Table of Contents
- What is Overthinking?
- Why Do I Overthink Everything?
- 6 Simple Steps to Stop Overthinking and Control Your Negative Thinking
- Step #1: Release The White Bear
- Step #2: The Paper Ball Technique
- Step #3: Replace Negativity with Greats
- Step #4: “I Will”
- Step #5: Take the Fear Pill
- Step #6: Parkinson’s Law Deadline
- How to Stop Overthinking in a Relationship
- What’s the Difference Between Overthinking and Being Prepared?
- Bonus: My Negative Thoughts
Are you an overthinker? If you are overthinking your answer to this question, then the answer is probably yes.
Jon Acuff, author of Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking, asked 10,000 people if they overthink.
99.5% of them said yes: Most of us are overthinkers.
And this is a problem. Overthinking drains us, causes burnout, and, if you’re like me, can contribute to overly negative thinking. In this post, I’m going to teach you the exact tricks I used to stop overthinking and start being proactive. Check out my fantastic interview with Jon Acuff below:
What is Overthinking?
Overthinking is when you think about something too much or for too long or ruminate on the same thought patterns that feel trapping. Overthinking is when what you think gets in the way of what you want. When we overthink, we tend to ruminate on our problems instead of taking action. This causes us to be stressed and waste our time, and can even cripple our ability to make logical decisions.
And even worse, research shows that overthinking doesn’t just cause sleepless nights. Overthinking is linked to:
- lack of decision making
- lower quality friendships
Overthinking is caused by many factors, such as social expectations, relationship anxiety, and past trauma. Here are some more examples of overthinking:
- thinking about something you said and wishing you’d said something different
- getting stressed over how your last speech or meeting went
- thinking about a future event and ruminating over the worst possible scenario
- always asking yourself, “What if…?”
- having intrusive thoughts when you’re working
Why Do I Overthink Everything?
There are 2 types of people who are particularly vulnerable to overthinking: the shy type and the insecure type.
The shy type constantly thinks about people. He lies in bed at night replaying every conversation or interaction from the day. He’s worried about what others think of him and whether or not he made a good first impression after meeting new people. He often has anticipation anxiety, and his biggest fears often revolve around public speaking.
The insecure type, on the other hand, worries about her circumstances. She lies in bed at night agonizing about all of her decisions from the day… and possible decisions for tomorrow. She might have low self-esteem because she’s underperforming at her job, or she worries constantly about her finances or health. If someone tells her something negative, she takes it personally, and that comment will linger in her head for far too long.
These negative thoughts accumulate, causing “soundtracks” to play in our minds.
A soundtrack is a repetitive thought that often plays automatically. When you constantly play a soundtrack, it changes your thoughts and your life. A soundtrack could be negative mental thoughts like:
- “I’m an impostor!”
- “Maybe they’re going to fire me…”
- “He completely hates me and it’s all my fault.”
Positive or constructive soundtracks might be:
- “I got this!”
- “Baby steps.”
- “I’m doing the best I can.”
- “I am grateful.”
Are your soundtracks positive or negative?
Here’s the good news: If you have negative soundtracks, you can change them.
For example, have you ever watched the popular TV show Friends? Take away the laugh track and add some creepy music, and you’ve got something totally different (warning: slightly creepy):
Your thoughts are completely changeable.
And I’m going to show you how.
6 Simple Steps to Stop Overthinking and Control Your Negative Thinking
Step #1: Release The White Bear
Here’s a thought experiment for you:
Try not to think of a white polar bear.
Seems impossible, right?
But that’s exactly what participants did in Harvard professor Daniel Wegner’s famous “White Bear” experiment. In the experiment, Wegner asked students to verbalize their thoughts for 5 minutes while trying not to think of a white bear.
The surprising result? Students, on average, were pretty bad at not thinking of a white bear and thought of it at an average of more than once per minute!
Wegner even found that students who were told to suppress the idea of a white bear did worse than students who weren’t told to suppress their thoughts. You can watch the fascinating study here (timestamp 1:37):
Wegner’s remarkable study tells us it’s almost impossible to suppress unwanted thoughts. And trying to do so might end up causing us more harm than good. So instead, I want you to focus on releasing your unwanted thoughts.
What thoughts are you suppressing?
First, I want you to just think of your unwanted thoughts. If we can’t control overthinking, let’s give it the attention it deserves.
Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and allow yourself to think.
Think of your problems and why they’re bothering you so much. Allow yourself ample time to think. Don’t push them away. What is your mind telling you? What are you worried about? Go deep.
When you’ve got a clearer picture, move on to the next step.
Step #2: The Paper Ball Technique
Got a clearer picture of your thoughts? Great!
Now grab a pen and paper and set the timer for another 10 minutes. Start transferring everything down from your mind to your paper. List all the things you’ve been worried about so you have a place you can visualize them. Don’t worry about making it pretty—the point is to just get it down on paper. Give it your all!
Now, when the timer’s up, take a look at your list. How do you feel? Does it feel relieving to get all your unwanted thoughts down on paper?
Finally, here’s the fun part: crumple up that paper ball and throw it in the trash can.
The physical “throwing away” of your problems is a great technique to help you “feel” as if your worrying thoughts are gone. I find this helps if I’m stuck with something that’s been bothering me for days.
And it certainly gets rid of the white bear in the room.
Step #3: Replace Negativity with Greats
Do you have a hard case of impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon that makes you feel like you aren’t good enough:
- “I’m not a good enough speaker.”
- “I’m not fit to be a manager.”
- “I don’t deserve to make lots of money.”
No matter how successful someone is on the outside or how much external evidence there is of their skills or competence, people with impostor syndrome are convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved. They may have pervasive thoughts about their incompetence or inferiority.
Impostor syndrome isn’t easy to combat (I have a hard case of it), but here’s a great exercise…
Tell yourself “I’m great”:
- “I’m a great speaker.”
- “I’m a great manager.”
- “I have great wealth.”
Positive self-talk works because it replaces your negative self-talk. In Wegner’s experiment, students who were told to think of another object—say, a red convertible—instead of the white bear actually did rather well in focusing their thoughts.
In the same vein, try replacing your unwanted thoughts with positive ones. Being positive overall, according to Mayo Clinic, can:
- increase your lifespan
- lower your stress
- lower levels of depression
So if you’re in a constant negativity loop, keep repeating to yourself, “I’m great.” Make it a daily habit. Stick Post-it notes on your bathroom mirror. Save your favorite quote on your desktop wallpaper.
Or choose from a list of 120 other amazing positive affirmations.
Step #4: “I Will”
Next, think of all the successes you’ve had in the past.
Perhaps you got promoted at a job, aced a speech, or did something kind for a friend.
Failure to live up to your past successes can be another major cause of overthinking.
For me, the second book I ever wrote, Captivate, was a big hit. It became a national bestseller and got translated into over 16 languages.
But now that I’m writing a third book, there’s an inkling in the back of my mind telling me:
- “What if it’s not as good as Captivate?”
- “What if it doesn’t get any sales?”
- “What if people don’t like it?”
Can you relate?
If you’re struggling to get something done because you’re afraid of not living up to your past, you MUST realize this is a different opportunity.
And to help that mindset shift, try saying “I will”:
- “I will write the first draft of this book.”
- “I will feel amazing and be a rock star on stage.”
- “I will deliver an amazing project for my team.”
The “I will” technique is especially helpful if you’re under pressure. Research shows that athletes who give themselves instructional self-talk have improved attention and perform better.
Instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to do well,” replace it with an instructional “I will” to conquer your overthinking tendencies.
Step #5: Take the Fear Pill
If you were given a pill to totally get rid of your fears, would you take it?
You probably realize that’s a bad idea, since we NEED fear to avoid doing reckless things, like walking in the middle of a busy highway or ostracizing all our friends.
So let’s work with fear.
The idea isn’t to totally get rid of your fears. When you start anything new or go through something potentially life-changing, there will always be fear.
I constantly feel fear when I’m going on stage, even after 13+ years of public speaking.
Fear gets a voice, not a vote.
Work with your fear and listen to it, but don’t let it dictate you.
“If you can worry, you can wonder. If you can doubt, you can dominate. If you can spin, you can soar.”— Jon Acuff
And we may never get rid of our fears—but that’s a good thing! You can learn to overcome your fears and become a Fear Boss.
How do we do that? To be a Fear Boss, we have to manage our fear rather than conquer it. Learn how in our article here: How to Overcome Fear and Conquer Self-Doubt
Step #6: Parkinson’s
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, if you give yourself a week to finish an assignment that could be done in a day… you’ll likely take the whole week to finish. It’s just human nature.
Parkinson’s Law also applies to overthinking. When we give ourselves too much time to think or complete a goal, it often delays our decision making.
The good news is, it also works the other way around. This is where Parkinson’s Deadline comes in:
“Work shrinks so as to meet the deadline when it’s due.”
If you’ve got a project due in a day that would normally take you a week, you’re much more likely to finish it. Even though it might not be as pretty, the important thing is you’ve finished it.
Parkinson’s Deadline is a handy technique I use when I catch myself in an overthinking rut:
- Can’t decide on a title for my book? Deadline.
- Don’t know what video to make? Deadline.
- Chicken or fish for dinner? Deadline!
The big caveat is: Don’t give yourself deadlines you know you won’t be able to meet.
This might cause another negative effect: too much stress. Set appropriate deadlines for yourself so you won’t be left with time for overthinking.
How to Stop Overthinking in a Relationship
Depending on how old you are, your version of overthinking might be different:
- “Do they like me?”
- “Is she saying she’s going out for Ladies’ Night but actually cheating on me?”
And if you’re overthinking in a relationship, perhaps there’s something you need to clear up with your partner. In case it’s just you overthinking, here’s how to have a stronger relationship:
- Don’t overanalyze. Perhaps you’ve received an emoji over text and you’re wondering if it means anything more. Since it’s extremely hard to read her body language, don’t overthink things. Texts aren’t the best place to read body language or emotions anyway, so don’t dive into different meanings that don’t exist.
- Communicate. The best thing to do is to clearly communicate with your partner. Dr. John Gottman found the #1 emotion that predicted divorces in a relationship was contempt—or an uncaring, disrespectful attitude. If you’re feeling any contempt at all, sometimes it might be better to keep communication lines open and talk instead of keeping silent.
- Focus on yourself. Perhaps you’re overthinking because your partner takes up a majority of your daily thoughts. That can be great, unless something bad happens in the relationship (can you relate?). The best remedy is to focus on improving yourself. Work on your goals, develop your career, whatever it is—don’t solely focus on your partner, or you’ll be overthinking everything that happens.
Overthinking can be common in relationships but usually gets better as time goes on. If you’re still struggling, head on over to our guide to learn how to have better relationships in a month: 30 Days to a Better Relationship.
What’s the Difference Between Overthinking and Being Prepared?
Being prepared always leads to action. Overthinking tends to lead to more overthinking. So if you’ve been brainstorming and getting a lot of ideas down but haven’t taken action yet, perhaps you’re in the overthinking zone.
Inaction + Plateaus + Burnout = Overthinking
Bonus: My Negative Thoughts
One of my negative thoughts is feeling like it’s my fault when someone is in a bad mood.
- Friend feeling down? She hates me.
- Husband a bit grumpy? It’s my fault.
- My daughter, Sienna, is upset? Me, again.
P.S. Do you ever feel this way when you’re overthinking? Sometimes I think we tend to inflate our problems way beyond what they are: