Carl asked: I overthink so much on my bad days. Things like am I a good man, why don’t I like to spend time with my family even though I’m perfectly fine not seeing them. Other things too like am I talented enough, attractive enough, resilient enough, smart enough… and it’s exhausting. I just want to be able to tell myself “it’s enough” and be perfectly okay.
You are absolutely right; overthinking is exhausting and a huge drain of emotional energy. In addressing your question, I want to first touch on some different types of overthinking. Some people might struggle with all of them, others with one or two. Here is an incomplete list of examples: Some people question the decisions they make, second-guessing themselves into a state of panic. Others worry — their minds are quick to land on any possible negative or scary thing that could happen, no matter how unlikely, and create an endless chain of “what if’s.” Then they might expend time and energy searching for solutions to problems that don’t exist yet and may never come to be at all. Some people go down a rabbit hole with existential thoughts. Being human means wondering about the meaning of it all at times, but when thoughts like, “What are we here for?” consume a person so much that they interfere with their ability to focus on the present and engage in everyday activities, that crosses the line from healthy contemplation to painful obsession. For some, overthinking involves guilt or shame — questioning their own character or motives, wondering about fundamental questions of right and wrong, good and bad. Some people are haunted by the past, regretting things they did or didn’t do, or the way situations played out.
From your message, it sounds like your particular kind of overthinking mostly involves self-doubt, that you are consumed by the fear that you are not enough — talented enough, attractive enough, smart enough, resilient enough. As you have probably experienced, constantly questioning whether you measure up can interfere with your capacity to just be — to be yourself and go about your life, work, and interactions in an authentic manner. It also often involves self-comparison. When you question whether you are enough, what does that mean to you? By whose standards? Are there other people you look at and feel certain that they are enough, but you’re not so sure about yourself? Is it possible that you are “comparing your insides with other people’s outsides”? (That’s a great saying from the world of twelve-step recovery programs). If so, shifting your thinking away from comparison and toward your own, unique path is the best thing you can do to conquer feelings of self-doubt.
I also sense a bit of the deeper morality questions and self-judgment in the thoughts you describe. “Am I a good man?” for example. That is a huge, broad, overarching question. It’s great to strive to be the best person you can be — to base your choices on your deepest values. That is where character shows itself. But beyond the daily journey of being human and doing the next right thing in each situation, it is probably not useful to spend a lot of time evaluating your overall “goodness” or worth. Exploring this on occasion is healthy. Pulling back and looking at yourself from the thousand-foot view at important moments or milestones is a valuable exercise in taking stock of who and where you are. It allows you to consider what actions you are most proud of and what changes you want to make in the future. But spending time on a regular basis p0ndering the abstract question of whether you are a good person is likely to turn into painful rumination rather than leading to true self-improvement. (Rumination is defined as thinking repeatedly about a problem in a circular way — turning it around and around in your mind, as if you were working to solve it, but without applying any actual problem-solving skills that could help you reach a solution. Rumination is a trap because it can easily masquerade as productive thinking.)
I have a few thoughts and questions on the subject of “Why don’t I want to spend time with my family?” as I sense self-judgment there. Families are complicated, and we tend to apply a lot of “shoulds” to those relationships, such as, “I should enjoy spending time with my family.” This often results in people harshly judging themselves for not being overjoyed to spend time with family members who may be genuinely difficult to be with. So, I advise you to really ask yourself that question, without implied self-judgment. When you dig deep, you may conclude that there are, in fact, a lot of legitimate reasons that spending time with family is hard for you. However, I am not suggesting that you cut off contact with them if that is the case. The point is that you are better off acknowledging why the situation is challenging, setting some healthy boundaries around the time you spend with them, and mentally preparing for it, rather than ignoring real issues and faulting yourself for not being a good son, brother, grandchild, etc.
Getting into the heart of your self-doubting thoughts — it sounds like part of you knows, or at least is fairly confident, that you are enough. I say this because you report that this overthinking happens on your bad days. I take that to mean that you have some good days too, when these questions do not preoccupy you. That is an excellent sign of your emotional well-being. You are not writing in to say that you truly find yourself lacking in all of these areas. Deep down, your question reflects that you know this is a thinking problem, not a being problem. Therefore, I would define the issue more specifically as one of having intrusive thoughts. These can be difficult to manage, as they generally feel like something that “happens” to you rather than a conscious process you have control over. While it is true that you don’t have total control, and can’t turn your thoughts on and off at will, there are ways to decrease their intensity and impact on you. The first step is to distance yourself from the thoughts. This means reminding yourself that they are thoughts, they are not facts, and they are not you. You do this by observing and identifying them when they arise. For example, when you are hit with a pang of “what if I’m not enough?” you can reframe that by reminding yourself — “There it is again. The thought that I’m not enough just popped up.” When you “put a thought in its place” like that, you decrease its power over you, and will likely find that it loosens its grip on you. Thoughts are always flowing through our minds, like leaves drifting on a stream. It is only when we hold onto them and give them our focus that they stick and become repetitive. Refusing to engage with unhelpful and unproductive thoughts is where your true power lies. It can take practice — you have likely been having these thoughts for a while, and they will not disappear overnight. But if you consistently respond to whispers of self-doubt by calling them out as an intrusion on your well-being, rather than “inviting them in” for deep deliberation, you will see a difference over time. By deliberately focusing on being positive and productive, you are using the power of your attention to shape your mindset. It is well worth it to take these steps to free yourself from painful preoccupation with doubt and worry.
I wish you luck, success, and greater peace of mind as you work toward these changes.