I can’t stop overthinking

Our award-winning coach Kim Morgan meets a woman whose extreme overthinking and overanalysing is holding her back


I can't stop overthinking

Coaching session 1: thinking too much

Fran* told me that her mother had paid for her to have coaching because she was driving her friends and family mad with her endless overthinking and overanalysing of every single aspect of her life.

‘I just think about things too much,’ Fran said. ‘I spend so long analysing everything that I can never actually make a decision. I do plenty of research and talk to lots of people about what I should do but, in the end, I just can’t bring myself to take action.’

I said to Fran that, while thinking is generally considered to be a good thing, she seemed to be saying that overthinking was having a limiting effect on her life. I asked her:

  • How was her overthinking affecting her?
  • On a scale of one to 10, how much did she really want to change this behaviour?

She replied: ‘I really want to change. It’s definitely a 10 out of 10 for me.’ She told me she was exhausted, stressed, frustrated and felt completely stuck. ‘It’s making me anxious and I am not sleeping well,’ she added.

Fran thought over and over again about things that had already happened, agonising about what she could have done differently. She often believed that she had said the wrong thing to someone and was endlessly reliving the conversation in her mind. Fran also thought about things that hadn’t yet happened.

She told me she was still living at home with her parents, because she couldn’t decide whether to move out, to buy or rent a house, or where to live. Fran had split up with her boyfriend, because she couldn’t decide whether he was ‘Mr Right’, and eventually he had given up on her. She was stuck in an exhausting cycle of rumination, chewing over the past and worrying about what might happen in the future. This had left her in a constant state of anguish and ‘analysis paralysis’.

At the end of our session, I gave Fran some homework: to identify a specific time and place for overthinking and limit this to one 15-minute slot each day. If Fran noticed she was overthinking at other times, she should stop and remind herself that she already had a set time for this.

Coaching session 2: formulating a plan

In our second, and final, session, Fran told me she felt relieved to have limited her rumination time. It did not surprise me that, in her 15-minute slot, she had been doing loads of thinking about why she was overthinking!

She identified three key factors:

  • Looking for the perfect answer – she wanted to be certain that any decision she was making was the ‘right’ one.
  • Wanting everyone to be happy – she realised that she was a people-pleaser who didn’t want her decisions to upset others.
  • She came from an academic background where thinking was prized, while action was not valued so highly.

Fran and I discussed how likely it was that she would ever achieve perfection, and whether she would be able to go through life without making any decisions that affected other people. For the first time, I saw a spark of real energy and decisiveness in her.

‘Worrying excessively has resulted in me being anxious, single and still living at home with my parents. What’s the worst that can happen if I try something new?’ she said. I confess that I felt a bit anxious at this point, as Fran seemed to be moving from one extreme to another very quickly. However, I recognised that my role now was to help her formulate a considered action plan.

By the end of our session, Fran had made a list of life goals, with clear timescales. She planned to have left her job within six months to take an ‘adult gap year’, which involved travelling solo around the world.

One morning, a few months later, I received a postcard from Fran, sent from somewhere on the Inca Trail in Peru. She said she was learning that life could be messy, unpredictable and uncontrollable, but deeply enriching.

Join the Thought Police

Identify the distorted thinking that is determining your behaviour. If you find yourself thinking in any of the following ways, stop and interrogate your thoughts. Are they true? What else could you think that would be more useful to you?

  • All-or-nothing thinking. This involves thinking in black and white rather than shades of grey. For example, ‘If I can’t find the one perfect answer, I won’t do anything.’
  • ‘Shoulds’ and ‘musts’. ‘I should be able to find an answer to this’ or ‘I must be certain before I do anything.’
  • Fortune-telling or mind-reading. ‘I know it will all go wrong if I try to do this’ or ‘I know what that person thinks of me.’

Let things go 

Let go of the need to control everything and accept that things do sometimes go wrong and, if they do, it will not necessarily be the end of the world. If we worried about falling over when we were babies, we would never have learned to walk. We sometimes learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

Make a list of things that feel scary for you to do – start small and build up to the scariest ones. This does not have to involve skydiving! For you, this might be driving to a new place on your own, or going to a theme park for the first time. It might just be doing something completely unplanned and spontaneous. The courage it takes you to do something new or scary will turn into new confidence.

Get out of your mind and into your body

  • Become aware of when you are thinking too much and turn your attention to what you are feeling in your body.
  • Ensure you limit your rumination time to just 15 minutes per day.
  • Practise mindfulness, yoga or meditation.
  • Listen to music.
  • Move around a bit more.
  • Stop rationalising, justifying, analysing and explaining yourself to others – there’s no need. They will love the change and so will you.

*Name has been changed. For more from Kim, go to barefootcoaching.co.uk

Photograph: iStock

Enable referrer and click cookie to search for eefc48a8bf715c1b ad9bf81e74a9d264 [] 2.7.22