After overthinking screwed me up
I grew up in a family that valued intelligence above all. It also valued thinking. Not critical thinking, but overthinking.
There’s a crucial difference between overthinking and critical thinking. Overthinking has overtones of obsessing about a subject. Usually someone’s behaviour, often your own. You keep replaying what happened in your head, as if you’re trying to understand it. I say ‘as if’, because you’re not trying to understand it. You’re judging it. You ask questions designed to show that someone is right and someone else is wrong. Overthinking isn’t productive, it’s destructive. It stalls you, prevents you from moving forward.
Critical thinking is all about seeking to understand. It involves no judgement. You ask questions designed to elicit useful information. Questions that bring you closer to a deeper understanding.
Critical thinking had no role in my life as a child. We were expected to tow the line given by whichever authority figure was present. A parent. A teacher. A house mistress. It didn’t matter whether we agreed with what these authority figures were saying. We had to go along with it. Without question.
I remember school teachers sending me to stand in the corridor for asking questions. Not the “How do you do this?” sort. More the “Why is it done like this?” sort. At first, I asked them because I was trying to understand something. I either couldn’t ‘get’ their way or argument, or could see a different way or argument. When this was met with a show of authority instead of an answer, my reason for asking questions soon changed. I then started asking questions to amuse myself – and annoy the teachers. But this behaviour ground to a halt when my school threatened me with suspension. So I stopped asking questions at school.
I’d never even tried asking questions at home. I’d seen early on what happened when you did and didn’t like what I saw. So I learned to tow the line. At first, the questions I wanted to ask came into my head, but after a while, they stopped. I guess my questioning mind turned itself off through underuse.
It’s fair to say that I came to see asking questions as a sign of weakness. “Only unintelligent people ask questions!” I thought. Because intelligent people knew everything. They were always right. So said the prevailing wisdom around me at the time.
It’s also fair to say that this view screwed me up. Big time.
It screwed me up in many ways. First, I became scared of asking questions. I wanted people to think that I knew about whatever it was that was being discussed. That I understood everything. Which I didn’t. And in those pre-internet days, it was much harder to fake it till you Googled it. I got good at bullshitting – I managed to glean enough from people’s often baffled responses to get by.
Second, I became scared of trusting people. If it’s not safe to ask people questions, then trusting people can’t be safe. Contorted logic, I know, but that’s what happens when fear takes hold.
Third, I got myself into a lot of messes. When you don’t ask questions, you make a lot of assumptions. And assumptions make messes. I’ve never had an assumption of mine prove to be correct.
So life wasn’t always easy. But I learned a lot. After a while, I could see the patterns in my behaviour, and the results. And I took action. Despite my fear of asking questions and trusting, I wasn’t paralysed by fear otherwise. I took many risks and changed almost everything about my life.
After decades of relentless self-improvement work, I learned much.
- I learned that where overthinking seeks to judge, critical thinking seeks to understand.
- I learned that overthinking is toxic, and mostly self-directed. Overthinking is your inner critics at play, making you feel less than enough.
- I learned that critical thinking is liberating and enriching. It opens your mind… and heart.
- I learned that trusting other people is essential for a happy, fulfilled life. If you don’t trust, your heart remains closed to the amazingness others have to offer.
- I learned that asking questions helped me learn to trust others. Asking questions allowed me to keep my heart open – to trust – whilst protecting myself from harm. The answers I received enabled me to make wiser decisions.
Today, I’m no longer an over-thinker… most of the time. I still have my moments, but they’re rare. I catch myself when I start to make assumptions, and flip into question mode instead. I catch myself when I start to judge, and instead celebrate the difference between us. And I trust, even though this makes me vulnerable.
I trust, because it makes me vulnerable.