Overthinking is something to which many of us can relate. In fact, there isn’t a week that goes by without me having a conversation with someone about their ‘out of control’ thoughts.
Of course, we can all have unhelpful, negative thoughts from time to time. However, for many people, it isn’t just the occasional bout of negativity; it’s consistent and persistent, and their lives can be severely affected by it. For example, they may hold themselves back from promotions, new jobs, trying new things, or they may get to a point where they struggle to function due to the stress and overwhelm that their negative thoughts produce.
Many of us don’t realise that our overthinking is a programmed/ conditioned response to certain stimuli AND we can change it if we want to. I always find it interesting when someone tells me that they are a ‘born overthinker’. No one is born overthinking! It’s an adaptive tool, usually copied from a parent or caregiver or learned in response to family conflict, chaos, and instability in childhood.
How to Overcome Overthinking
Like anything worthwhile, overcoming negative thinking takes time and effort. If you’ve been on any training with me, you know I frequently use the term, ‘it’s like gym for your brain’. In other words, you have to keep doing the work, after all, you don’t go to the gym once, and you’re fit for the rest of your life. Changing any habit (and overthinking is a habit!) is no different; it takes persistent effort.
Following is my very simple three-step process for recognising your unhelpful thoughts and changing them for more appropriate ones;
- Tune into your internal dialogue; it’s crucial. We can’t change anything without awareness. You have been thinking a certain way all of your life, and therefore, it may not occur to you that your thoughts aren’t serving you, let alone the fact that you can change them.
- Analyse any negative thoughts against the widely accepted, Unhelpful Thinking Styles (below) to ascertain how you may be using distortion.
- Choose more positive, realistic thoughts.
Unhelpful Thinking Styles
The following unhelpful thinking styles form the basis of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), the practice that helps people to identify the thoughts and behaviours that aren’t serving them and identify new, more realistic ones:
- All or Nothing Thinking – Sometimes called ‘black and white’ thinking – e.g. ‘I’m not perfect, I have failed’. ‘Either I do it right or not at all’.
- Over-generalising – Seeing a pattern based upon a single event or being overly broad in our conclusions, e.g., ‘Everything is always rubbish’. ‘Nothing good ever happens’.
- Mental Filter – Only paying attention to certain types of evidence, e.g. noticing our failures but not seeing our successes.
- Disqualifying the Positive – Discounting the good things that have happened or that you have done for some reason or another, e.g. ‘That doesn’t count’.
- Jumping to Conclusions – There are two key types of jumping to conclusions: mindreading (imagining we know what others are thinking) and fortune-telling (predicting the future)
- Magnification (catastrophising) and Minimisation – Blowing things out of proportion (catastrophising) or inappropriately shrinking something to make it seem less important.
- Emotional Reasoning – Assuming that because we feel a certain way, what we think must be true, e.g. ‘I feel embarrassed, so I must be an idiot’.
- Using ‘Should’ and ‘Must’ – Using critical words like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘ought’ can make us feel guilty or like we have failed. If we apply ‘shoulds’ to other people, the result is often frustration.
- Labelling – Assigning labels to ourselves or other people, e.g. ‘I’m a loser’. ‘I’m completely useless’. ‘They’re such an idiot’.
- Personalisation – Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault. Conversely, blaming other people for something that was your fault.
Using Unhelpful Thinking Styles
Whenever you recognise that you’re overthinking, being overly critical or worrying/ panicking about the future, take five minutes out to consider and answer the following questions:
- What is the thought?
- Which of the unhelpful thinking styles (above) am I using?
- What evidence do I have to support the unhelpful thought (typically, there won’t be any!)
- What’s a better, more realistic thought?
- What positive action can I take right now?
I suggest keeping a diary or a ‘thought log’ to help you recognise your triggers and patterns of negative thinking that will undoubtedly be there. The more aware we are of our distorted thinking, the easier it will be to address them.
I have to place a huge caveat here; you aren’t going to overcome a lifetime of overthinking overnight or even within a few weeks. It’s an ongoing process. So, if you find yourself in a negative thinking spiral, be kind. Do a reframe, and congratulate yourself for recognising that your inner critic has raised its ugly head!
If you’d like to learn more about the 1:2:1 support I can provide to help you reach your personal and professional goals, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.