If you’re like me, your mind has a tendency to wander A LOT. You may find yourself pondering an event that happened many years ago or overthinking your current choices...even ones as simple as whether you should have some premium tequila with your cheap taco. Sometimes you might even let this tendency affect your self-esteem and other aspects of your life.
This can be overwhelming and prevent you from being productive in your day-to-day activities. While overthinking comes with a lot of negative connotations, it doesn’t have to be bad if you know how to manage it.
By learning how to stop overthinking, you will live a happier life!
Why do I overthink so much?
Overthinking is the act of thinking about something obsessively, analyzing it from every angle. It can be a good thing when you are doing due diligence on a risky bet, like an investment that could prove costly if poorly analyzed.
However, it starts to become problematic when you begin overthinking small stuff like what clothes to wear or which photo to post on instagram, how to respond to a routine email or whether your partner is angry at you or not.
So, why do we overthink so much? In my experience, it’s due to our fear of uncertainty. What will they say if I do this or that? Am I showing enough detail in my presentation? Will they like it? Will they reject me? Will they think I’m stupid? (You can imagine how prevalent this is in the age of social media...and why I often take extended breaks from all platforms!)
Or put another way: we fear we may not “survive” in the future if we make the wrong decision now, leading us to analysis paralysis.
What is overthinking a symptom of?
When you dig deeper into the reasons why you feel compelled to sweat the details to death before making any decision, you’ll come to the realization that overthinking is a defense mechanism of the ego.
Your ego always strives to protect its identity (in other words, its image) to the end of time.
Your ego is scared to death of what people may say and how it’s going to be perceived if you take the wrong action, and will force your mind to go into a state of total paralysis to keep you from making a decision that might negatively impact it.
Notice how I’m referring to your ego as if it was a separate “entity” from you and yet having a tremendous amount of control over your actions. In short, overthinking is a symptom of your identification with your ego.
Now, your ego is a purely psychological construct. However, if you create a bond between who you are and this construct, then when your ego feels it’s in danger it’ll make you also feel in danger.
And when this bond is strong, taking any action your ego perceives as potentially injurious will force you to overthink as a strategy to stop you from acting.
What are the side effects of overthinking?
Herein lies the problem. If overthinking is just about choosing between two different types of pastry at a coffee shop, the consequences are limited to wasting your time.
But if your ego has a deeply ingrained fear of the future (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) then your analysis paralysis may have consequences with your job, your relationships, your friendships and even your physical health.
Can't sleep because of overthinking?
A typical impact on your health is insomnia. Instead of going to bed in a state of relaxation, you go to bed with your brain going a mile a minute, and no matter what you do you can’t stop it from overthinking.
Now 3-4 hours have gone by and you’re still lying awake unable to fall asleep. What’s keeping you up at night?
If you are like me, it could be due to a couple of reasons: the first one is about something that will happen in the future and the second one is the result of something that happened in the past.
If you're overthinking about the future, then there’s likely a big source of uncertainty awaiting for you the next day.
Maybe it’s a presentation you’re giving, a followup call with a big client that you’re unsure how it’s going to go. An unpleasant talk you need to have with someone that you’re not really looking forward to (the last example is usually my biggest achilles heel).
If you’re overthinking about something that happened in the past, then maybe you’re double guessing yourself about something you said to someone earlier on and you (or your ego, rather) is uncertain as to what that person thinks of you now.
In both cases, what’s behind your overthinking is fear of an uncertain future outcome.
How can I stop overthinking cold turkey?
The best way to stop overthinking involves a two-part process. The first part is based on a realization and the second part is based on an action you’ll need to take.
The realization is that you and your ego are not the same thing. Now, your ego will do the best it can to make you believe that you are both one (by literally commandeering your mind to convince you of it).
The thing is that your ego can only take over your mind and pull the proverbial strings if you let it, which is what happens to most of us when we’re unconscious of this connection.
But, the truth is that you can actually break it and take full control over your mind. How do you do so? That’s where the action comes in.
Now it’s Time to Take Action!
The action I’m referring to is the practice of conscious awareness.
This is the way it works: your ego will attempt to intrude on every aspect of your life and it’ll do so by flooding your mind with a constant stream of mostly irrelevant and repetitive thoughts to “fill every waking hour.”
So, for example, when you’re driving alone for half an hour, chances are you’ll experience an almost uninterrupted stream of random thoughts, most of which will be of little value to you.
You could be thinking about something unpleasant you watched in the news earlier on, something you said to someone that you’re now regretting, or a thousand different other irrelevant thoughts.
Your job now for the 30-minute duration of your trip is not to turn on the radio to “drown out” your thoughts, but to be super aware of the road ahead, noticing every detail, every color and every shape in front of you on your way to your destination.
Every tree, every car, every building, the general scenery unfolding right in front of your eyes, perhaps you’re driving on a winding road, through a forested area, and so on.
Your goal is to break the crazy train of irrelevant thoughts that are parading in and out of your mind.
Now, this won’t be easy so don’t beat yourself up if you’re not successful at first — this is something that’ll take practice. If you fall back into your train of thought, break out of it the minute you catch yourself and refocus back on the road.
Next, you’ll expand your repertoire to other everyday things, like eating or cooking. Instead of defaulting to your mobile device to read the news or check your email or your social media accounts (the equivalent of turning on the radio in the car), focus on enjoying your food instead.
Train yourself not to eat like an automaton — must… feed… myself… Cook and eat with full intention!
How About Night Time?
What to do at night when you want to fall asleep? Simple, just focus on your breathing at the exclusion of everything else. Make a strong conscious effort to focus on your breathing, being 100% present every time you inhale and exhale.
If a random thought bullies its way into your consciousness and makes you lose your focus, then go back to your breath the second you catch yourself. With practice, I can guarantee you’ll fall asleep before you know it!
Extend this “training” to as many areas of your life as you can and once you begin breaking away from your ego, your fear of uncertainty will dissipate and along with it your tendency to overthink.
In fact, not only will you not fear uncertainty anymore, but you’ll begin to embrace it as a normal part of your life. And when you do, you’ll no longer worry about what others think because you’ll be your authentic self all the time (that is, the “you” without the ego attached to it).