For a few weeks now I have settled into a kind of generalized anxiety. Even though it can be suppressed on most days, it still is nagging me like an itchy tag in the back of a shirt. Without a doubt, this uneasiness is a product of my terrible habit of overthinking almost any and everything I can think of.
I am my own worst critic and as I have gotten older I have learned that every situation cannot be looked at through one lens, but rather many. Allowing myself to look from multiple angles has been beneficial in considering how others are feeling, justifying mine or other’s actions, and understanding the bigger picture. However, this has precipitated massive overthought and meticulous analyzing. It creates a boundless loop of “well, maybe it is my fault…” or “I can understand why so-and-so did or felt like this…” When I get into this state, I can’t snap out of it and I need someone to bring me back to reality.
I struggle particularly with situations in which another person and myself have different opinions on a matter. Typically, I try to pick the path of least resistance and upset as little people as I can with my decisions. I want to be well liked and if I know that my decisions are in accordance with that of the majority, I fear nothing. When I decide to make a conscious decision for myself and by myself, that is when the broken feedback loop starts. Did I make that decision because I just being selfish and stupid? Was that a bad decision? What if something else had happened?
I recently was listening to the talk show “Invisiblia” on NPR. The episode was called “The Secret History of Thoughts,” which had originally aired in 2015. Co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller discussed three different schools of thought regarding how our thoughts affect our lives and how we can approach them to solve problems. Throughout history, there have been three distinct phases of thought in which different professionals believed that there were particular ways to analyze thought to solve problems and create a more clear, happy and healthy mind.
The first phase is that thoughts have meaning. This Freudian theory believes that ones’ thoughts are very intimately related to who he/she is. Jonathan Shedler, a psychologist in Colorado, stated on the podcast: “There can be a tremendous value-profound value- in understanding where they [your thoughts] come from.”
The second phase doesn’t ask the patient to follow his or her thought, but rather to challenge the thought by asking: “Is there any truth in these thoughts that I am having?” In essence, you contradict the thought you are having to evaluate if there is any part of it rooted in reality. As Spiegel sums up, this phases’ belief was that ‘maybe people shouldn’t always take their thoughts so seriously, particularly a certain subset of their thoughts.”
The third phase’s premise is that you are taking your thoughts too seriously and that it is necessary to ignore them. Therapist Miranda Morris states “We’re going to work not on getting rid of it, but on changing your relationship with it.”
After listening to the podcast, I realized that I can pull different strategies from each phase to help combat my over analyzing antics. For example, I can use the second phase to help me work through self-deprecating thoughts like thinking I am a horrible person because of an isolated incident or that I am not loved. I need to walk myself through steps in which I evaluate if a particular thought is actually true, or if I am just being overly hard on myself. I have to ask myself: “Are there other instances to justify this thought or am I just overreacting?” This can help determine if I need change or fix something in my life to eradicate the thought or can I move to the next phase and ignore the pesky thought. Going through steps like this still allows me to look at situations at different angles, but it prevents me from the tiresome back-and-forth that plagues my everyday musings.
I also need to accept that choices in life aren’t always going to be binary: black and white or right and wrong. Often times, there are millions of different ways that a situation can pan out. Each decision we make is tainted by our own personal opinions, experiences, and views on a particular situation. From where I sit, I am at the center and everyone else that is in my life falls somewhere around me; whereas exact opposite is true for someone else. I am not the protagonist of their story and they are not the protagonist of mine.
It is important to weigh other’s opinions and preferences but at the end of the day, you have to make sure that you are the protagonist in your own life and not a supporting character in your own story.
Even though I have taken the time to consider how to prevent my overthinking, I realize that at some point I simply have come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I fixate on an event, decision, or experience, I cannot change the past. If I have hurt someone, by all means, it is necessary for me to apologize sincerely and use the experience to help me be a better person and make more educated decisions in the future, but obsessing over it isn’t going to help anyone.
The first time I realized this was four years ago when I had come home for the summer after freshman year of college. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend at the time, and even though I was the one who ended it, I was having major regrets about the decision. I was talking to my cousin, telling the story over and over again and going through different hypotheticals. Eventually, she stopped me and said: “Whether or not it was the right decision, or you wish you could undo it, you can’t, so there is no sense is continuing to over think it. It happened, and the only thing you can do now is to move forward.” Although this seemed harsh at the time, it was exactly what I needed to hear to give myself permission to be okay with my decision. Even though that was many years ago, I have to continue to remind myself of the lesson: no matter how much I analyze past actions, I can’t change them. Looking back on previous experiences and exchanges is valuable and important, but having them consume my present isn’t healthy.
In the past week or so, I haven’t stopped overthinking entirely, but I have been able to stop myself from getting into a downward spiral of negative thoughts. Slowly but surely I am learning to be confident in my decisions and approaching thought as something that I have the ability to control and handle. At the end of the day, my thoughts should be helping me be better, and not working against me.
Link to the transcript from Invisibilia: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/09/375928124/dark-thoughts