Carefully thinking things through before rushing into them is a good thing, right?
But thinking too hard or for too long—a.k.a. overthinking—can be a hindrance.
It can paralyze a person and prevent them from achieving tasks, both big and small.
So how do you know if you, or someone you love, is making well-informed choices, or if they are self-sabotaging by overthinking?
If they display these 9 traits, it’s a good sign they are an overthinker.
1. They can’t make decisions…
…big or small.
An overthinker analyzes every possible outcome of a situation, which means even the simplest of decisions can send them into analysis paralysis.
A simple task like choosing what to wear to work becomes insurmountable.
A regular thinker might just consider the weather and if the occasion calls for formal or casual wear.
An overthinker will obsess about a million other factors.
Like what will other people be wearing? What if someone else is wearing the same? What did I wear last Tuesday? Is this outfit too similar? What if it’s cold in the office but warm in the meeting room? The list is endless.
And this is just for the trivial stuff. When it comes to more important decisions, the thought process is all-consuming.
Overthinkers are usually delighted when someone else decides for them. When a friend makes the restaurant suggestion for their dinner plans that evening, they feel a wave of relief from not being asked that dreaded question, “Where should we eat tonight?”
2. They worry about the future.
Part of the reason overthinkers struggle with making decisions is the fear of making the ‘wrong’ choice.
Their minds are overrun with ‘what if’ scenarios.
What if I go for this job and don’t get an interview?
What if I do get an interview, but I have to do a presentation?
What if I make a fool of myself in the presentation?
What if the presentation goes well and I get the job, but it turns out I hate it?
Every possible future scenario, good or bad, leads them to more things to worry about.
As a result, they often end up stuck with the decision of ‘inaction,’ but even that leads them to worry about missed opportunities and regrets.
3. They obsess about the past.
Those who overanalyze the future, often can’t let go of the past either.
If they make a small mistake at work, which is easily and quickly fixed, they replay it over and over again in their mind.
For example, they accidentally sent a work email to Barbara Rogers in Finance when it was meant to go to Barbara Richards in Sales.
A regular thinker would be mildly annoyed with themselves, correct the mistake, remind themselves to be more careful in the future, and move on.
But an overthinker will dwell on this for the rest of the day and might still be thinking about it a week later.
The same thoughts will go round and round in their head like, “How was I so stupid? I’m so annoyed with myself. Barbara Rogers must think I’m irresponsible. I’m going to be so embarrassed when I next see her. What if I do it again with a confidential email? I still can’t believe I did that. Why didn’t I check first? That was such a silly mistake. Maybe I’m not detail-oriented enough for this job.”
Of course, it’s perfectly natural and healthy to think about a mistake or setback in the context of making sure it doesn’t happen again, as this serves a useful purpose.
But when you are ruminating on things you cannot change, or dwelling on mistakes that have already been resolved and forgotten about by everyone else, this is no longer helpful and it stops you from learning from it and moving on.
It actually increases the chances that an overthinker will make another mistake because…
4. They aren’t living in the now.
Your brain can only handle so much information at any given time.
If it’s consumed with thoughts about the past or fears for the future, it cannot pay attention to what is going on in the here and now.
This means you miss important information from the world around you, and you are likely to make mistakes or not work to the best of your ability as you are not giving the task at hand your full attention.
But more than that, it means you miss out on the simple joys going on around you all the time.
Like the hilarious story your housemate just told, the beautiful blue sky above you, or the look of total adoration your 3-year-old is giving you.
Living in the past or future, and missing out on the here and now, also means overthinkers rarely get the chance to relax and unwind.
And as a result…
5. They are stressed and anxious.
Overthinkers rarely sit back and enjoy a situation as it unfolds.
Take a social situation, for example.
Someone who overthinks will spend much of the time before the event worrying about how it will go. What should they wear? What should they talk about? What if they are boring, or if they accidentally say something inappropriate? Maybe it would be easier if they canceled. But that would be rude, what would people think of them?
Once they are at the event, they spend so much time stressing about what they are saying and doing, that they don’t stop to listen and enjoy the interesting things that are going on around them.
After the event, they replay their actions repeatedly, convincing themselves that they did or said the wrong thing. This serves to reinforce their anxiety about these situations, and in some instances, an overthinker may start to avoid them altogether.
In some cases, overthinking can be related to anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social anxiety disorder.
6. They are poor sleepers.
For overthinkers, the evening and nighttime are often the worst.
Some people who are prone to overthinking manage to get through the day distracted by the demands of life, but when the quiet of the evening falls, their minds start racing and thoughts take over and consume them.
They lie in bed running through everything that happened in the day, overanalyzing things they said to people or looks they were given, and going over and over the list of things they need to get done the next day.
When sleep finally does come it may be fitful and broken.
Overthinkers often wake in the early hours and struggle to get back to sleep before their alarm goes off because as soon as they wake up, the repetitive thoughts creep back in and won’t budge.
This poor sleep only serves to exacerbate the problem, as when we are tired our cognitive functioning is impaired, which makes decision-making and rational thinking an even harder task.
7. They can’t handle change.
A lot of people find change anxiety-inducing, but for overthinkers, change can be the trigger point to a huge negative thought spiral.
With change, comes uncertainty. Overthinkers try to counteract this fear of the unknown and regain some control by running through every possible outcome the change could bring.
It is often the negative outcomes that become the focus, and each possible outcome brings with it another fear for the overthinking mind to worry about.
For example, when starting a new job, everyone is a bit nervous about what to expect and may worry about how it will go the night before their first day.
But for the overthinker, their thought spiral will take over and may look something like this:
“What if I’m no good at the job? What if the people aren’t nice? Perhaps I should have stayed in my old job. But I wasn’t happy there. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just have to leave and find another job. But there might not be any other jobs as conveniently located at this one. I’d have to commute for longer and might not be able to collect the kids from school in time. I’ll have to find something with shorter hours, but I’m not sure we can afford the pay cut. We’ll have to tighten our belts.”
8. They don’t trust their gut.
Often, people over-analyze things because they’ve lost that innate instinct within that tells them, ‘This feels right, just go for it.’
Maybe there were times in the past when they made a quick decision and it didn’t work out as hoped, or perhaps from an early age, they were repeatedly told by their parents to be careful and not rush into things.
These experiences can dampen that inexplicable gut feeling a person gets that tells them to give something a go.
Instead, they start to doubt themselves, their ability to make good choices, and their ability to handle the outcome whatever it is.
They stop listening to their body, and instead let the chatter of the mind take over.
9. They need a lot of reassurance.
As they don’t trust their instincts and their ability to make decisions, overthinkers often need a lot of reassurance.
They seek the opinion of anyone they can: friends, family, co-workers. But sometimes this only serves to make the problem worse when the opinions don’t align.
If an overthinker does succeed in making a decision, they need validation that others think it’s the right one.
And if they don’t get the agreement they’d hoped for?
Then they’re back to square one, over-analyzing all the possible options available.
If you see many of these traits in yourself, or someone you know, it’s quite possible that what used to be a healthy, constructive thought process, has now spiraled out of control.
That being said, it’s never impossible to regain control over our thoughts. Sure, it can be hard to re-program years of thinking a certain way, but it can be done.
And it may be that the overthinking itself is not the problem.
The content of your thoughts is likely to be a key factor contributing to whether your overthinking is a help or hindrance.
If your overthinking is primarily negative as outlined in this article, re-framing some of your thoughts to give them a positive spin could be the first step to helping you gain control.
You may also like:
- Overthinking A Relationship: 20 Signs You Are + How To Stop
- 17 Tips To Stop Looping Thoughts When Your Brain Gets Stuck
- 6 Affirmations To Repeat When You’re Overthinking