You walk past your boss on the way to your office and he doesn’t say hello. And so it starts. Your overthinking muscle kicks in and all the questions that run through your mind only leave one option: a negative response.
- Did I make a mistake in that report I sent through as I was rushing out the door last night? I should be more careful!
- Has one of my team members complained about me? I thought everyone was in agreement at that meeting…
- Perhaps he knows something about my job that I don’t know and is avoiding me? There was talk about a restructure, maybe they’ll be moving me to another job and he doesn't know how to tell me…
None of this leaves you feeling positive, and you waste valuable time and energy worrying. Then the phone rings two hours later and he’s fine. You were worrying over nothing. So you start asking why you do this to yourself all the time? If it weren’t so stressful it would be funny.
So let’s break this down. How do we end up in overthinking mode? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book “Flow”, suggests that we have around 2 million bits of information per second coming through our five senses (sight, taste, sound, feeling & smell). Now that’s a lot of information! We can’t possibly be aware of all that information, if we did we’d be completely overwhelmed. So what we do is delete, distort and generalise in order to break it down into manageable bite-size chunks.
Delete – we omit certain parts of our current experience by paying attention to select parts. So what we do is focus only on what we think is important, and allow the rest to just pass us by.
Distort – we make a different meaning of something based on our own bias and imagination. It’s not reality, just what we decide to make up and believe.
Generalise – we draw global conclusions based on our experience. It’s taking a single event and turning it into a lifetime experience.
So let’s consider the example of our boss not saying hello. Here’s what we might have done. Maybe we have deleted evidence of the fact he was frowning with his head down. Perhaps we distorted him walking past to add our interpretation that he looked ‘cranky’. Then we generalize that if our boss walks past and doesn’t say hello, then there's a problem.
Let’s contrast this with another way to look at it. You filter in the fact that he looks busy with his head down and is frowning. You distort that frown means that he is worried about something and ask yourself the question “how can I best support him?” And then you might generalize the meaning that someone walking past and not saying hello generally means they are busy and perhaps need my support. Notice the focus in this example is off you.
How to stop overthinking
1. Make it about them
Overthinking usually happen when you put all the focus on you. If you come from a place of serving others then you start to think of ways you can support them. If a conversation doesn’t go how you want it to, one option is to mull over it for 24 hours, catastrophize it and imagine issues that don’t exist. The other is to check in with the person directly to see if they are ok. That way, if there is still an issue it can be resolved quickly and you can both move on.
2. Ask quality questions
The quality of the questions we ask ourselves is a reflection of the quality of answers we receive. If you ask yourself a terrible question, you’ll get a terrible answer. “Why me?” rarely produces a positive response. “What am I capable of” will produce many more positive options.
So when you catch yourself beginning to focus on the negative – and you certainly will – immediately choose a different train of thought. Ask yourself:
- What have I deleted, distorted or generalised to be true in this situation?
- How is this a problem for me specifically right now?
- What action am I willing to take to change how I feel?
- What am I willing to no longer do in order to make it the way I want it?
When you practice these tips on a regular basis, you will start to see the quality of your relationships improve. Not just at work, in life in general. You will become someone who is less stressed and more curious about the other person. That is an attractive quality that others will be drawn to.
Want to find out more about how you can stop overthinking and improve your relationships? Contact for a complimentary, no-obligation discovery session so we can find out if we’re a great match.Tags: leadership overthinking relationships