The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Overthinking and What to Do about It
By Anne-Marie Sylvester, Registered Clinical Counsellor & Psychotherapist
It’s no surprise that our thoughts play a major role in our mental health. They can influence how we feel about ourselves, others, and the world; they can influence how we behave; they can impact how we experience life in general. Given the level of impact that our thoughts can have on us, our thinking can sometimes cause us needless harm and distress. This is often overlooked in the moment since thoughts can feel so personal, intrusive, automatic, and intense.
I am definitely guilty in overlooking how my thoughts are impacting me negatively in the moment. This happens because I am human! As intelligent humans, we have large prefrontal cortexes that allow us to engage in some pretty impressive executive functioning, but what also comes with this high level of cognitive activity is an inclination towards worrying and overthinking.
So, we are prone to overthink things, and this can influence how we feel and also how we behave. Let’s talk briefly about why we tend to overthink, and what we can do about it.
First of all, thinking a lot is not bad. Often individuals who have very active minds are those who are intelligent and creative! Thinking can be considered a habit. Where this habit becomes problematic is when these thoughts repeatedly immerse us in a state of distress and when we overlook what’s actually underlying these thoughts.
One way to look at it is that overthinking is a way of coping with underlying emotions, beliefs, or needs that aren’t being met. For instance, I used to catch myself thinking over and over about my future when I was completing my graduate degree. These thoughts were in fact attending to my discomfort with uncertainty and my fear of failure. There were emotions that needed attending to and inaccurate assumptions that needed to be dispelled (here my assumption was around what “failure” is and that any form of “failure” equals danger). As I was not addressing these underlying components, the same thinking patterns kept emerging: “What if I don’t get a job?”, or “what if I do get a job and I’m not good at it?” or “What if I take a position and feel stuck in it?”….
We can often develop patterns of specific ways of thinking that may be causing much more harm than good. Some of these patterns we may be aware of, but some may be so automatic that we don’t even notice them. I personally like to call thinking patterns “stories.” For instance, I was dealing with “what if” stories that were being triggered on a daily basis by my unprocessed fear and unchallenged assumptions. Most of us have stories that emerge over and over again. Most of us have stories that feel “sticky” and hard to get rid of. Stories are thoughts that feel common, familiar, repetitive, and old.
To briefly summarize: there is often mental and emotional information embedded within our stories that keep coming up. If we attend to this deeper content that’s driving the stories, we can reduce the intensity and frequency in which these stories come up for us, thereby reducing their impact on us!
Counselling can help with this in many ways. It can help you:
- Identify your common stories
- Learn skills in challenging and reframing these stories
- Learn skills to help distance yourself from these stories
- Process the emotions underlying these stories
- Identify and challenge the underlying beliefs causing the repetitiveness of these stories
- Create new stories that serve us better!
What stories do you experience? What might be lying underneath these stories?