Picture this: It's a weeknight and you're texting your new crush. You're messaging back and forth, sending flirty messages and cute emojis, all while weaving the occasional "getting to know you" questions peppered throughout. Before hitting send on each text, you painstakingly pore over each word again and again to make sure you've included the appropriate, but not over the top, number of exclamation points and emojis. You type, then delete; type, then delete; type, then delete ad nauseam. You want to make sure you're sending the right signals. The conversation eventually wraps up, and by then, you feel exhausted. Scrutinizing every word sent and obsessing over the fine details raises one question in your head: Why do I overthink everything I say?
It's a valid question, and one that runs through my mind pretty much all the time. It's not just with romantic texts, either. I find myself wondering why I overthink things when I'm catching up with my aunt or writing a funny joke to my dad, attempting to nail the punch line like he would. I catch my brain doing somersaults when my bestie texts me and asks, "Do you want to grab a coffee this weekend?" and I'm not available. I can't just tell her I'm not available, because I don't want to make it seem like whatever I'm doing is more important than our relationship. What could have been a simple text back — "I can't, I'm busy. How about next week?" — becomes a 10-minute thumb exercise over how to let her down easy, no hurt feelings involved.
To find out why it's so hard to give a direct answer through text and why it's so easy to spend hours debating what to say and how to say it, I spoke with Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and the creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, to get a better understanding of what's going on when you overthink everything you say.
Silva says research shows overthinkers typically "believe they're helping themselves" by overthinking everything. These types of people excessively debate the details of any given situation, assuming doing so will help them reach a more positive outcome. The reality is, though, this keeps their brains in a tiring cycle that doesn't allow room for problem solving. They create mountains out of molehills and get stuck in a counterproductive routine that can lead to anxiety and doubt.
The largest challenge of overthinking everything is the excessive worrying about problems that may or may not emerge in the future.
In addition, overthinkers begin to anticipate negative situations that may not even happen in real life. According to Silva, they typically dwell on the "shortcomings, mistakes, and problems" that may occur and create a false reality in their minds. This can lead to quite the emotional deficit in your brain, as you compare yourself and your "highlight" reel to somebody else's, and may cause you to spend lots of time going over the hidden details and meanings behind what people say or do.
"The largest challenge of overthinking everything is the excessive worrying about problems that may or may not emerge in the future," Silva says. She adds this habit can lead to negative effects in your life, relationships, and friendships, and she says the dependence on the digital world doesn't help matters.
According to her Happiness Hypothesis study, which was conducted through an in-depth, 45-minute long interview and survey with 1,500 men and women — 500 of which were millennials — who are actively dating and ranging from ages 23 to 73, social media can actually be a major factor in altering text messages and the constant need to overthink. It can keep you looking at those highlight reels and asking, "What if?"
Silva reports that 60% of people involved in the study using social media said it has affected their self-esteem in a negative way, and 80% reported it's easier to mislead others through their posts on social media. Her study also reveals 60% of millennials admit to feeling FOMO — the fear of missing out — which can create that "false reality" in their minds that they're missing out on life's "greatest moments" and should rethink their individual goals, lifestyles, or paths.
The downside of those anxious and nervous questions that run through your brain in those moments is that your communication and digital habits can go wrong. In the future, you may assume that something negative is going to happen if you send the original message you typed out to your bestie canceling your coffee date, or don't include the right emojis that secretly say to your crush, "Hey, I'm interested in you."
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a marriage counselor in Boulder, Colorado, says there is an important balance between rehearsing and thinking so much that it can be "debilitating." He gives the example of going on a first date at a coffee shop. You may go over what questions you can ask, how you can ask them, and what topics to steer clear of — all of which are OK scenarios to run through in your head because, according to Fisher, doing so can be a positive thing when you're anxious about an upcoming social interaction.
"The positive to overthinking, if it's done in moderation, is it leads to higher emotional intelligence," Fisher says. Being able to pick up on verbal and non-verbal clues can lead to "more effective relationships," because you take time to consider "what to say and how to say it based on the context."
However, Fisher warns you do need to realize when your thinking habits are going overboard. You have to understand when overthinking goes from helpful to excessive to anxiety-provoking. Fisher says, "Discerning where that fine line is takes practice and intentional awareness."
I also spoke with Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show. He agrees with Fisher: Uncertainty is a typical and relatable source of anxiety. Sometimes when you don't know the outcome of a situation, you may try to predict it because doing so makes you feel more in control. It's reassuring, and tricks your brain into believing what you need and want to happen will in fact happen.
Klapow refers to a lot of common scenarios some of us may overthink in, like pitching a project, lying, or telling someone your true feelings. Being impulsive in scenarios like these may cause trouble, and he stresses the importance of thinking before you speak. The "bottom line," he says, is, "anything that taps deep into who we are, our deeper seated emotions, our most vulnerable self will cause most of us to think, rethink, and even overthink." So knowing what to invest thought energy on is key.
We need to think, but we also need to sometimes dare greatly and put our words out there.
Only, it's not that easy. Like Fisher, Klapow draws a limit on overthinking, and argues that sometimes the exhausting cycle of analyzing and reanalyzing your interactions is disruptive. It takes you out of "the natural rhythm of life communication" by adding pauses and doubt, where you should trust yourself or simply go with the flow. Most importantly, it makes you miss the opportunities when you can, and should, use your voice.
"We need to think, but we also need to sometimes dare greatly and put our words out there," Klapow says. "We may miss the opportunity to say, 'I love you,' or apologize, or stand up for what is right because we are thinking about the right way to say something." Spending less time thinking about the right thing to say and more time saying what you mean is a valuable skill — but how do you do it when you're so busy worrying about what to say in the first place?
Silva says you need to challenge your negative thinking in order to break the cycle. You need to consciously focus on good outcomes, and turn your "emotional default mode" into a positive one. He says, "How you react to circumstances is what creates happiness."
According to Silva, those practices can increase the endorphins and serotonin in your brain and positively affect the neurochemical process of happiness. They can change your outlook on life — like how you handle tough circumstances or deal with difficult people — along with your thinking habits.
Klapow suggests a similar approach, saying you need to practice "self-talk" and "internal coaching." Every time your brain asks a question that begins with, "What if?" you need to see that situation through by answering it. Challenge your usual thought process, and change your language to, "What could happen?" or, "How bad could it be?" Actively realize overthinking doesn't make the outcome any more certain — that's essential to remember.
"When you overthink everything, you are so used to focusing on the negatives outcomes that happiness may seem unattainable," Silva says. But it doesn't necessarily always have to be that way. Odds are, the constant thought running through your head asking you why you're like this is the start of something new. *Cue the iconic track from High School Musical.* It's the start of less thinking, more confidence, and more time spent living your best possible life.