Licensed clinical social worker Amy Morin explains how to differentiate between problem-solving and overthinking in her new book, '13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don't Do.'

By Amy Morin
December 18, 2018

When I was in college, there was a student who lived in my dorm who regularly surveyed other students about which outfit she should wear. Sometimes, she would go door to door soliciting opinions. Although most people were polite enough to tell her which outfit looked better, in reality, no one cared what she wore to calculus class or the gym.

At one point, she bought three winter jackets and kept the tags on them. Then she surveyed everyone in the dorm. When she was done, she returned the two jackets that received the fewest votes.

I suspect she thought wearing clothes people liked would help her win friends. But the ironic thing was, people were annoyed by her indecision.

While overthinkers don’t mean to drive everyone crazy, they often do. They ask for advice they refuse to take. Or they rehash situations with anyone kind enough to listen. Offering constant reassurance or frequent cajoling exhausts their friends and family.

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How to differentiate between overthinking and problem-solving

Preparation and planning are solid strategies for dealing with problems. You might identify a creative way to deal with a challenge, or you may develop a plan to prevent you from repeating a mistake. Whether you’re dealing with relationship issues, work-related problems, or financial dilemmas, devoting your mental energy to the obstacle can help you develop effective solutions.

If, however, you spend hours analyzing your problems, you might be creating more distress for yourself. When you’re in a bad mood and you focus on the things that cause you to feel awful, you’ll feel worse. When you’re anxious, imagining bad things happening to you will keep you stuck in a state of perpetual anxiety.

The difference between overthinking and problem-solving isn’t about the time you invest—it’s about the way you think. When you find yourself thinking about a problem or a distressing event, ask yourself these questions:

Is there a solution to this problem? Some problems can’t be solved. You can’t make a loved one’s illness disappear, and you can’t undo a traumatic event that already happened. Dwelling on things in an unproductive way could be detrimental for your psychological well-being.

Am I focusing on the problem or searching for a solution? If you’re faced with a financial issue, looking for strategies to earn more money or pay off your debt is helpful. However, imagining yourself becoming homeless or thinking about how unfair your financial situation is will keep you stuck.

What am I accomplishing by thinking about this? If you’re proactively trying to gain a new perspective, you might find thinking about an issue is helpful. If, however, you’re repetitively thinking about how you wish things were different or imagining all the things that could go wrong (without identifying actions that will help you be successful), you’re overthinking.

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Asking yourself these questions can help you begin to identify when you’re overthinking things. When you decide your thoughts aren’t productive, you might switch to a problem-solving approach. Or you might decide there’s nothing you can do and thinking any more about the issue isn’t going to be helpful.

Excerpted from 13 THINGS MENTALLY STRONG WOMEN DON’T DO: Own Your Power, Channel Your Confidence, and Find Your Authentic Voice for a Life of Meaning and Joy by Amy Morin. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Morin. On sale December 31 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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