Rethinking Over-Thinking: Are You Getting in Your Own Way?

Woman sitting at the beachI worked with a person in therapy who was given a constant, consistent message throughout his life: “You’re over-thinking things.” He heard it as an accusation, and it held a lot of shame. It was something his mother would state, and he wanted to blame her solely for that shame, but this became harder when he noticed many of his friends saying the same thing.

It began to get in the way of getting work done (perfectionism) as well as extracurricular activities. He was an artist, and his work always had a quality that seemed contrived as opposed to organic.

The positives to this were that he would often stick with something that others gave up on quickly and he enjoyed figuring out puzzles. But while the analyzing was something he could be proud of at times, it more often brought challenges and kept him from enjoying most life events.

Over-Thinking and Decision Making

Over-thinking doesn’t have a high value in our society. As a whole, we get angry with leaders who take too long to make big decisions (and who is it who gets to define the “too” in too long?). We like action and consider someone to be weak if he or she doesn’t “shoot from the hip.”

While a well-thought-out decision is nothing to scoff at, over-thinking can lead to a highly uncomfortable paralysis. And not everyone who points out our over-thinking is trying to upset or poke fun. Many teachers who claim you are “in your head” may have a point.

What We’re Thinking Over When We’re Over-Thinking

It’s time to look at what we’re doing when we are over-thinking in order to separate the good thoughtfulness from the upsetting paralysis.

I’ve noticed that when I’m told I’m over-thinking it’s generally by someone who has already come to a decision. He or she is annoyed that I’m holding back the process. I’m always wary when someone wants me to make a decision with less time than I think is appropriate. Still, it’s important to look at what I’m jumping over when I’m over-thinking. I’ve found that in most instances I’m avoiding emotion. I’m avoiding the emotion that comes with making a decision. I’m avoiding the fear, the hurt, the vulnerability that a decision places on me.

We need to get under the thinking and wade through this mire of emotion. Philosophers and lawyers generally don’t like this idea and try to take the emotion out of a decision. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, task, and one that I think is rarely necessary. When you are able to bring your self-awareness to a situation, you are truly informing your decision.

If you can take an honest look at yourself and think, “I’m so hungry that I can’t make a healthy decision on where to eat,” that’s great. You know yourself and your state of mind well. Maybe you should let someone else make the dinner decision, or maybe just knowing that you’re prone to picking the first restaurant you see, no matter how fast food-like it is, will assist you in making a healthier choice. Alternatively, if you know that the woman you are dating has some traits of your mother, you can make the choice to look at those honestly and separate your girlfriend from your mom (and then go re-read Oedipus Rex): it’s the attempt at avoidance that leads to the severest consequences. It’s the attempt at avoiding the fear, the hurt, and the vulnerability that gets us stuck in the over-thinking.

Pairing Your Intuition with Your Rationality

There’s a lot of talk about the “gut” in decision making. This is just the opposite of over-thinking. Both need to be tempered with the other before a good, smart, well-thought-out, healthy decision is made.

For decisions that don’t need split-second responses, don’t be afraid to take your time—sure, you can make a list, sort out pros and cons, and weigh consequences, but also take the time to sit with the feeling that arises with the decision.

Or take one of the consequences and temper it with feelings—imagine you’ve made a decision and then sit with the feelings you imagine will arise. See what comes up. It’s like when you’re in a restaurant looking at a menu. Do you ever take time to “taste” the portobello burger and then “taste” the cobb salad to see which one your body is most in the mood for? Which one would bring you the most pleasure while you’re eating it and leave you with the fewest regrets?

The extremes of making all decisions by either intuition or by careful, emotionless reason are traps. If you fall in one extreme and you’re generally unhappy with the consequences of your decision making, I invite you to test out the other—preferably with a low-stakes decision at first. Sometimes, challenging ourselves to alter a deeply set pattern can immediately bring up anxiety, which is why I always suggest using the imagination first. Let me know if you try out this strategy and where it leads you.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marilyn


    October 9th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    I over think everything in my life!
    What to have for dinner! What to buy for a gift! hta to wear to work!
    aarrgghh it drives me mad, but how do I turn that part of my brain off that is constantly oevrthinking and second guessing?
    I think that it is because I am such a people pleaser that I have gotten afraid of making a decision that won’t make someone else happy and have forgotten all about how to make one that actually sits right with me.

  • zelda


    October 9th, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    I wish that I was one of those people who could just say whatever, and make a spur of the moment decision. Nope that’s not me today, don’t think that it ever would be

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    October 15th, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    Marilyn–you seem to have hit on something that may be getting in your way. Making a shift from people pleasing to taking care of yourself could be a big challenge. It may be worth exploring the feelings that arise when you imagine disappointing someone.

    Zelda–there are days I’m definitely with you! But I also like that there’s a part of me that is a bit more cautious.

  • me


    October 15th, 2014 at 8:20 PM

    I have never properly learned how to deal my emotions and I definitely find myself caught in the over-thinking trap. My over-thinking is in the form of what I call a hamster wheel. I end up finding myself in a slippery slope of spinning thoughts which paralyzes me. I have been able to work through and muddle my way picking apart my emotional block instead of being consumed by it. But it has been hard. I am just taking one day at a time.

    Great article. Thank you for your insight.

  • felipe


    March 15th, 2015 at 1:44 AM

    Thank for talking about over thinking. This has been a problem for ever since i can remember. I can be anywhere any event something may trigger a feeling or a thought and there i go running with it. This sort of thing has controlled me for most of my life. I need help.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    October 17th, 2014 at 4:27 AM

    Hi there, Me–I’m glad you’ve been ‘muddling’ and have found some relief through doing so. I’d love to hear more about how you’ve gone about doing that if you were open to sharing. Any techniques, therapy, exercises, mantras?

  • me


    October 21st, 2014 at 2:33 AM

    I started therapy about a year ago, which has taught me to actually pick apart the jumbled emotional block that would sit in my head. If I can separate out the block into individual emotions it makes it easier to handle.
    I am aware enough to know when I am just about to step in that hamster wheel of thought, and I visually try to take a step back and gather myself before it is too late.
    If I do end up in the hamster wheel, I either ride it out or if it gets too intense, i take a deep breath and mentally shout “stop” so that I cannot be so paralyzed in my thoughts.
    These things have helped me “muddle” through. Some days are better than others.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 31st, 2015 at 5:13 AM

    Thanks for writing–and sorry it took me a while to respond. You’re absolutely not alone in this. Many people struggle with obsessional thinking and there are ways to manage this. If you’re not in treatment, I would highly suggest it as this is difficult to do on your own. The fact that you have noted that you need help and that this has controlled you for as long as it has tells me you’re ready to take this step. Do a search on this site for therapists in your area and write to them letting them know that you are tired of struggling with obsessional thoughts and see who you connect with. Best of luck and let me know if you feel I could be of any more help.

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