Making decisions is hard for most people. But making decisions can feel impossible when you identify as an “over thinker”. Although overthinking gives us the illusion that we are controlling a situation, in reality, our ruminating is leading us down a spiral of less control. We may get stuck in “analysis paralysis”. When you’re stuck in the throes of overthinking, it doesn’t feel like a well-chosen mental pathway, it feels like a loop we can’t escape. We can choose differently, but how?
The Basis for Overthinking
We all land somewhere on the continuum between impulsivity and analysis paralysis. Those who find themselves stuck in a pattern of overthinking usually have a few common traits.
- Intellectual curiosity: A genuine desire to understand the world, other people and how it all intersects can be an enriching perspective IF we are able to make some decisions while we still have unanswered questions. Curious people tend to have many more questions than answers and if we avoid taking action until we have complete certainty, we may find ourselves stuck and frustrated.
- A focus on certainty: When we believe that we have to be absolutely certain before we make a decision, we may do one of two things: Delay important decisions altogether (until we feel 100% certain, which rarely happens) OR ignore important information in an attempt to avoid the feelings of ambivalence that could possibly contradict a sense of certainty. Here’s an example of how this can look: If we believe we have to be 100% certain to take a new job or enter into a new relationship, we may ignore important information about our hesitancies. Sounds counterintuitive but if the end result is absolute certainty (and the reality is that most decisions in life will not yield that kind of certainty) we may ignore important information to stay in a state of “false certainty”. We may neglect to take into account yellow-flags because we fear that if things aren’t perfect, they aren’t worth pursuing. The truth is, those yellow flags may not be deal-breakers at all but just nuances to notice and take into consideration as we move forward. When you take the illusion of complete certainty off the table, you can enter into situations with eyes wide open, considering all the different facets and allowing yourself to evolve as needed. We may not ever be 100% certain (if we are fully honest within our humanity) but it is true that some degree of certainty is important and helpful. I like to ask my clients, “With 100% certainty off the table, how comfortable do you need to be before making this decision? Is it 95%? Over 50%?” Different decisions will require different levels of certainty.
- Anxiety: The mantra of anxiety is “never enough.” Anxiety says “I’m never sure enough or safe enough or good enough”. We overthink when we are anxious because we erroneously believe that we can reason our way out of the feelings of anxious discomfort. If you’ve ever stayed stuck on the thought of, “If I could just figure this out…?” you know what I mean. Remember, however, that anxiety may appear to be rooted in our thoughts alone, but it’s actually a physiological response, one that takes a mind-body awareness to change. Next time you’re anxious, pay attention to where you feel it in your body. When we are able to relax our physiological responses, we send a feedback loop back to our brain that things aren’t as bad as we are making them out to be. As our body rests, our mind begins to as well.
- Too much information: Some information is good, too much information is paralyzing. If you find yourself gathering massive amounts of info and still saying, “If only I could get another data point, I’d be able to make a decision,” you may be suffering from information overload that leads to analysis paralysis. Challenge yourself to let your mind rest with “enough” information. A good decision is rooted in a degree of confidence but tempered by the flexibility to know that new information arises all the time– and if we don’t know the answer yet, maybe we don’t need to know it yet.
How to Reduce Overthinking
The first step in reducing overthinking is to stop identifying yourself as an over thinker! Just like a well-worn path, our thoughts will take the path of least resistance, or the path most traveled. If we identify ourselves as an over thinker, we resign ourselves to that behavior. Next time you begin to label yourself as a hopeless over thinker, try identifying yourself as “intellectually curious” instead. If that feels inauthentic to you, consider my favorite hack for thought-changing practice: Add the word “learning” to your self-proclamations. Maybe you still feel like an over thinker, but you can make a true and authentic statement if you assert that, “I am learning not to be an over thinker”.
- Intellectual Curiosity: Having a voracious appetite to understand the meaning behind things makes for a deep and meaningful existence. Just be sure that this trait is serving you versus paralyzing you. Consider making peace with the questions. Rainer Maria Rilke says it well: ““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
- The Certainty Trap: If you’re prone to idolizing certainty, take a moment and consider what that illusion of certainty is offering you. Is it a sense of safety? Connection with a certain ideology and it’s members? Consider other ways you can find these things. There is peace and safety in knowing that God’s presence is certain, even when His plan seems uncertain and limited from our human understanding.
- Anxiety: Anxiety leads us to overthink because we continually avoid the things that make us anxious, leading our brains to forever wonder if those things really are as dangerous as we made them out to be. A cure for anxiety is to expose ourselves to the things we are afraid of (in slow, measured ways). This gives our brain just enough exposure to challenge the anxious belief system by affirming that 1.) The feared stimuli isn’t as dangerous as it seems and/or 2.) We have the capacity to handle it.
- Choose to act without all the information. This takes practice. Start by taking small risks without knowing all the details, like visiting a new restaurant without reading the reviews first or wearing a new style without asking anyone else their opinion. This will help build up your sense of self-efficacy, which is your belief that you can handle whatever comes your way. Knowing that you have a God who has equipped you to make decisions (with His help) can build a sense of self-efficacy. Remember that He’s placed you in your current role for purposes higher than your understanding and reasons for which you may never have all the data points.
God never intended our minds to be filled with anxiety and fear. He’s given us many resources: His presence, His word and these psychological tools to help us move from an overthinking mind to a peaceful one. Give a few of these suggestions a try, and continue practicing even when you meet resistance (which will most likely come from your own mind). Remember this: Your current thought patterns have been built over your entire lifetime and they won’t change in a day, but you do have the power to begin.