Sunday, November 27, 2011


Being a "thinker" is, for the most part, a positive quality.  Careful consideration about what's going on in the world around you results in improved decision making.  As with most things in life, however, thinking too much can create problems.  Most of us have, at some point, probably commented or heard someone else remark, "I think I'm over-analyzing the situation" or "I'm probably just over-thinking this."

So what is analytical thinking?  Mary Blast, PhD ( describes it as "understanding a situation by breaking it apart into smaller pieces, or tracing the implications of a situation in a step-by-step causal way."  She states that, among other things, analytical thought includes setting priorities, recognizing several likely causes of events, identifying likely consequences of an action, anticipating obstacles, and thinking ahead to one's next steps.

What does it mean to "over-analyze?"  In my opinion, analysis crosses the line to over-analysis when it turns into rumination.  The purpose of analysis is to gain a clear understanding of a problem or issue with the ultimate goal of developing solutions to a problem or identifying effective ways to approach or cope with an issue.  In other words, the process of analysis should eventually lead to 1. Clearer understanding of a problem or situation and 2. Possible answers, solutions, approaches, etc. to the issue under consideration.  If thinking about a problem's possible causes, consequences, etc. makes the problem less clear and makes you feel more confused about it then you can be fairly certain that you are over-analyzing it.  If considering how to approach a given situation causes you to become so overwhelmed that you are unable to act then you can be sure you are over-thinking things.  If contemplating the implications of a particular issue leads you to conclude that you have absolutely no control over the situation or its outcome but you continue to contemplate them again and again anyway, you are no longer engaging in productive thought; you are ruminating.

When dealing with a problem, concern, etc., there comes a point when the best thing to do is to stop thinking about it; you know you have reached that point when thinking about it ceases to be productive and begins to make you feel anxious, upset, or depressed.

I'll give you a personal example of how this can play out.  Lately I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my finances and planning for my long-term financial security.  I finally became eligible for my company's 401k plan about a month ago.  Now that I'm contributing 10% of every paycheck to my retirement account I've had to adjust the amount I'm able to spend and save.  It didn't take long to realize that I don't have a lot of money left over for leisure spending.  I've considered several possible ways to free up some more money.  I've looked into refinancing my mortgage at a lower interest rate; I discovered that I don't qualify for any of the government refinancing programs and don't have enough equity in my home to do it through the bank that owns my mortgage. I am currently exploring other options.  I've thought about increasing the deductibles on my health and auto insurance policies - which would only cost me more if I had a health or automobile emergency - in order to decrease my monthly payments.  I haven't reached a firm decision on whether or not to do it.

All of these ideas and decisions are a result of productive analysis of my financial situation.  Thinking about my finances is not, however, always a productive endeavor.  Here's an example of what goes through my mind when I'm engaging in unproductive thought:

Man, I hardly have any money left from this paycheck.  But at least I'm putting a lot of money away for the future.  Plus, when [my husband] finishes his master's degree he'll get a good job and be able to help out more.  But what if he can't find a job?  I can't pay all the bills by myself AND save for the future.  Plus, I want to eventually have a kid.  What if it takes him so long to find a job that I'm too old to have a kid by the time we can afford it?  Would I still be able to lead a happy life if I never have a child?  Will we end up becoming two lonely old people with no one to visit us?  Wait, will we even be able to afford to retire?  I'M saving money for retirement but he hasn't started yet.  I don't think my money will be enough to take care of both of us.  Man, am I going to have to keep working until I'm 80 years old?  Well, I might as well.  It'll keep me from feeling so lonely when we have no one to come visit us...

By this time I've usually started to feel anxious and depressed.  I also feel helpless because I have absolutely no control over how long it will take my husband to find a decent paying job when he graduates in May.  He may not even have that much control over it.

So I tell myself not to think about it.  I push it from my mind and find something else to occupy my attention. Of course, these thoughts eventually creep back up again, but I do my best not to indulge them.  They are just thoughts.  Like all thoughts, if I don't grab onto them they will come and then go.  If I label them as thoughts and refuse to accept them as truth then they will not have the power to make me anxious and unhappy.

So that's it.  Being a "thinker" is mostly an asset.  The problem with us thinkers is that we sometimes get carried away by our thoughts.  It is important to keep in mind that thoughts are just thoughts.  When they cause us to suffer, we can choose to let them go.

1 comment:

  1. And now you can sympathize with your clients when they say, "But he loves me, and we have kids and what are they supposed to do?... at the same time she is verbally abused. The same thought train problem, she can't think herself out of it. I have found my thoughts are actually worse than the physical thing actually happening!


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