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Women Who Think Too Much
How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life
By Susan Nolen-Hoeksema
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2003 Susan Nolen-Hoeksema
All rights reserved.
What's Wrong with Overthinking?
Over the last four decades, women have experienced unprecedented growth in independence and opportunities. We are freer to choose what kinds of relationships to have, whether and when to have children, what careers to pursue, and what lifestyles to lead — choices previous generations never dreamed possible. Advances in medical science have made us healthier than ever before and living longer. We have many reasons to be happy and confident.
Yet, when there is any pause in our daily activities, many of us are flooded with worries, thoughts, and emotions that swirl out of control, sucking our emotions and energy down, down, down. We are suffering from an epidemic of overthinking — getting caught in torrents of negative thoughts and emotions that overwhelm us and interfere with our functioning and well-being. Our concerns are about fundamental issues: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What do others think of me? Why am I not happy and content? Answers do not come easily or quickly to such questions and so we search and ponder and worry even more. As our mood gets deeper and darker, we can identify still more concerns, big and small: Is my son taking drugs? Why am I still in the same dead-end job? How am I going to keep my spouse interested in me? Why can't I control my temper with my mother? These thoughts ebb and flow with our rapidly shifting moods, but we seldom reach any conclusions.
Even minor events can send us off on hours or days of overthinking and distress. Your boss makes a sarcastic remark to you and you spend days worrying about what he meant and about your feelings of guilt and shame. A friend makes a comment about your weight, and you get mired in thoughts about how you look and how insensitive the friend is. Your spouse is too tired to have sex one evening and you're up all night wondering what this means for your marriage.
This epidemic of morbid meditation is a disease that women suffer much more than men. My studies have found repeatedly that women are more likely than men to fall into overthinking and remain stuck there. Take, for example, Veronica, a twenty-seven-year-old full-time mom with auburn hair and dancing brown eyes. Veronica adored caring for her toddler twins and being involved in community activities that she felt could benefit her twins and other children in her town. But when she wasn't teaching the twins how to swim, or at an organizational meeting for some fund-raiser for her community, or otherwise busy, Veronica would find herself slipping into the muck of negativity and concern we call overthinking:
What's wrong with me that I never feel completely satisfied with what I'm doing? I just keep agreeing to more committees and arranging more activities for my kids. But nothing ever feels quite right. What's wrong with my life? Maybe it's something about my hormones. But it seems to last all month long. I don't know, maybe I've made the wrong choices in my life. I say I like being a stay-at-home mom, but do I really? Does Rick really appreciate what I do for our children?
As she continues to fret, Veronica's thoughts jump to her weight, then to her marriage, and then to her life before full-time motherhood:
I'll never get rid of the pregnancy weight. I'm destined to be fifteen pounds too fat for the rest of my life, and it will only get worse with age. What if Rick meets some pretty young thing at work and gets sick of me? How would I ever manage alone with twins? And how would I ever get a good job again? It's not as though I had great job skills before I stopped working. I never liked that job and my boss never liked me.
Women can ruminate about anything and everything — our appearance, our families, our career, our health. We often feel that this is just part of being a woman — that it's a reflection of our caring, nurturing qualities. This may be partly true, but overthinking is also toxic for women. It interferes with our ability and motivation to solve our problems. It drives some friends and family members away. And it can wreck our emotional health. Women are twice as likely as men to become severely depressed or anxious, and our tendency to overthink appears to be one of the reasons why.
We do not have to be this way, however. We can rise above this epidemic of emotional oversensitivity and hypervolatility and learn to recognize and appropriately express the emotions we experience. We can keep these emotions under reasonable control, and deal effectively with the situations that upset us. We can maintain serenity and self-efficacy among conflict, confusion, tragedy, and chaos. We can stand strong and tall against the worst storms. We can be the directors of our own emotional lives.
Escape from Overthinking
Trying to overcome overthinking is like trying to escape from quicksand. The first step to freedom is to break the grip of your thoughts so that they don't continue to pull you down further, and eventually smother you. The second step is to climb up out of the muck onto higher ground where you can see things more clearly and make good choices about what directions you should go in in the future. The third step is to avoid falling into the trap of overthinking once again. At the core of Women Who Think Too Much is a set of practical strategies for accomplishing each of these steps — breaking the grip, moving to higher ground, and avoiding future traps.
Some people come by these strategies naturally. Take, for example, an incident in the life of Jenny, a thirty-two-year-old stockbroker who lives in New York. For the last year, Jenny has been dating Sean, a handsome botanist who works for the state environmental protection agency. Jenny and Sean have several mutual friends and enjoy cooking elaborate dinners for them, usually at Sean's small apartment on the outskirts of the city. On a Friday, Sean invited some of their friends to dinner at his apartment and asked Jenny if she would come a couple of hours early to help in the preparations. She happily agreed, but the afternoon of the dinner party she found herself far behind in preparing client invoices that had to go out by 6 P.M. At about 3 P.M., Jenny called to tell Sean she would be a bit late. She then got so frantic about finishing her invoices that she lost track of time, and looked up to see it was 5:45 — only forty-five minutes before their guests were to arrive, and it was a half-hour drive to Sean's apartment. When Jenny ran breathlessly up the steps into Sean's apartment at 6:17, she immediately saw that his attitude toward her was cold as ice. When the guests left, he let her have it, saying she was obsessed with her career, self-centered, and uncaring. Jenny knew he would be mad at her for being late, but this was more grief than she expected. After Sean yelled at her for a half hour, she walked out, slamming the apartment door behind her.
All night, Jenny tossed and turned reliving her argument with Sean again and again. She couldn't believe the cruel things he'd said to her. She went over and over it, coming up with sarcastic retorts to his arguments, and examples of times Sean had disappointed her.
He was completely out of line. Calling me a self-absorbed careerist! I'm not self-absorbed at all. He has no idea how much work I have to do and he doesn't care. He's totally self-centered to invite people over when I'm so busy. All he thinks about is himself and having fun. I should have told him he was getting hysterical again. That would stop him in his tracks!
Jenny eventually fell asleep, but woke up in the morning with the same thoughts. As her body tensed, and her thoughts got wilder and wilder, she realized, "I'm doing it again. This is getting me nowhere. I've got to get a grip on this." She went for a jog along the river to clear her mind and lift her mood. After she returned home, she thought through the argument with Sean again. She could see ways in which he was right about her, but she could also see that he was exaggerating in the heat of the argument. Jenny realized that her relationship with Sean was very important to her and she didn't want this argument, or her response to it, to ruin the relationship. She thought of a couple of things she wanted to say to Sean — that she loves him, that she's sorry for what she's done to upset him, and that it upsets her when he yells accusations at her. She thought through what his reactions to each of these statements might be. After a while, she felt herself slipping back into angry thoughts about how nasty and unfair Sean could be when he got mad. Concerned that her thoughts and feelings were sinking deeper and deeper into dangerous territory, she decided to do something else for a while, something to get her mind off all this, and then go back to reconsider what she wanted to say to Sean. After calling a friend for some moral support, she looked back at the list and decided she was ready to call Sean. Her mood was good and her mind was clear. She was able to say what she wanted to Sean — including that she felt he had overreacted — but also to listen to him calmly. They patched things up over the phone and made a date to meet the next night.
Jenny's handling of this argument with Sean didn't start out well — she was only expanding her anger and distress with her thoughts about what he had said and what she should say back. If she had kept going down this road, she probably would have only gotten angrier and may have said things to Sean that did long-term damage to their relationship.
But Jenny was able to deal effectively with this conflict because she used a number of strategies to break the grip of her angry thoughts, to rise above them and develop an effective plan for overcoming her conflict with Sean and avoid slipping into ruminations once again. Specifically, Jenny broke free from her initial ramblings by giving them a rest. She used a healthy, active distraction — jogging — to release her mind from her negative thoughts. She moved to higher ground by raising her mind above the details of what he said and she said and focusing on her primary goal: maintaining her relationship with Sean, and considering some ways she could reestablish this relationship. She recognized when she was slipping into overthinking again and was proactive in stopping her descent by stepping away from her thoughts and getting active.
My research over the last twenty years has shown that a critical component of healthy living is not to allow our negative emotions rule our lives and undermine our efforts. Negative emotions exert powerful influences over our thoughts and behaviors. When you are sad, your brain has greater access to sad thoughts and memories, and you are more likely to interpret present circumstances in a sad way. Your actions are slowed down, your motivation is sapped. It is harder to concentrate, to make decisions, or to accomplish any task. In short, when sadness is amplified instead of managed, it can take you down paths to hopelessness, self-hate, and immobility.
Similarly, when you are anxious, you see threats very easily, including threats that may not actually exist, such as the threat that you have cancer, or the threat that your spouse will be unfaithful. Your mind flits from one thing to the next, and it's hard to focus long enough to evaluate what you should do. Your limbs feel jittery, your stomach churns, your heart races. You might act impulsively or not act at all, frozen in fear. When anxiety is amplified instead of managed, the results can be chronic arousal that wears down the body and makes you unable to deal with even mildly challenging situations.
When you overthink on top of sadness or anxiety or anger, you pay attention to the thoughts created by your mood, mulling them over, taking them very seriously, and letting them influence your decisions. The negative beliefs and bad decisions that result can ruin your life, impairing your mental well-being, your physical health, and your ability to function in the everyday world.
It is possible to pull out of snowballing thoughts and gain control over them, however, and in the second part of Women Who Think Too Much I describe specific strategies for doing just that. I've arranged these strategies into groups: initial strategies that help women pull out of overthinking; strategies that help women rise above these thoughts to think more clearly and make better choices for themselves; and strategies that help women avoid overthinking in the future.
Women overthink all sorts of situations, including loss and trauma, competition and success at work, the past, conflicts with others, and sexual and romantic satisfaction. In each of these situations, our thoughts can be compelling because they deal with concerns that are at the heart of our own self-concepts and the important relationships in our lives. It can be difficult to see how or why we should avoid these thoughts. But in each of these situations, overthinking can interfere with our ability to cope, damage our self-worth, and contribute to unwise decisions. The third part of Women Who Think Too Much focuses on these and other common overthinking situations or themes and strategies for breaking these thoughts and dealing more effectively with our concerns.
Exactly What Is Overthinking?
When you overthink, you go over and over your negative thoughts and feelings, examining them, questioning them, kneading them like dough. You may begin with thinking about a recent conflict with a friend: How could she have said that to me? you think. What does she really mean by that? How should I react? Sometimes we can answer these questions quickly — she was in a lousy mood, she's like that to everyone, I'm just going to blow it off, or I'm going to tell her how mad I am — and then move on.
But when we are caught in overthinking, these questions just lead to more questions — what I call the yeast effect: Is it okay for me to be mad? What if I can't confront her? What does she think of me? Just as yeasty bread dough will double in size after it's been kneaded, our negative thoughts expand, grow, and begin to take up all the space around them in our minds. At first the thoughts may be about a specific event, but then they spread to other events or situations in your life and to big questions you have about yourself. And they get more and more negative with time: If I can't handle conflicts like this, why do I think I could do well as a manager at my company? I let myself get walked on all the time. I'm sick of it, but I'm too weak to do anything about it. That one time I did blow my stack at work I made a fool of myself. My parents never taught me how to handle my anger. They couldn't handle their anger, either.
Franny, a darkly handsome, lanky fifty-five-year-old divorced woman, the daughter of Italian immigrants, succumbs often to the yeast effect. Franny's overthinking most often begins with thoughts about her work as a landscape designer. She has many wealthy and demanding clients and worries a great deal about whether they are going to be happy with her designs. In one particularly intense bout of overthinking, Franny began by thinking about recent interactions with a particular client:
I wasn't persuasive enough in selling my ideas. I should have pressed harder. The objections he was raising were bull. I caved. He said maybe they were "salvageable." What did he mean? Why didn't I ask him what he meant? I can be such a wimp!
Then Franny moved to memories of past clients who have rejected her plans:
It's just like that guy who called my plans "boring." What did he know? How could I have let him get away with that? He eventually accepted the plans. He was just flexing his muscles.
Many more clients have loved her plans, but Franny's mind always gravitates toward the bad memories, not the good ones. Unless her mental rampage is interrupted, Franny will eventually begin thinking about her relationship with her boyfriend Andrew, a handsome Armenian immigrant. Andrew is an extremely successful owner of a chain of high-class vegetarian restaurants, who always seems ready with a joke or a clever comment to amuse his patrons. Franny is absolutely smitten with Andrew, but wonders constantly what he really thinks of her:
He could have any woman he wants — single or married — because he's handsome, wealthy, and totally captivating. I can't believe what I fool I made of myself with him last weekend. It was supposed to be a lovely day sailing off the coast. But I let myself get drunk and sunburned. I must have looked like an idiot wobbling around and slurring my words, embarrassing myself and him in front of his friends.
Excerpted from Women Who Think Too Much by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Copyright © 2003 Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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