Ask A Therapist: I Can’t Stop Overthinking Everything At Work

Photographed by Franey Miller
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years of clinical experience, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
How do you stop overthinking everything at work?
Gen, 25
To start, it's important to recognise that overthinking often starts with good intentions. If we're putting a lot of attention on something it's likely because we care about the outcome. Of course, overthinking can sometimes be fear-based and driven by insecurity but this is often something distinct called rumination, often found in obsessive-compulsive disorder. In that case, the thoughts are unwanted and pop up spontaneously, which drives the continuous replay in people's heads. On the other hand, with overthinking, we choose to bring those thoughts to mind. Often when we overthink, we want to arrive at solutions that will enable progress of some kind, particularly in the workplace. It will also often involve other people — anticipating other people's perspectives and opinions, whether that's focusing on the content of a work presentation or what you wear to present it.
In some circumstances, overthinking can be an asset as it enables you to give deep consideration to problems at work. However, it starts to tip the balance when it's taking up too much time. It can be mentally draining and lead you to neglect other issues or concerns. Unless you put a stop to it, overthinking can cycle on ad infinitum. Equally, overthinking can become a habit, which can be difficult to stop because habits are very sticky once ingrained, making negative effects more likely.
This kind of mental focus can have a particular impact on our sleep. Generally speaking, there's a problem with people who work very, very hard having work spilling and overlapping into their time of relaxation so that the thoughts may continue when ideally we need to shut our minds down or to slow them down. It could also lead to self-esteem issues if you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. That can definitely have a negative impact on how we see ourselves and how much contentment we have with ourselves and enjoyment of the fruits of our labour. You'll end up constantly dissatisfied because things are never quite meeting your overthought standards.
The workplace is particularly rife with this kind of thinking. I think some of it has to do with raised expectations veering towards more perfectionist tendencies. So the higher and more inflexible the standards are, the more pressure we put on ourselves. In CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), we call a set of unyielding beliefs 'cognitive distortions'. Those include things like 'should', 'need' or 'must' statements, and it's those 'should' and 'must' statements in particular that can be very onerous on us. It could also be situational — maybe you're in an office environment where that is the culture and the expectations are set externally, whether by a boss or peers or pressures of the economic climate.
So the question becomes: How can you recognise when this is becoming detrimental? With almost any psychological behaviour like this, it's useful until it impacts yourself or others on a day-to-day basis. Excess anything often creates difficulties and hampers our day-to-day functioning. It will inevitably have impacts on people around you, too — how much time you give them, how well you listen and so on.
To manage this, I'd advise you to approach your overthinking a bit like a scientist. Firstly, analyse how much it helps or hinders you specifically. And then how much of it and what kind of shape would you like thinking to be for you? What works best for you? You can potentially experiment with adjusting to different levels — maybe you don't pre-plan something as much and you see how responding spontaneously goes, rather than overthinking and preparing. Or you might set boundaries for yourself and see if that's helpful or not. For example, can you manage the time and intensity of your thinking? Can you say, Okay, I'm gonna allow myself 10-15 minutes to think about this particular issue or topic or problem and after that, I'm going to move on to something else. And then the other thing is to maybe imagine yourself giving advice to a friend: What would you say to them in that particular situation? You always give yourself more empathy from the outside than from within.
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