Do you ever overthink a problem to the point that you make yourself anxious and miserable? Do you obsess over inane things that you can’t change? Do you ruminate, dead set on finding a solution to a mistake or a problem even though you know you can’t fix it?
Just as your lungs need oxygen, your mind was designed to think…and it needs activities and difficulties to chew on. It is always searching for problems to solve. The trouble comes when we get stuck in the process of thinking and keep going over the same scenarios endlessly.
Solution: We can’t stop our minds from churning out thoughts, both positive and negative, but we can change our relationship to those thoughts.
SEPARATING FROM OUR THOUGHTS
Freeing ourselves from rumination requires a radical shift in perspective. We have to recognize that thinking is something we do rather than something we are. By acting as a listener, we can learn to engage only with the thoughts that are helpful.
Consider this: Our thoughts often are random and rambling—but they’re not necessarily true or accurate. A thought is just as likely to be factual as it is to reiterate unfounded criticism from a relative or remind you of an embarrassing situation. Example: Bob expected to be named president of his company, but instead he was fired. Worse yet, he hasn’t been able to find another position. He can’t stop ruminating over what he did wrong and faulting himself for thinking he was in line for a big promotion. His thoughts continuously remind him of how he is falling short in life.
Research indicates that 95% of our thoughts are negative and 90% are repetitive. Most self-help books will tell you to change your negative thoughts to positive ones, but the content of your thoughts doesn’t really matter. What does matter is not reacting to those thoughts in a way that harms you emotionally.
Our thoughts are colored by all the things that we have experienced—or are experiencing—in our lives. Example: Jane is unhappy with her husband and spends a lot of time ruminating about how unlikable he is and how she is justified in wanting to leave him. But she also berates herself for not having the courage to do that. Although she enjoys her job and her children, she is not really present with them because she is perpetually entangled in her thoughts.
FREE YOURSELF FROM OVERTHINKING
These three exercises, practiced regularly, will help you shift away from overthinking and from your unwanted thoughts…
Exercise #1: Stop and drop. Awareness is freedom…so three or four times a day, turn your attention to what your mind is doing. What thoughts are popping up? How do these thoughts make you feel? After a minute or so, move your attention to your body and what you are seeing, smelling, hearing and tasting. Important: By focusing on your body’s sensations, you experience the present moment rather than being lost in the quagmire of your thoughts.
Exercise #2: Nonjudgmental seeing. Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Then open your eyes, and look at your surroundings—but don’t name the things that you see. Just look. When your mind conjures up labels for the objects around you, move on. Example: If you see a book, your mind will prompt the word “book.” If you see a clock, the word “clock” may surface silently in your mind. Resist the impulse to identify everything you see.
At first, you may have only a moment or two of not hearing a word or thought while looking at these objects, but with practice, it will get easier to find the space between your thoughts, a place of silence and peace akin to what people experience during meditation.
Exercise #3: Who am I now? Try going through a whole day as if you have no history or self-narrative about what kind of person you are or what you have experienced. Just focus on who you are in the present moment. Example: Jim’s mother was critical of him and could never celebrate his victories. He thought he could have achieved much more if he’d just had a more supportive parent. This exercise helped him peel away the layers of the story he told himself. It allowed him to stop being a victim and gave him a chance to fulfill his potential.
IS THINKING HELPING… OR HURTING?
When you catch yourself ruminating, stop yourself with this exercise…
Put your hand on your heart to show yourself compassion, and silently say, Whoa, I am stuck. Then ask yourself, Have I gone over this enough?…Have I done everything I can to correct this problem?…Is thinking causing more suffering than relief? If the answer to these questions is yes, then when you notice yourself thinking about the issue again, you can consciously shift your attention away from your thoughts.
Important: Sometimes you just have to accept that there is no solution, and vow to leave an issue alone to find peace. Ironically, sometimes turning away from your thoughts leads to a solution.
By refusing to engage in overthinking, you loosen your attachment to negativity and suffering…redirect your attention to the present moment…and cultivate a sense of self separate from your thoughts so they don’t have control over how you feel or what you do.