Since I was a child my friends and family have been able to tell when overthinking appeared in the doorway of my mind and insisted I put the kettle on.
My Dad would tell me, ‘you worry about the day you’ll never see’ and my friends would simply say, ‘lookout, Rae has her thinking face on.’ (I’d like to believe my thinking face was one of deep serenity and internal reflection, but in reality I probably looked slightly constipated.)
I never used to see this (my) overthinking as a concern. I just considered myself the kind of person who weighs up all the options before making a decision; sounds sensible enough, doesn’t it?
When I was younger it probably was more like that, but as I’ve aged my overthinking seems to have developed a penchant for black attire and a rather more sinister air. It lurks more and more at the door of my mind, ready to accost me when I’m least expecting it. The worst is when it sneaks in unnoticed and starts making a brew; by the time I’ve realised it’s there, it’s made itself comfortable and I’m too tired to tell it to leave.
What started as a quick cuppa is now usually followed by a slice of cake that segues into an early evening glass of wine, before finishing the bottle and having a sleepover. My overthinking will drop in whenever it pleases and overstay its welcome without remorse. It no longer contains its opinions to the big decisions of my life and instead will often share its intricate analysis on the smallest of my day to day choices.
So how did I get myself into this position? How did my overthinking go from an occasional acquaintance to a frequent guest with zero boundaries?
Fear is definitely part of it. In my last post, ‘It’s school-life Jim, but not as we know it’ I realised a lot of my parenting decisions were coming from a place of fear. The same is true, it seems, in other areas of my life. Fear isn’t always a bad thing, of course – I wouldn’t be long for this world without it – but all this worrying about what might happen is throwing my overthinking into overdrive; right now it’s opening a second bottle of wine as it gleefully catastrophises, offering up endless possibilities over which I can procrastinate.
But now that I’m aware my overthinking is a problem, surely I can pull up the welcome mat, kick it out the door and tell it to leave and never come back? It’s my mind after all.
Unfortunately, I’ve welcomed it for so long that it’s proving hard to disassociate myself from it. Perhaps the first step should be to stop seeing it as part of my identity (so I should probably stop personifying it) and see it for what it is; an unhelpful pattern of thinking, rooted largely in fear, which I have allowed to become entrenched in my brain.
A friend recently asked me a question: what purpose does overthinking serve for you?
At first I didn’t really know how to answer. Purpose? What was she talking about? It doesn’t have a purpose, other than to be extremely annoying. But then the penny began to teeter, before dropping with enough velocity to stun my busy brain into clarity.
It serves the purpose of keeping me exactly where I am. If I’m constantly focused on whatever worries and anxieties I happen to be fixated on, projecting my mind into the future in various scenarios, then I’m diverting energy and attention away from the present and from areas in my life where I’d like to make some changes (like committing to my dream of writing).
Overthinking keeps my brain in the planning stage, waiting for the perfect time to take action; the moment when I have more time; when I’m better; when I’m ready: the moment in which I can never fail. The trouble is, that moment doesn’t exist.
So how can I get out of my head and step wholeheartedly into my life, here and now, instead of some imagined future?
The key is action and the results are magical.
Bear with me while I get a bit metaphorical on you:
For a while now I’ve been standing on the edge of a gloomy riverbank, my security blanket of indecision clutched close, a cold, dense fog of fear swirling around me as the river in front of me rushes by so fast it takes my breath away. There is a single, slick stone protruding from the water about a foot from the riverbank.
I know instinctively that I need to step onto that stone, can feel the threads of my intuition coaxing me towards it, but my security blanket is wrapped so tight and my thoughts are rushing as fast as the river: What if I fall in? What if I get stuck? What if, what if, what if?
Finally, weary of standing still for so long, I shed the blanket, and step shakily onto the stone, expecting to slip and fall into the foaming depths at any moment.
Instead, as my feet plant firmly, something magical happens; the fog clears, the river calms and the sunlight breaks through the clouds to warm my face so unexpectedly that tears of joy spring to my eyes. As I tilt my face to the sky I smile in wonder; how could I have forgotten the simple joy that comes from taking a small step?
I look in front of me and see another stepping stone has appeared. There’s no stone beyond that, but now my fear is giving way to curiosity. What might happen if I take the next step? I look back at the riverbank, it would be so easy to turn around and go back, to where it’s safer, but my curiosity is beginning to burn now…I take another step.
As I land lightly on the next stone I glance over my shoulder to see the first stone disappear into the water. There’s no going back now and I still can’t see the other side of the vast river. I should feel fear, like the fear that shrouded me on the riverbank, but instead I feel free.
Where I am now, on this stepping stone, savouring the lightness of this freedom, is where I am meant to be. I don’t know how long I’ll be here and there will certainly be times when I slip, but if I can accept that instead of worrying about it, embrace the uncertainty and trust that if I continue to take action – to learn and to grow – then another stone will appear, and another, and another, and another. I will continue to follow this path, created by my own small actions.
I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the other side of the river, or what will be there if I do, but I’m enjoying this newfound curiosity and exploring the experiences and growth which each stone has to offer.
Gandhi, as always, said it best;
‘The future depends on what you do today…
Without action, you aren’t going anywhere.’