“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
The bedside timepiece showed 1:15 am.
Kevin lay awake on his bed – tossing and turning.
The meeting that morning didn’t go well. He could read the room that it wasn’t well received.
There had been a few layoffs at his work already. He was worried he was next.
He couldn’t shake it off throughout the day. And now he keeps obsessing over every little detail of the meeting – things he could have said or done.
Then, he berates himself for getting all worked up over something so trivial.
These thoughts play over and over in his mind until sleep finally comes.
The next day, focusing becomes a struggle for him.
He keeps zoning out.
“What’s wrong with me?” he often wonders.
He dwells on his past mistakes.
He worries about the uncertain future.
He feels trapped in this cycle of overthinking and worry.
And Kevin is not the only one who suffers from this. A WHO study has found that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.
Dissecting the overthinking monster
So why is overthinking such a big issue? Why is it so tough to break free?
First off – our minds are wired with a negative bias.
We tend to look out for the bad things. Our brains are like magnets for negative thoughts.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was even crucial for our ancestors’ survival.
You’re a caveman who’s found a beautiful spot to stay for a few days with your cavewomen and cavebabies (I don’t know how cavemen societies used to function, so I’m taking a wild guess here 🙂).
So what do you do?
Do you admire the wide expanse of the sky, the beautiful azure lake, or the fruit-laden trees?
You’re on the lookout for the alligator in the lake. You look for the lion lurking behind the tree.
Missing these threats would mean the end for you and your family.
Once you know you’re safe, you can enjoy the scenery.
This survival mechanism is still in our brains. A few thousand years hasn’t erased it.
So today, without real alligators or lions around, you imagine them.
The alligator manifests as the fear of social rejection from getting fired. The lion shows up as the fear of losing social status when someone is rude to you.
Your minds see these as survival threats and focus all energy on resolving them.
Add to that the overload of news about war, crime, and disaster.
It keeps you glued to your screens. It feeds your doom-prone brains.
So it’s easy for you to get stuck in cycles of overthinking.
Scientifically, there are four types of overthinking:
- Rumination about the past: You look back with rose-colored glasses to avoid the harsh present. You overlook the hardship of the past. You can see this at play when the fundamentalist leaders paint a glorified picture of the past and claim that going back to that revisionist past will solve all problems. It disguises your lack of hope and trust in yourself.
The flip side of this coin is ruminating on what went wrong in the past or how you were mistreated. You keep repeating those scenarios so that your dumb, ignorant self never repeats those mistakes. You try to protect yourself from pain, but you end up hurting yourself even more. It comes from an inability to forgive yourself. You paint yourself as evil, ignoring your efforts to do your best with what you knew at that time. It’s a sneaky way to boost your ego.
- Worry about the future: You’re uncertain about the future. You don’t want to admit to yourself that uncertainty is uncomfortable. So instead of sitting with that feeling – you try to impose control. You try to predict the future and think about every probable solution to every probable problem. Mind you, this is different from careful future planning. We will talk about the difference in a while.
- Overanalyzing decisions: You second guess your decision and ask for reassurance from others. It undermines your confidence.
- Social anxiety: You fear rejection and strive for perfection. This comes from a deep-seated belief that love and acceptance are tied to being perfect.
I realize now that social anxiety had been my bane for 35+ years of my life until rock bottom forced me to change. I am lightyears ahead of where I used to be. But still, it’s something that I struggle with from time to time.
I overthink about being authentic. It impacts my relationships with my friends. It impacts my brand on Twitter. But slowly I’m integrating that aspect into my work (Dan Koe has been a huge influence in that effort).
I overthink in launching a product worrying about how valuable it would be, whether anyone will buy it or not.
I overthink about making the newsletters or articles as complete or valuable as possible. It has made me overcommitted to research. It has led to procrastination and even skipping newsletter editions.
I‘ve realized I do this because I believe that I have to be perfect. And if I’m not perfect – I’ll be rejected.
This is a core fear that plays havoc in my mind which has a lot to do with how I was brought up.
I realized very early in my life that the only way I would be seen, heard, and get my needs met by my parents – was by being a perfect, problem-free child.
By being better than my younger brother. This led to a drive to excel since it’s a fear directly linked to survival.
But I digress here.
Let’s get back on track and dig deep…
The ugly truth behind overthinking
So why do we overthink? What’s the payoff for that?
It’s because you identify with your thoughts (the scientific term for this phenomenon is cognitive fusion).
You think you are your mind and you are your thoughts.
And you’re not alone here – it’s a global epidemic. Even the French Philosopher Descartes said “I think; therefore I am” (Cogito, Ergo Sum)
But it’s only a pseudo-sense of self.
Succumb to that and your thoughts become an entity in itself.
It seeks to grow. It thrives and draws nourishment from your consciousness. It demands more of your attention in subtle ways.
It’s not satisfied until you start to identify with it. Until you forget who you really are.
Mine sometimes whispers in my ears that I’m better than others. And sometimes it takes a 180-degree shift and says I’m just a phony who will never amount to anything.
Sometimes when I try to relax it grabs me by the collar…
“How dare you slack off? Don’t you know how much an overachiever like you has yet to do?”
Or “you worthless scum, do you really not understand how much is still left to do? What gives you the right to slack off?”
What does your pseudo-self tell you?
Asking yourself this question is the first step to freedom from overthinking.
Your overthinking helps you in other sneaky ways too…
Your brain is constantly making predictions or simulations of what might happen next. Then it creates emotions to help you tackle that situation (I talked about this in the last edition of the newsletter).
Worrying is a part of that simulation. It’s supposed to keep you safe. It paints a scenario of a problem that may happen in the future.
The threat seems real so it creates changes in your body budget. (This physical reaction is known as stress. And the concept your brain has created to define this whole unpleasant mess is called anxiety.)
It gears you up for fight or flight so that you can protect yourself.
This pathway or circuit works well enough when the threat is immediate – or when you can do something about it.
But what if the threat is in the future and unlikely to happen?
Then you’re screwed.
The body keeps generating these plans of action to mitigate the threat. It keeps accumulating epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, and norepinephrine without any use for them. Soon it becomes an avalanche of stress, anxiety, and unbalanced body budgets trying desperately to put out a fire that never existed.
It all started because you trusted in what your mind perceived to be real.
And that’s not all…
When you take misguided actions based on these misguided feelings – it leads to compulsive behaviors.
It’s called magical thinking.
If you worry about a bad thing and it doesn’t happen, your brain concludes that worrying prevented that bad thing from happening.
Your brain doesn’t like randomness. It wants a reason for why things are the way they are. It likes a sense of control.
So it fabricates the cause and effect.
Here’s a story…
My mom is a chronic overthinker.
She has this habit of obsessively worrying about catastrophes that may happen.
I used to joke and tell her she would never run out of things to worry till the crisis in the Middle East was still alive.
She worries about who will take care of her if she becomes physically ill and is confined to her bed.
It seems to me, she thinks that if she worries about it enough she will be able to keep it at bay.
Of course, all of this is in her subconscious. And she doesn’t seem to understand that this habit is wreaking havoc on her body. It spikes her blood sugar, thyroid problems, and blood pressure.
All of them would come down if she could let go of the habit of worrying.
“People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them.”
— George Bernard Shaw
Worrying is also a great trickster.
It tricks you into thinking you’re doing something about the problem without doing anything. It even gives you a short boost of dopamine as if you’ve achieved or accomplished something.
But it’s trading a short-term relief with long-term consequences.
Your brain is not deceived for long and soon you are back to that cycle of worrying.
Now you know how cunning and deadly overthinking can be.
So how do deal with it?
Here’s a one-line solution – Treat your thoughts with curiosity and kindness, detach from them, and let them go.
How do you do that?
We will get to that soon…
But before that, let me tell you what a life free from overthinking looks like.
Once you detach from your thoughts, you see you can watch them without getting caught up or judging them.
You stop being at the mercy of your thoughts.
You understand there are no wrong thoughts or feelings.
You are not your thoughts. You are the one observing them.
Sometimes, you might still get caught up in them, but you’ll bounce back faster.
You won’t feel like you’re being swept away into deep waters anymore.
You’ll realize the only truth is living in the moment.
The past doesn’t exist – it’s only in your memories. The future doesn’t exist – it’s only in what you imagine.
Your mind will start working for you, not against you.
It once again becomes a powerful problem-solving tool, always at your beck and call. It no longer is a parasitic entity that takes on your identity and feeds on your attention.
How to overcome overthinking
So how do you beat overthinking and get to this state?
The answer isn’t always clear.
Even CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) misses the mark sometimes.
CBT tells you to examine your thoughts and pit them against evidence. This works most times.
But if you’re an overthinker, more thinking is like adding fuel to the fire.
Instead, start with these 3 key mindset shifts…
There are no bad decisions
There are no bad decisions.
Some turn out well. Others teach you how to choose better next time.
The only bad decision is not making one.
Once you decide, don’t dwell on it.
Look forward, not back.
Done beats perfect
Perfectionism and procrastination are my kryptonite (Heck, I even procrastinated writing this issue, thinking it wouldn’t be good enough. Talk about irony 😐). So I keep reminding myself of this mantra daily.
Aim for perfection. But not at the cost of progress.
Done and good enough beats unfinished and perfect every time.
Embrace the unknown
You are afraid of the unknown.
It’s the monster that lurks under your bed.
But once you embrace that monster – it’s game over for overthinking
Get comfortable being uncomfortable with uncertainty.
There’s no denying it. So why not thrive in it?
Throw in these habits to those mindset changes as well…
Gratitude rewires your brain.
It’s the single most effective habit against overthinking.
Remember the negative bias that we talked about earlier?
Gratitude reverses that circuit by forcing your consciousness to find what’s good in your life.
Overthinking loses a lot of its foothold.
Every morning, I write down things I’m grateful for in my gratitude journal:
- loved ones in my life
- amazing conversations that I had
- food on the table, a roof on top of the head
- sunlight and birdsong
- being alive
The blessings are unlimited.
This is a key exercise that I ask my clients to do.
Do give it a shot.
Overthinking is getting swept away in a mountain stream’s current.
Mindfulness is the decision to step out and appreciate its beauty – the smell of the water, the sight of the sunlight playing on it, the shining rocks, and the song of the birds.
Detach from your mind’s drama.
Focus your attention on something boring and mundane – like your breathing.
Or the sounds around you when you’re sitting on a park bench.
Or the sensations in your feet while you’re walking on grass in the park.
(My wife and I have built a habit of mindful walking in a nearby park, soaking in everything while holding hands. This habit helps make our relationship stronger and more joyful. Oh, and we just celebrated our 15th anniversary this week.)
Or the waves while you’re sitting on a beach…
Jackie Chan said – everything is kung fu. I say everything is meditation.
Want to start mindfulness?
My friend Dan Goldfield studied with a monk for 5 years. His work inspires me and teaches me new ways to add mindfulness to my life.
This brilliant newsletter issue by him is a great starting point.
Making an appointment with overthinking
Overthinking is like losing control over your mind.
Work with your mind instead of working against it.
Admit that you have an urge to overthink. Then schedule a time to do that.
Say aloud to yourself – “I’ll deal with this later” or “I’ll worry about this at 2 pm.”
Put it on your calendar if you need to.
And keep your promise.
Do this enough and your brain gets the message.
It starts trusting you and stops nagging you.
Worrying on Paper
A philosophy that I teach my clients:
“Worry on paper, never in your head.”
In your head, everything seems urgent and catastrophic.
But on paper, they seem manageable.
Writing your worries down robs them of their power.
Learning your triggers
When do you overthink most?
At work? When you’re alone? With certain people?
Try to predict it.
Knowing your triggers helps you stay alert.
And you will be able to shift your attention before you get caught in the tornado of overthinking.
I always tensed up before calling my mom or visiting her (long history there).
Now I remind myself that I have a bunch of tools and strategies in my arsenal to protect me if my boundaries get overstepped.
But despite your best efforts, you won’t always be able to deflect or divert your thoughts.
Sometimes you’ll get trapped.
When that happens, remember that you have more power than you believe.
Here are a few strategies that will help you fight back and defuse those intrusive thoughts…
Name them (without shaming them)
When you notice you’re overthinking, voice it out loud – “I’m overthinking again”
Then go one step further and imagine it as a whiny and fearful character (mine’s Usopp from One Piece).
I say to myself – “Oh no, Usopp is at it once again”. It breaks the spell.
For additional damage say the thoughts out loud in silly voices.
Somehow, singing out “I’m so upset about the way I was shut down in today’s meeting” in sing-song tones makes it very difficult to stay upset.
The thought gets dissociated from the emotional charge and loses much of its power.
Overthinking no longer has the same bite after that.
Thanking your mind
Your mind is a problem-solving machine. And you have (unconsciously or consciously) assigned it unsolvable problems to solve.
“How do I ensure that the future is as I want it?”
“How do I ensure that everyone likes me?”
Overthinking is your mind trying its best to come up with a solution to those problems.
Don’t berate it. Thank it and then give it feedback
“Thanks, mind, but this isn’t helpful. I’m letting it go.”
I suggested this to my wife. She now swears by it and has extracted a ton of mileage from this habit.
Give it a try.
You won’t believe how effective this is.
Change the channel
You’re now aware of your overthinking patterns. You’ve learned to defuse its power.
Now let it go. Change the channel.
Shift your thoughts to something concrete, something that you can control, and work towards. This is how you plan for specific goals in your future.
Don’t ask “Why me?” Ask “What can I do to get out of this?”
Turn “why” into a swear word. It turns you into a victim.
If you’re worried about making a decision, limit your options.
Remember that any decision is better than no decision. Just go with whatever feels the better option with the info that you have.
Do this and you develop a bias towards action.
It reminds you of how much control you still have.
It pulls you out of the overthinking rut and puts you back in power.
Sit with your emotions
Overthinking comes along with a lot of emotional charge.
Since it’s unpleasant and uncomfortable, your brain thinks it is dangerous. So it goes into the solace of pseudo-action of worrying and makes things worse.
Force yourself to sit with them.
A trick to make this task easier – break down your emotions into underlying physical sensations.
(If you’re interested in learning how to do that, I go much more into detail here.)
Vaccinate your mind against fear
Write down your fears.
Rank them in grades of magnitudes. Plan how to deal with them. Start with the easiest one.
My client Todd followed this method and overcame the lifelong battle against his fears.
Exposing your mind to fear in this controlled way is like vaccinating your mind against it.
It lessens fear’s hold over you.
Your brain starts trusting you more on your ability to deal with it.
Craft your values
Your values act as a north star on the horizon of your life.
They guide you through the maelstrom of overthinking.
It’s still difficult. But it no longer feels impossible.
I value spending quality time with my family. I value the control I have over how I spend my day. I don’t value materialistic things.
So when an opportunity arises at my work for a lucrative overseas assignment – it’s easy for me to say no. I don’t need to spend a night awake, weighing in the pros and cons.
Sure my car stays the same Hyundai I’ve driven since 2015, my TV remains a few inches narrower, and my bank account misses a few zeroes.
But I get to experience it when my son switches over from CocoMelon and starts digging into Indian mythology.
I get to create the life I want, read what I like, and add walks and workouts into my daily routine.
So spend some time crafting your values.
Very few people do that. But these are the people who are admired the most.
These are the ones who seem to be always sorted and in control.
Why not take a leaf out of their book?
Overthinkers, it’s time to disarm your mind’s tricks.
It can seem like an undefeatable monster.
But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Today, pick one fear or worry and write it down. Strip it of its power by seeing it on paper.
Try letting go of one overthinking habit.
Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts; you are the observer.
Challenge yourself to step back and watch them without judgment.
Identify one thought that’s been holding you hostage. Confront it with kindness and curiosity.
Do this daily.
But easy does it. Treat yourself gently when you falter (If all of this feels too much, I’m here to help. Book a call here.).
Soon the compounding effect will kick in. And this new mode will become second nature.
The dim, ghostly, 1 am visage of the bedside timepiece will be a thing of the past.
Commit to getting out of your head today.
Think less, live more.