I probably have ten to fifteen conversations about over-thinking with clients, students, co-workers, friends and myself at least weekly. That number might be on the low end really… What does this mean? It means over analyzing everything; living in our heads; editing our action based on what we think others will want, will judge us harshly for; trying to find the “right” answer, path, choice; any and all of the above. We crunch on things over and over: what did that remark, look, tone, gesture mean? We get stuck in loops in our heads playing out scenarios, playing detective, projecting, constructing myths. All that is just fiction, myth and ego— plays all written with fear. Based on these fears we sometimes choose our actions, our beliefs and our lives.
We have control over what we think. Sometimes it does not feel like that, but it is true. We default to revisiting or playing tapes in our heads and we feel compelled to stay there. Instead of listening to what someone is telling us we choose to focus on what they think of us: do they like us? Should we talk? Should we express our needs and wants? We edit our actions based on whether we believe they will be received well. We edit ourselves to fit accepted molds and stereo-types we have seen. We edit ourselves to be liked and loved, to be valued or just not to be shunned. This editing only makes us smaller. It does not make us better, more worthy, more loveable. It creates a persona we put on like a bad ill-fitting coat we don as we walk through life.
Stopping the loop, the crunching on data can be difficult. It takes practice to reach for a better thought, creating a practice of redirecting our thoughts to the present and now, instead of the past or future. Recognizing we are spiraling and caught in that crazy loop is the first step. Pulling back, knowing we are over-thinking and in our head helps us choose something better.
“Don’t let the sounds of your own wheels make you crazy” – Jackson Browne and Glen Frey
The sounds of our own wheels, our own fears, our own thoughts, spin around and around in our heads getting distorted and mythicized. This is the crazy-making process we indulge. Having a bag of tricks to pull tools from to halt over-thinking and stop the chatter is key. Paying attention to the things that self soothe, things that make us feel better, more sane, grounded and lighter. Coming out of obsessive thought is a practice consisting of reaching for a better thought and stopping the flow downward. Of doing instead of thinking. Of letting go and letting God, The Giant Space Monkey, The Void, Chance, or whoever we believe in, take over.
Years ago my sister Chris said to me, “Your head is like a bad neighborhood, you can’t spend too much time there alone. It’s dangerous.” Though she has reported I said that to her we have co-writing credit, like Browne and Frey I guess. Learning to extract myself from my bad neighborhood of over-thinking and practicing doing it regularly has given me an arsenal of tips, tricks and tools. Most of them work most of the time, sometimes none in the moment but always over time.
Here are a few things I do to try getting my brain unstuck.
- Take a short walk and only focus on my senses. If I can’t see it, smell it, feel it, taste it, hear it, I can’t think about it. I try to immerse myself in my surroundings.
- Recognize I am doing over-thinking and take a breath and move onto a better thought.
- Do something that I have to concentrate on that requires my full attention like cooking, painting, writing, Pilates.
- Call someone who makes me laugh.
- Watch or read a comfort movie or book that helps me shift my perspective for the better.
Things I don’t do because they exacerbate the voices or my crazy are equally important
- Journal, it seems in the moment to give more voice to the voices in my head and gives them a bigger stage to obsess on.
- Drink alcohol, it is a depressant and just grows monsters
- Sit still
- Call someone and go over and over and over whatever I am obsessing about for the billionth time
- Look at “evidence” in old journals, emails, photos, social media, etc…
- Looking backward or forward is bad, bad, bad in this instance
I do my best to remember this is a practice, a process and a way of choosing to be in the world. By stepping away from my mental monsters and behaviors of over-thinking, editing, and justifying I can break the negative flow. It is taking steps toward doing, being and playing more. It is not letting the sound of my own wheels make me crazy and learning to just take it easy.