I’ve done a lot of not-so-smart things. I broke my car windshield once, with my foot. The music blared, the coeds approached, I found myself on the roof dancing and in need of a grand exit. So, I attempted to hop off over the hood. Ankle hits the windshield. Glass breaks. There you have it.
Even as I write this out, I’m overthinking whether I should or not. What will you think of me? (That’s an easy answer). Why was I so stupid? (Again, easy). No one else does ridiculous stuff like that.
I have this tendency to feel down about myself. When I do something as foolish as to break my car windshield by jumping off the roof, I deserve some shame. That’s not the issue. My problem is that when I feel low, I shift my focus inward. For hours, weeks, and days, sometimes months, I evaluate my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions.
I compare myself to everyone around me. And it happens whether I’ve done something foolish or not. I overthink everything. I wonder why I’m not as talented as my coworker. There are times when I wonder why I’m so down in the dumps. What decisions did I make to usher myself to this point? My character must be in disarray.
Psychologists call this type of behavior self-focused rumination.
In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky challenges the notion that looking inward will help us find solutions to our troubles.
She writes, “Numerous studies over the past two decades have shown that to the contrary, overthinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person’s ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative.”
For years, I thought I was doing myself favors by evaluating myself so thoroughly. I’ve only been hurting my well-being.
I recently took a course to become certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). I compared myself to everyone in the classroom and pessimistically decided that I was the worst student.
During the section of the course on grammar, I struggled. I did not have the knowledge I thought I should have. After all, I’m a journalist. I’ve been an editor. I’ve written for the USA Today network. Still, I struggled with the content. I use English daily, but during the course, I struggled to break down its components.
I would return home deflated. Angry. Pessimistic. I’d ruminate for hours over wrong answers I gave and look inside myself to try to correct my blunders, my flawed character. My performance tanked. I started clamming up in class. I panicked when I was called on. My confidence plummeted. I started thinking, “If I’m struggling now, what makes me think I can be an English teacher.” Or, “Wow, maybe I should forget a masters in English or Journalism. I’m not cut out for this.”
The truth is, I thought looking inside myself would give me insight. Instead, it blotted out the facts: I write well, and I am qualified to teach. I can learn the intricacies of grammar. It takes time. Deep thoughts of my performance distorted my worth.
I’ve been working on ending the habit of overthinking. My primary strategy: distraction. I can use my tendency to get lost in thought as an ally. When I start to get down on myself or compare myself to others, I focus on something else—like sports or my blog.
I get lost in a book. Or, I’ll take my wife on a coffee date. Do whatever you love. Watch a movie, go to the market, hike, bike, run, play an instrument, invite friends over for a night of board games–do anything to get out of your head.
“Sometimes all it takes to stop ruminating is to get up and leave the scene of the crime,” writes Lyubomirsky.
She offers two other strategies in her book, but I’ve found the distraction technique most helpful. I have OCD, so my mind will ruminate whether I want it to or not. If I try to fight repeating thoughts by saying words like “Stop,” and “No,” it will only fan the flames. But, if I steer my mind in a different direction (“Squirrel!”), then I can reap the benefits of the activities I enjoy. Those directions boost my mood and my confidence, bringing me closer to the truth: I’m human and imperfect, but I’m working to be better each day.
I am only responsible for me. And the best me lives outside of my ruminations.