Overthinking is often defined as thinking about something too much and for too long. Often overthinking can pivot around a massive self-analysis. For example, “Did I do the right thing? Am I a worthwhile person? Why can’t I turn off my negative thoughts? Am I selfish?” A person often spins on these thoughts for days. In addition, fixating on one worry can lure a person down a “rabbit hole” of spiraling worries that are somehow connected to the original anxiety.
Either way, overthinking can create a wave of anxiety and depression that is difficult to shake. Often a person finds relief in the busyness of the day because the overthinking seems to occur at night. Although this is a tough situation, it may help to consider the precipitant for a person’s overthinking. Two factors may be at play.
Before articulating the two possible contributors to overthinking, it is important to acknowledge a common experience of the emotionally intelligent. It involves a critical aspect of emotional intelligence: self-awareness. This includes the capacity to look inward at oneself and introspect to assess personal accountability, gain insight, and understand uncomfortable feelings help a person grow and evolve. It is a sophisticated gift, yet when a person’s identity is under duress, it can induce overthinking.
For example, an individual may spin after receiving negative feedback about who she is. She wishes to trust the person who provides the criticisms, but she may not be entirely convinced the assessment of her is correct. This deep confusion can elicit shame and live inside her brain for days. The predicament may trigger an intense self-inventory because the person wants to figure it out. The confusion about her identity creates a surge of overthinking.
In combination with the emotionally intelligent tendency to self-reflect, two situations involving a person’s identity may create a susceptibility to overthink. One is developmental and the other is situational.
The years between 12 and the early 20s are often referred to as the identity formation stage in human psychosocial development. In adolescence, a person is inundated with new independence. She begins to make decisions for herself that do not involve attachment figures. For instance, what to wear, what music to listen to, what activities to join, etc. This autonomy forces her to think about who she is in the world, a daunting and overwhelming task. As she moves through the teen and young adult years, her involvement with the outside world increases and she begins to attempt to carve her niche outside of the home—an exciting but terrifying journey. Self-reflecting questions naturally crop up, like: Am I going to be good enough? Do people like me? Am I worthwhile? Am I ordinary? Am I less than?
Often a helpful analogy to better understand this stage is to imagine a log cabin that represents the young adult’s identity. Because it is under construction, it may have a great foundation and two amazing walls, however, the young person still needs to construct two additional sides of the cabin and nail down a roof. So, a strong wind blows on the young person’s cabin and she feels as if it may crash to the ground. She feels insecure and unstable. Conversely, a gust of wind blows against an adult’s cottage, which is fully formed, and the older person recognizes the structure is sound.