choose your values over your reactions

Yesterday, I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said, “Stop! Let me Overthink This for Awhile!” 

I almost laughed out loud because I am an overthinker from wayyyyy back. I spent most of my childhood overthinking everything. You give me a half finished sentence or maybe someone gave me a look I didn’t understand, and that was all I needed to think about it for weeks. 

For years, I had what my doctor called a “nervous stomach.” What I actually had was anxiety because I was an overthinker. But back then (the 70s), our culture had not yet embraced mental health for adults, & much less children. 

Not that we really do a great job of embracing mental health now, but it is much better than it used to be. At least we can have conversations about how we think and feel without feeling too much stigma today. Maybe. Sort of. Let’s just say, we still have a long way to go. 

Overthinking is not a useful strategy

As an adult, I realized that other people do not relive events in their lives over and over in their head for years & that my overthinking was causing me real problems. I couldn’t just pretend everything was fine. 

I had to admit that I needed help with this issue. Of course, then I would think of every possible bad situation that could result from me reaching out to a professional about my thinking habits. 

But none of those situations ever came to pass. I just lost hours of my time worrying about it. And I was tired of living every day immersed in my thoughts & worries. So I did what I always do, I began an all out research extravaganza about overthinking. 

I read everything I could get my hands on about anxiety, overthinking & rumination. I read magazines, blogs, medical journals etc. etc. I realize now that this was my way of procrastinating, actually going to someone for help was terrifying to me. But all my research did help me see that I wasn’t alone and that many other people struggle with overthinking too. 

My procrastinating research gave me the confidence to actually take action to solve my problem. This is probably the only time my procrastination has benefited me but I have to give credit where credit is due. 

How I stopped my habit of overthinking

My research taught me many strategies to stop overthinking. You can find all kinds of crazy stuff to try for yourself. Most of them didn’t work for me. But a couple did actually slow down my thoughts & help me focus less on them. 

I have written before about my first method for curtailing my excessive thoughts prior to now. It is an easy one. So easy it may not seem very effective but it helps to show you how pervasive your thoughts really are. 

The First Strategy

 As I mentioned, it’s pretty easy to do. Whenever you catch yourself overthinking or ruminating about something in the past or something you cannot control, you immediately say, “Stop!” to yourself. You can say it out loud or just to yourself. It also helps if you imagine a huge stop sign. 

After you say or think, “Stop,” then you force your mind onto another topic. This is really hard at first. When you start trying to do this, you won’t catch yourself until you are well-into a negative thoughts. But that is okay. After a while, you start to catch yourself much earlier before the emotions start to pile on. 

Congratulate yourself when you stop your own negative thinking. This is a huge step to stopping your thought loops. You should celebrate all your achievements, big and teeny-tiny. But don’t beat yourself up if you slip up and fall into a negative loop. 

The key here is to pass no judgment on yourself, your feelings or emotions. Just notice that you are doing it, imagine the stop sign, tell yourself to stop and move on with your thoughts. 

The Second Strategy

The next strategy is similar to the first, but it goes deeper and requires a little more concentration. This one is called Choose Values, Over Power. 

In the wake of what we perceive as a negative situation or a perceived negative attack on us, we confuse our self-value with a loss of our power. 

So we immediately begin to strategize how to get our power back. This is where the automatic negative thinking & bad ideas occur. We react with a temporary, fake feeling of empowerment through anger, resentment & overthinking (driven by low grade adrenaline caused by the perceived power loss). 

When we act on our less important feelings and impulses, this consistently leads to the violation of more important values. We make the biggest mistakes when we act on things that we assume, or act on thoughts we created from a situation that may or not be actually true. 

As a result, we consistently violate our more important values by acting upon less important feelings or impulses. 

We overthink things like a friend giving us a funny look. We perceive it as judgment on our character or values when the look has absolutely nothing to do with us. Then if you hold a value of cherishing your friendships and being of service to others, you have disregarded this value by acting & overthinking on an assumption.   

This happens because we are susceptible to this recurring error for two reasons: 

  1. Our deeper values do not run on automatic pilot like habits (overthinking, for example) and impulses (reacting negatively to a situation you created in your head, another example). Rapidly processed in the brain, habits and impulses largely bypass the prefrontal cortex (the place where good decisions are made in   the brain).
  2. Our superficial feelings (overthinking & assuming) are basically habits, so we’ll consistently violate our deeper values if we continue to allow them to control our actions. 

So the answer is to NOT focus on how you feel about the situation. But to FOCUS on your values. What do you want to value or devalue within these circumstances?

Does your reaction to this situation create an alignment with your deeply held values? 

We develop conviction, passion, purpose, meaning, and a genuine sense of self as a result of fidelity to our deeper values. When we value something or someone or create the value ourselves, it greatly enhances our sense of self. 

Value creation & ideation makes us feel vital, engaged, interested, appreciative, and alive. 

Here are two reasons why we should focus on our deeper values:

  1. What you focus on amplifies and magnifies. Focus on what is important to you. Focus on what you want to achieve, how do you want to think, what you want to do and how you want to be in life? Focus on improving your situation. Appreciate more, connect to others, nurturing those most important to you. 
  2. The neuro connections forged by repeated focus grow physically large and stronger and are prone to automatic activation. The gooey     stuff surrounding the neurotransmitter. The more the habit is done, the thicker the goo. 

In other words, you need to take a beat before you react and decide before automatically going straight to habitual reactions and assuming things that are not facts.

Another suggestion:

Whenever you feel powerless & you are overthinking a situation, do something that makes you feel more valuable (kind, compassionate, loving) or create or do something valuable for yourself or for someone else. 

Within 20 minutes, you’ll have a higher self-esteem than before you felt helpless & were ruminating. 

When we are creating value & being true to our deeply held values, we feel good. When we aren’t being true to ourselves or our values, we feel bad. 

In theory, it is very simple. But carrying out the action takes practice. Habitual practice over time. However, the reward for practicing is feeling good and valuing yourself. And you cannot put a price tag on great self esteem. 

I hope this helps someone fight back against their overthinking. 

Sometimes, since we are dealing with our brains inside our bodies, we think that our brains know what is good for us and that the brain always has our best interest at heart.

But this is mistaken. You can control your brain & your thoughts. And if you choose to let it run wild with assumptions, your mental health is at risk. So begin with small steps like just noticing when you begin thinking negatively and work up to (almost) always aligning your reactions with your values.