One Sunday on the way home from church, I remember verbally processing a recent conversation to Eric. While I talked, he patiently listened and I said, “I just wish I knew what she really meant by what she said.” After a while, Eric responded, “Do you know why men do not struggle as much as women do with this? We assume the person talking to us means what he or she says.”
Oh, the jealousy. I thought, “How nice it must be not to overthink everything!”
A few years later, I finally got the nerve (mostly motivated by hurt) to confront an old friend of mine who I believed was pushing me aside. After sending a firm, yet clearly emotional, message to him, he called me sounding a bit caught off guard. After a brief conversation and explanation, I remember his parting words, “Heather, don’t overthink it.”
Between these two examples, and after years of having discussions (sometimes heated) in my head with various people, I must acknowledge a theme… I clearly overthink much of the time.
Overthinking, also, best known as creating problems that are never there. – David Sikhosana
- “I hope that person did not misunderstand what I meant. What if I hurt her feelings?”
- “I texted my cousin two days ago and he hasn’t responded. I wonder if he is upset with me about something. What could I have done? Is he ignoring me?”
- “I wish I could go back in time and handle that break up differently. I know he is happily married with two kids, but I still regret how I ended it.”
We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it. – John Newton
A lifetime of overthinking has robbed me of so much peace of mind. Lying in bed, questioning what I said and how I said it. Replaying what someone said to me – the tone, the body language, the way he or she left the conversation. Drifting off in the middle of the day, worrying about what my neighbor might be thinking about the state of my yard, or what my fellow church member might be thinking about how much (or little) I am serving the congregation.
Overthinking is exhausting, unproductive, and it burns no calories.
I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it. – Jonathan Safran Foer
This hamster wheel of thoughts I have “enjoyed” over my life makes me think of Isaiah 26:3, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (ESV) and Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (ESV). When our minds are on Christ and the truth of His Word, we do not succumb to over analysis as easily as when we leave our minds unattended.
Stop the Ride
So, let’s talk a bit about overthinking. First, is this the best term for thinking ourselves into unnecessary anxiety or creating problems which do not exist? Perhaps instead of overthinking, it might be more accurate to refer to this problem as incorrect thinking or unhelpful thinking.
We are going to think, especially us ladies. Telling us to not overthink is futile. ~smile~ Men have a “nothing box” to which they can escape – i.e., men can literally think about nothing. As a woman, I have no idea what that is like, but I wish I did! But, even with access to a nothing box, men can still think situations into the ground, so both sexes can drive ourselves mad.
Whether we refer to it as overthinking or unhelpful thinking, placing too much weight on an issue can make us feel crazy – mulling it repeatedly, looking at it from every angle, and then questioning our conclusions. We need to find a way to look at each problem, give it necessary attention, and then move forward with life. How do we do that?
Let’s break it down.
1. State the Problem. Before going down a rabbit hole of endless thoughts, it is wise to stop and put the problem into words. After doing so, you may discover there is not a real problem at all. The mind can take us to some dark, lonely, confusing, and aggravating places if we leave it to wander. We have to direct our minds, or they will lead us astray every time. For the sake of example, let’s say the stated problem is as follows: my boss did not respond to my meeting request.
2. Look for Lies. For those of us who are drawn to the worst-case scenario, problems others might consider small can feel monumental – especially after our minds swish them around for a few hours. Before having a chance to turn a small concern into a tragedy, stop and look for lies.
“My boss frowned at me yesterday. I must have made a mistake with that last client, and he is cooling down before he talks to me. He was meeting with my co-worker in the hall yesterday. I wonder if he is planning to give her my position. He has never liked me.“
Stop! This trail of anxiety leads nowhere positive. Could there be some lies flowing in my mind? Yes, my boss frowned, but what is the likelihood that I am the cause of his frown? Perhaps he was focused? Stressed? Problems at home? Heartburn? There are at least a dozen more plausible reasons for my boss to be frowning than my work performance. Do I have evidence of making mistakes with a client? If so, can I correct it? What valid reason do I have to think my boss and co-worker were talking about my job? What proof do I have that my boss does not like me?
- Lie: My boss was frowning because of me.
- Lie: I made a mistake with a client.
- Lie: My co-worker and boss are plotting against me.
- Lie: My boss never liked me.
3. State the Truth. If you need someone to help you with this step, there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes Eric or friends help me reframe my thoughts.
- Truth: My boss has a stressful job and often looks serious.
- Truth: We have all made mistakes with clients and our boss has always supported us as we grow and improve.
- Truth: My co-worker has never given me any reason to think she is gunning for my job. I have never known my boss to fire someone without ample reason.
- Truth: I am likeable, and my boss probably likes me just fine.
- Truth: There is likely a good reason my boss has not yet responded to my meeting request.
Where do I go from here?
- I can give it another day and then resend the request.
- I can approach him in the hall or in his office and inquire about the status of my meeting request.
- I can determine if a meeting is necessary or if my concern can be addressed in another way.
If I stayed busy catastrophizing the “problem,” I would not have the presence of mind to consider other solutions. Overthinking paralyzes us. It is the enemy of problem solving.
Thinking too much leads to paralysis by analysis. It’s important to think things through, but many use thinking as a means of avoiding action. – Robert Herjavek
4. Identify Stumbling Blocks. When I start worrying about a potential issue, Eric reminds me that he does not worry until he knows he has something about which to worry. Crossing future bridges is a stumbling block for me. Country music can be a stumbling block for my mind. As much as I enjoy it (much to Eric’s chagrin), when I spend a lot of time in that world, my mind goes to some places it should not go. Fearing conflict is another familiar stumbling block. Instead of kindly and cautiously asking someone if there is a problem between us, I think up a plethora of possibilities – all far more terrible than the true issue (if there even is an issue). What are your stumbling blocks?
When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened. – Winston Churchill
5. Practice Thinking Well. What does this even mean? How do I practice something as involuntary as thinking? A couple weeks ago, I mentioned the concept of the Philippians filter – something a friend explained to me several years ago. When thoughts come to our mind, we should observe them through the lens of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESV). My friend admitted that she rarely gets through the first question… is it true? Practice identifying thoughts – especially recurring thoughts – and put them through the Philippians filter until it is a habit.
6. Pray and see a Counselor. The Bible clearly tells us to renew our minds daily. The creator of our brain knows how easily we fall, and it always starts with the mind. Spend time with the Lord daily and find a wise confidant. Whether it is a counselor or a dear friend, partner with someone you can speak to regularly who will help you reshape your thinking in positive ways. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)
7. Become a Professional at Identifying Helpful Versus Unhelpful Thinking. If we put the principles above into practice, it will not be long before we can automatically identify when we are overthinking. As we become adept at crushing those lies and pursuing the truth, we can help others who live in overthinking overdrive. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” (Proverbs 12:25, ESV)
Hello old friend.
If ever there was a place most of us stumble into unhelpful thinking, it is with our relationships.
As relationship coaches, Eric and I occasionally run into couples where one (or both) partner(s) is driving themselves silly worrying about their relationship. Is this the relationship God has for us? What if we get married and it is a mistake? What if he or she changes, and we end up hating each other? What if he or she refuses to change? What if I marry the wrong person?! What if…what if…what if…
When I was younger and still trying to find my path in life, I shared the following exchange with my (then) boyfriend:
“I just don’t have peace about our relationship!” This was the line I had repeated to him for months on end. Finally, with some exasperation in his voice, he said, “Heather, you say you don’t have peace. If I’ve ever had peace about anything, it is this.”
As mentioned before, overthinking leads to mental paralysis and impedes problem solving. Though it is nice to feel at peace about a decision, it is important to logically work through decisions – especially life changing ones such as marriage. Anxiety is not from the Lord, but He does give us a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7) Is this relationship a good match for both of us? What do those who know us best say about us as a couple? Can we serve God better together than apart? Am I closer to the Lord since dating this person or more distant from Him? Are we heading in the same direction in life? What is the source of this nagging discomfort I am experiencing?
Working through the steps above will help you avoid the pitfalls of overthinking your relationships. When you start to worry, step back, state the problem, look for lies, state the truth, identify stumbling blocks, practice thinking well, pray, and talk to someone you trust about the decision you are facing.
Let’s all break out of the unproductive, maddening, anxiety-inspiring overthinking trap.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6, ESV)
May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. (Psalm 104:34, ESV)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14, ESV)
Do not anticipate trouble or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight. – Benjamin Franklin
Keep breaking free!!!
Do you waste a lot of peace and energy overthinking situations?