Are You an Overthinker? You’ve Been Poisoned

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Feeling anxious, upset, or sad? Natural.

Feeling reflective? Productive.

  • Going over a failure or conflict again and again to see how it could have gone better.
  • Ranting and raving about the wrongs that have been done to you.
  • Trying to figure out why life isn’t living up to your expectations.
  • Constantly reflecting on your sadness.

That’s overthinking.

Overthinking is so common that many consider it natural, sometimes even productive.

No.

Overthinking is a modern phenomenon that’s unnatural and counterproductive.

Overthinking? Don’t you mean correctthinking? It’s better to confront a problem than to ignore it.

Spend more time thinking about it and you’ll discover an insight you missed.

That’s why your attention keeps coming back to it. The underlying concerns and emotions haven’t been addressed.

No.

Overthinking is poison.

Ruminating and venting isn’t processing. It’s pouring fuel on the fire. (1, 2)

Most problems have causes which no amount of reflection will uncover. (3)

And what you’ll learn in this post – overthinking was designed by evolution to trigger depression and abandonment, not effective problem solving. (4)

Are You an Overthinker?

When you feel upset – sad, angry, nervous – do you:

1. Think about how alone you feel? Never Sometimes Often Always
2. Think about your feelings of fatigue or achiness? Never Sometimes Often Always
3. Find it hard to concentrate? Never Sometimes Often Always
4. Think about how passive and unmotivated you feel? Never Sometimes Often Always
5. Think, “Why can’t I get going?” Never Sometimes Often Always
6. Go over and over a recent situation? Never Sometimes Often Always
7. Think about how sad or anxious you feel? Never Sometimes Often Always
8. Think about all your faults, failings, and mistakes? Never Sometimes Often Always
9. Think about how you don’t feel up to doing anything? Never Sometimes Often Always
10. Think “Why can’t I handle things better?” Never Sometimes Often Always

You’re not an overthinker. Congratulations! You may not know it, but you’ve got a huge life advantage.

Try to be more compassionate of others. Unlike you, they can’t get over things as quickly.

Don’t let others tell you that you’re not sensitive enough. Your response to being upset is more emotionally healthy than those who overthink.

You’re an overthinker. That’s normal, but just because it’s normal doesn’t make it healthy.

Those who tell you to get over yourself aren’t cold or uncaring. They’re right – you’ve got a problem. Of course, what they don’t understand is that you’re fundamentally different from them. You’ve never learnt the skills required to do what they do effortlessly.

There are no known quick fixes.

You’re a chronic overthinker, prone to fretting about your feelings and your life instead of effectively managing your emotional life.

Those who tell you to get over yourself aren’t cold or uncaring. They’re right – you’ve got a problem. Of course, what they don’t understand is that you’re fundamentally different from them. You’ve never learnt the skills required to do what they do effortlessly.

There are no known quick fixes.

How do we know that overthinking is unnatural and counter-productive?

1) Less than 20% of adults older than 65 are overthinkers. (5)

2) Overthinking is the opposite of effective problem solving, burns bridges, triggers abandonment, saps motivation, ruins relationships, and causes depression.

Less than 20% of adults older than 65 are overthinkers.

“Have you ever found yourself thinking for long periods of time about how sad or anxious or angry you felt, or why something wasn’t going your way?”

Well, maybe every once in a while, but not usually. That wouldn’t be a helpful thing to do, would it?

Grandpa’s got it right. Unfortunately, overthinking is on the rise.

Generation

Percent Which Are Overthinkers

Baby Boomers

20%

 

Gen X

52%

 

Gen Y

73%

 

Could it be that baby boomers are less likely to overthink because they have decades of life experience that the rest of us don’t? Unlikely.

According to interviews done by Susan Nolen, former chair of Yale’s department of psychology, although seniors had confronted war, recession, death of loved ones and other hardships, few had ever done much overthinking. (6)

That’s because until recently, overthinking was the exclusive domain of the depressed.

If you were overthinking, you were either depressed or about to relapse. If you weren’t overthinking, you weren’t and never had been depressed.

Overthinking Is the Opposite of Effective Problem Solving

If you’ve ever been depressed or talked to someone that was, you know that their view of the world has been warped. They have difficulty coming up with effective solutions to even simple problems. Why? They’ve given up before they even started. Overthinking is the same.
Four colorful jigsaw puzzles on white background.
Scientists have developed techniques for causing people to overthink.

If overthinking is actually correctthinking, than those who’re overthinking should be able to come up with more effective ideas than those who aren’t.

In one study, participants were asked to solve one of several hypothetical social problems. (7) Some had been made to overthink, others hadn’t.

What would you do if a friend was avoiding you?

Those who had been made to overthink came up with solutions like, “I guess I’d just avoid them.” In other words, they’d given up. Without even knowing it, they’d assumed the problem was unsolvable.

In contrast, those who weren’t overthinking came up with solutions like, “I’d ask the person I was closest to in that group what I was doing that made them avoid me.” They looked for and found potentially effective solutions.

Yes, those who had been made to overthink spent more time thinking about the problem. But that’s like you trying to build a space rocket. You’re not an engineering genius – even decades spent putting together parts would be useless.

Your prefrontal cortex is a genuis, able to analyze problems involving hundreds of variables.

The part of your brain responsible for overthinking is an idiot.

The problem with overthinking is that it pollutes your thinking with negativity to the point where you are defeated before you begin. (6)

Other experiments have found similar results. (8, 9)

Overthinking Burns Bridges

When is it rational to rant and rave? To be so aggressive that you risk burning bridges? When there’s no hope of compromise.

Back when I lived in New York City I wanted to cancel my monthly payments to my karate dojo.

According to their marketing materials I could cancel at the end of any month. According to the contract I had signed I was responsible for two years of monthly payments of $159 each.

So they refused.
Woman shouting angry to another one isolated on a white background
I was angry. I thought about what greedy people they were. In my spare moments I imagined getting my revenge, unleashing my righteous fury.

So I told them I refused to pay and would fight them in court if I had too.

Why did I do that? Getting angry rarely gets you what you want.

I encountered a small sliver of resistance, which in turn triggered overthinking, which in turn caused me to subconsciously give up before I even began, leaving me with just one seemingly viable solution – aggression.

Overthinking clouds our mind with so much negativity that we forget the possibility that the other people involved in the dispute are basically good people who had good reasons for acting the way they did.

Overthinking is not the same as deep thinking. Negative emotions don’t give us a direct line to our truest, deepest concerns. Instead of providing us with a clear window, negative emotions impose a lens that shows a distorted, narrow view of our world. (6)

We look through that lens, and instead of seeing the unvarnished reality of our past and our present, we see only what our negative mood wants us to see — the events in our past that are negative, the aspects of our present situation that are negative, the things that could go wrong in the future.

In the midst of overthinking all of my interactions with my karate instructor took a negative tone. The times he went out of his way to be nice were forgotten, the times he was neutral were interpreted in the least charitable way, and the one time he had been mean was played over and over again, with no consideration given to extenuating circumstances.

After a few days I was able to calm down and reach a compromise, but by then lasting damage had been done.

Many people rant and rave about their stupid boss, uncaring spouse, or unfair life situation. It feels good. So good that they do it over and over again.

Snorting cocaine also feels good. Why is cocaine consumption uncommon? It makes you feel good in the short-term at the cost of the long-term. Ranting and raving is the same.

Overthinking Triggers Abandonment

Once a month I take stock of where I’m at with Happier Human.

A few months ago I thought to myself, “I’m not making as much money as I want, I wonder what I should do? Is there something wrong with my current strategy?” Good questions. But what started off as productive contemplation was hijacked by overthinking.

At the time I thought I was looking at the issue rationally – finally confronting fears I’d been ignoring. Instead, anxiety over my business caused me to focus on the negative, which in turn made me more anxious, which caused me to focus even more on the negative, until finally I thought, “maybe I should give up and do something else.”

Our network of thoughts about different issues in our lives is connected through our moods and emotions. Situations that have aroused negative moods tend to be connected in one network of memories, while situations that have aroused positive moods tend to be connected in a different network.

As a result, when you are in a bad mood of some type—depressed, anxious, just altogether upset — your bad mood tends to trigger a cascade of thoughts associated with your mood. (6)

pessimismBecause my anxiety had put me in a bad mood, all I could think of were the cons. The failed experiments. The slower than expected growth. I had forgotten all about the successes, the encouraging e-mails, the sales prospects, and my slow but steady monthly growth.

Instead of an objective look at reality – sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail, he loves me but occasionally makes mistakes, I’ve lost someone I loved but I’ll recover – overthinking awakens the doubts, worries, and failures and makes them more prominent than they should be.

We see problems that don’t really exist or that aren’t actually as big as our thoughts make them out to be. That causes us to make bad decisions. Acting out our bad moods and exaggerated concerns, we confront others, we quit our job or school, we grow defensive when instead we could have learned.

Sometimes abandonment is the right response – I’m glad I quit my old job. But usually it’s not.

Overthinking Saps Motivation

Because overthinking brings to mind negative thoughts, it will cause you to become pessimistic. If you’re pessimistic, you’ll wrongly believe that you’re less likely to succeed. If you believe that you’re less likely to succeed – that your effort is unlikely to result in any gains – you’ll put in less effort.

Most people have zero motivation to become a billionaire. That’s reasonable.

Overthinking can cause even common problems to seem as hard as becoming a billionaire. For example,

Women with chronic ruminative styles suffer heightened distress upon discovering potential health symptoms and, consequently, delay seeking a diagnosis. (10)

“Oh no! I have a lump on my breast. I must have breast cancer. I’m going to die.”

You’d expect thinking about that lump more often would cause them to quickly seek help. Instead it leads to pessimism and avoidance.

Overthinkers take 2 months longer than non-overthinkers to seek medical attention once they detect a lump on their breast. With cancer 2 months can be the difference between living for one year and living for ten.

Similar findings have been found in other settings. (6, 11, 12)

Overthinkers not only get stuck on big problems, but overthinking seems to sap their motivation to take even little steps toward solving their problems. (6)

Overthinking Hurts Friendships

I’ve dated women who overthink, women who don’t, and women who pretend they don’t.

Of those three, women who don’t come out on top.

I’m compassionate, I’m patient and I’m interested in their emotions and struggles, but there’s a limit.

If overthinking was uncontrollable or productive I’d be the one at fault. I should be more accepting. But it’s not.

Overthinking can be controlled and is usually harmful. That’s why I’ve stopped associating with people who overthink and think that’s an unchangeable part of who they are.

I’m not the only one with a limit.
Man shutting his ears and not listening to the persistent yelling of his spouse
Overthinkers are more likely to reach out for social support after the death of a loved one, but they report receiving less emotional support. (13) Friends and family members become frustrated with their continued need to talk about their loss and its meaning for their lives many months after the event. (14)

Overthinkers are more clingy, are more aggressive, are more likely to seek revenge after an interpersonal transgression or slight, are more likely to respond to a provocation with aggression, and are more likely to assume undue responsibility for the well-being of others. (15, 16, 17)

As a result, overthinkers are perceived less favorably than others. (18)

If you’re an overthinker, you’re perceived less favorably than others.

Don’t run away from that fact. It isn’t a matter of having been born more sensitive than others. You’ve been poisoned.

Overthinking Causes Depression

According to evolutionary psychologists the function of overthinking is to trigger depression. (4) Let me repeat that.

Our best understanding of fear is that it evolved to keep us away from danger. Likewise, our best understanding of overthinking is that it evolved to trigger depression.

Not to acknowledge emotions that are being suppressed. Not to better solve a problem. To trigger depression.

Those who frequently overthink are more likely to become depressed and for a longer period of time. (4)

One reason that rates of depression have skyrocketed? Overthinking is more common.

Recalling my own descent into depression when I was 13, if I had been taught the skills required to identify and then properly deal with overthinking, I wouldn’t have slid as far as I did.

Let’s tally the score – overthinking is the opposite of effective problem solving, it burns bridges, it triggers abandonment, saps motivation, ruins friendships, and causes depression.

Take overthinking seriously.

Part 2 – Why Overthinking and Depression Are on the Rise

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Chad Hadsell

I can’t wait to see the next installment in this series! I found that it ties in very much with why people often don’t take action to improve their lives and their sustainability.
I’ve added a blog post to my site that references this article series. I hope you don’t mind! It’s at http://chadhadsell.com/overthinking-quick-fixes-and-sustainability/

Reply

Amit Amin

Yup – overthinking is a common failure mode. Even knowing what I know, I still sometimes fall pray.

Of course I don’t mind Chad :)

The next and probably final installment will be coming out on the 31st. Also the hardest of the three to write, as research on why overthinking exists and what its effects are is much larger than research on how to deal with it.

Reply

Anthony

You have an obvious (and typically American) bias against introversion. You even cite a study that you interpret as proof that extroversion, and thus extroverts, are superior.

Because of this, you don’t seem to recognize the problem of anti-intellectualism in America, or its bias for action for action’s sake (even while acknowledging, ironically, the problem of overwork and chronic stress). If you do, you don’t seem to link it to the problem of quick-fixes that you cite as a major problem in another article.

To be fair, you do admit in this article that reflection, including self-reflecting, is healthy, yet, you don’t seem to actually advise people to be more reflective, nor do you admit that many modern problems are caused by people not examining the effects of their actions on others, rather than thinking too much (if you made a clearer distinction between thinking well versus thinking ineffectively, as you allude to, I’d be more sympathetic).

You even stress — and repeat the point, as though this increases its veracity — that if you overthink, people won’t like you. I can’t think of a more superficial reason to encourage positive thinking (unless you are insecure and in high school). If one is already worried (and, seeing that worrying too much is unhealthy to begin with) that people don’t like who you are, shoving it in someone’s face that they are unliked is counter-productive at best. It will likely only make that person feel more bitter, more insecure, more resentment, and less trusting. And if one is fine with being unpopular, well, such a person probably wouldn’t care about your advice any way, so that’s moot.

The point is that what you say doesn’t help those seeking your advice. You may be motivated to really help people have stronger relationships, but statements like this, far from being some sort of useful wake-up call, come across as just an exercise in shaming people who don’t fit in, as though all we need is more conformity in order to have healthy relationships.

Wouldn’t it be better to encourage sensitive people to form friendships that are genuine, with those who are less callous and superficial than what they may be used to in their lives (or socialized into believing are admirable people)? With those who are empathic and see their worth?

Perhaps it would be wise to examine whether our cultural ideals are valid. That would require reflection, and yes, even critical thinking. It is not wrong to criticize that which is false or harmful (indeed, you do it in every article). Bullies, for example, were long thought to be those who have low self-esteem. It turns out that this isn’t true – they tend to think better of themselves than others, and many of them, thanks to their wonderful “confidence,” are actually popular, admired students: http://www.parentingscience.com/pure-bullies.html.

I can’t think of a social problem that doesn’t involve lack of sensititivity (and with it, lack of empathy or compassion). Thus, I wouldn’t be so cavalier as to dimish this trait.

For any introverts reading this, if you haven’t already, consider this book, one that actually addresses your concerns and needs: http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352153.

Reply

Amit Amin

I’ve read that book and I recommend it as well. The Power of Introverts is excellent.

I’m an introvert. And I have little desire to change that. And as you say, in the West we have a bias against introversion.

Our difference is that we have different definitions. You’ve linked overthinking with introversion. I expect that’s partially my fault – I should be more clear with the definition of overthinking.

My definition, at a high-level, is that overthinking is thinking which is harmful. If you believe that thinking about a problem again and again is what it means to be sensitive or what it means to be an introvert, then I disagree. Productively thinking about something deeply is an entirely different mode of thought.

Anyhow, thanks for your comment! If you’ve conflated introversion and overthinking, perhaps other readers will.

Reply

Joseph Dabon

Great article. I admit this is the first time I came across the subject. It is well-written, too.

Quite embarrassing though. I felt like looking myself at the mirror while reading it.

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