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Overthinking: the ‘unanswerable question’ variant

Overthinking: beyond the label – ditch the label

‘Overthinking’ is one of those catch-all labels that are a useful starting point. But if you are to put an end to it, the underlying cause must be understood. What is really going on in that mind of yours?

Here I will talk about just one manifestation of overthinking that crops up often, but is frequently overlooked. But let’s start somewhere more poetic.

Overthinking: a search without end

Imagine looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn’t exist. You could search endlessly – here, there and everywhere – and never find it. If succeeding in your quest genuinely matters to you, you might end up feeling disappointed or frustrated or angry.

Questions without answers

Now imagine searching instead for the answer to a question that has no definitive answer. Your mental search seems to have no end. You might end up feeling frustrated, anxious, helpless, losing confidence, or critical of yourself – or however your failed search makes you feel. If this happens repeatedly, it may contribute to you feeling exhausted, miserable or even depressed. Overthinking is causing you serious problems!

Example – Last week you had your pet put down on the advice of the vet. It was such a distressing experience. But on some level, you know it was the right thing to do. Amidst the sadness of losing him, you start wondering if the vet was correct. “What if the vet was wrong and my pet could have survived? Did I agree to something when he might actually have recovered? Did I kill my pet? Have I made a huge mistake? You begin to torment yourself with unanswerable questions. These can escalate into negative feelings about yourself: “Am I a terrible person?”

This highlights how overthinking often attaches itself to upsetting situations.

Questions with unreachable answers

The same applies if the answer might possibly exist, but is not reachable. For example, finding the answer might require you to know what another person is thinking – but you just don’t have that information.

Example – “I spoke harshly to my friend. She was hurt and upset. Later, I apologised and she told me not to worry, it’s all fine. But something in me is not convinced. Was she just smoothing things over? What if she is still really hurt? What if she hates me now and ditches me? I can’t speak to her until next week.” Your mind replays the scene over and over, without you even knowing why. Thought-agony ensues….

You began by asking yourself (or me): How do I stop overthinking? But now you know why your mind goes over and over the same material with no resolution: because you’re trying to answer unanswerable questions. Now you can practice recognising these unanswerable questions that drive your over-thinking and learn ways to deal with them. This will all require time and effort. Patience and practice

Overthinking: just thoughts or emotions too?

It’s important to notice that this post is addressing overthinking only on the level of thoughts. But surely overthinking is all about thoughts…. and thinking? Well, yes. But there may also be emotional patterns woven into your thinking that you will need to look at too. But at least you have removed one layer of obscurity and can tackle the ‘thinking’ aspect head on.

An end to overthinking

There is plenty of good advice online about overthinking. Tony Robbins is a famous example. But sometimes general advice is not enough. You may have to identify very exactly the thinking (and emotional) patterns that drive your overthinking. Remember, this post gives you just one example of what they might be. But I hope it also gives you enough reason to be hopeful that your overthinking can be ended!


Note: The examples given here do not relate to actual situations described to me by any of my clients. If they sound familiar to you it is by coincidence – or because they are so general as to represent a situation that occurs frequently in many of our lives.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

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