The Curious Mind, Episode 7: Overthinking
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One of the most common problems I encounter in my psychotherapeutic work is overthinking. People are plagued with constant thoughts about problems to be solved or ToDos to take care of, or questions that cannot be answered, or emotional issues that make us overthink with no end.
The overthinking makes it especially difficult for people to relax, take time off, or to have a sufficiently long uninterrupted sleep. Like a virus these thoughts intrude the mind - And of course it’s exhausting that it’s just going on, with no button to switch off.
And because we have to do something about it, people often choose to distract themselves, keep themselves occupied, have the radio running, or after work with drinking alcohol, or smoking pot, exhaust themselves with sport, or fall asleep while watching some video or film. And the next morning the cycle begins again…
People often know that what they do is not really a solution, but they just don’t have a better tool available. Some try meditation or mindfulness as a remedy, but there is very little chance that a concrete problem like this can be solved with meditation. It takes too long to learn, and such a narrow goal prevents the state of meditation anyway.
So what to do? The approach I’d like to describe is to face the thoughts and to take care of them. There are two facts we can start with: 1. The unconscious keeps raising the issues 2. I dislike that the issues arise without my permission. I have to start with accepting these two facts.
Let’s start with the second: I dislike that the issues arise without my permission. They arise too strongly, or at any random time, or when I actually want to relax, or they even interrupt my sleep. So, of course I dislike it! But what happens if I dislike the thoughts, or how they make me feel, or how they appear? Automatically, a part of me wants them gone, to make them disappear, or at least to ignore them. Which of course has so far not solved the issue. It’s as if a messenger is knocking persistently on my door, or just at the wrong moments. And I have a sense that I don’t like the message, so I ignore the knocking and turn the music louder. The problem is that whoever sent the message told the messenger to deliver it no matter what. Which puts the messenger in a difficult position because they simply have to go on knocking. Maybe you can already guess who the sender is and who the messenger…
Anyhow, we have to face the fact that the knocking and the issue won’t just disappear, so we have to change our attitude towards it, so that there is at least a chance. And so I turn the dislike into curiosity: What is it that insists so much on attention? And I have to be really curious about it! The messenger will only leave if the message is properly delivered. And how are we really curious? We listen, we write down, we inquire in order to make sure that we understood well. Unfortunately, our past habits of distracting ourselves are not switched off either – so why the messenger is finally delivering the message calmly, we have difficulties to hear them because the music is turned on, the TV blasts in the background, oh and also I’m doing my yoga exercises at the same time. So the listening is quite a bit of work, needs time and some repetition to make sure I understood.
Now to the question who the sender is and who the messenger. The messenger of course is the unconscious. After all it was the unconscious which was knocking at my ‘mental door’ the whole time. And who is the sender? Well, that is of course ME! I decided at some point that a certain topic, question, or issue is so important that I mustn’t ignore it. And I told my unconscious: You keep this in mind, even if I forget it, and even if I don’t want to hear about it – you make sure to remind me to take care of this.
Remind me, for example, that my future is at risk, or that I shouldn’t be emotionally dominated in my partnership even though I love my partner, or that a lot depends on my next business decision even though I have to try something, or that I don’t know if I want a child in my current relationship even though I don’t want to lose it, or that I don’t know what to do with my life even though I want to be happy. And so on.
So of course the issues I will face when I start listening will turn out as real dilemmas, as yet-unsolvable-problems. Because otherwise the unconscious would have taken care of it on autopilot – as it does with easily solvable issues at work, private life, or self-development. What we need is the commitment to get active and our higher cognitive powers for the complexity of the issue. In other words, the courage to face the consequences and the dedication to work on it.
In the end it might be btw, that I don’t agree anymore with the importance of the issue. For example, if in the past I was very insecure, and I told my unconscious “make sure that I never forget to make a good impression”, and as a consequence I would constantly think about what other people think about me, if I somehow embarrassed myself, or how in future situations I could make the best possible impression. But then I raise the whole topic to the conscious level, I understand how and why it was necessary for me in the past to be concerned with people liking me, but I also see that this period of my life is over and that there is no need anymore for such an excessive concern. Seeing that clearly – not as wishful thinking but only if it’s true – I make a new arrangement with my unconscious. I lay out the reasons, I explain why it’s not important anymore, and I release the unconscious from the duty to raise the issue or remind me of it. It’s simply not relevant anymore.
In most cases however, according to my experience, the concern the unconscious has, is still somehow legitimate and necessary. Then I have to take it seriously, and grateful that my unconscious reminded me of the important task I dedicate myself to a solution. If, for example, my employment is uncertain, and I have been the breadwinner in the family, and believe that it is my sole responsibility to earn the income, then I will have sleepless nights. Then I raise it to the unconscious, see the complexity of it, and understand that some of my assumptions were simply wrong. Then I open up to my partner, and start discussing alternatives. Maybe my partner can earn an income as well. Maybe I can have a conversation with my boss or the HR department, look for other positions, or investigate what is necessary to open my own business. And I might decide to do all of these things in order to convince my unconscious that I’m really taking care of it. I don’t have to necessarily put all plans to action, but I would have them in place and ready to be executed when necessary.
The last example I think shows nicely the principles I mentioned before: I bring up the courage to face difficult questions, work in ways I have not been comfortable yet, consider the consequences of my options, and take responsibility for the option that I choose.
The good thing is that I can chose this approach in many situations, and with many topics or issues that bother me and are responsible for my overthinking. The really difficult part is the beginning: to really listen to my unconscious and to what the messenger has to say. Sometimes I have been to persistent in ignoring the message that even if I listen I still somehow manage to walk away or stuff my ears. So this has to be done very mindfully and with a good deal of benevolent attention and patience. Once the understanding is done I still have to muster the courage and face the difficult issues without shying away, for example a possible separation or a drastic life change. Only then I honor the agreement I made with myself in the past to be happy, then the messenger will have done their job, and the overthinking can come to rest again.