have nothing to eat?’).
We are made to feel personally responsible for social problems such as homelessness, war and poverty. More recently, we are also made to feel guilty about climate change and environmental destruction (even though most of the change that is required will have to come from changes to government policies in order to regulate the companies that are the biggest polluters).
Overthinking is often the result of self-doubt and guilt. It is stopping us from existing in the moment, and that is exactly when we are connected to our true selves. If you are not able to banish it from your day-to-day life, promise yourself 15 minutes in the day when you allow yourself to indulge in that overthinking.
Every day you catch yourself doing it, remind yourself of that promise. Then come that time, decide whether you want to use it to overthink. You might find that you don’t feel the need to do it anyway. But doing this catastrophic thinking consciously and with self-awareness, almost in a mindful way, will mean that you will soon spot the exaggerations in your ruminating. Your thought processes will sound absurd and unlikely. Andin the vast majority of the cases, they are.