“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
For someone like me, John Lennon’s famous quote is terrifying. I am always making plans, most of the time unconsciously, as my brain never seems to want to unplug. One of the things that John Lennon implies – or at least the way I look at it – is that you’re missing out on life if you’re always busy making plans. And that’s a terrifying thought.
Over the past few years, I have made a conscious attempt at keeping some of my thoughts, some of the time, in check. As I lay down on the couch, as I relax at the farm with the dogs and horses and as I wake up in the middle of the night, I try my utmost best to slow – if not stop – the whirlwind of thoughts that immediately and without prompting flow unchecked inside my head.
I try my utmost best to slow – if not stop – the whirlwind of thoughts that immediately and without prompting flow unchecked inside my head.
I have (and continue) to try meditation and yoga. I exercise and spend plenty of time outdoors. But my brain just seems unstoppable. Funnily enough, my thoughts seem to be at their strongest and most creative during yoga. So much so that I have to keep a notepad next to my mat to note down any idea I feel may be worthwhile.
All this is absolutely exhausting.
These ongoing thoughts not only rob me of my rest time (much needed to recover from the time where I do require my brain to function full on) but they also stop me from enjoying the present moment.
I’m far from being the only one to experience this. One of my coaching clients told me that she gets so absorbed in her thoughts that her friends describe her as morose. Another one expressed her growing concern that she was missing out on her kids growing up. She makes the effort of spending as much time as possible with them despite her demanding career but she finds herself mentally absent, lost in a trail of unstoppable thoughts.
This inability to “switch off” has other, bigger, consequences. Without proper rest and relaxation, our brain stops operating properly. A flurry of studies show that without proper downtime, our memory starts to laps, optimal performance becomes rarer and, in the long run, the risks of burnout significantly increase. A study conducted by MaestroHealth (1) in the US showed that pre-Covid, 68% of women and 58% of men suffered from burnout, numbers which increased to 70% and 62% respectively during the pandemic. Another study by the University of Montreal (2) in 2018 found that women were more likely to experience burnout than men.
This inability to “switch off” has other, bigger, consequences. Without proper rest and relaxation, our brain stops operating properly.
It is not surprising, therefore, that finding what is often called “the quiet mind” has become a goal in and of itself for so many of us.
If you’re like me (I know you are!), you also regularly beat yourself up for failing to live up to your expectations. That includes your expectations of being able to fully relax and be present in the moment.
You’ll probably be sitting outside in nature somewhere watching the sunset and catch yourself thinking about that last conversation you had with a colleague. “Can’t you just relax and enjoy the present moment?” you’ll tell yourself only to find out, a few minutes later, that you’re back in the conversation, replaying every word, every scenario and every potential outcome.
Over the years, however, I have come to the conclusion that you can’t fight your busy mind for three very good reasons:
#1 Our brain evolved to function like this
Our brain is (almost) constantly worried about our safety and survival. The way it deals with this is by analysing (and over-analysing!) what it thinks is relevant and by playing out scenarios. Our mind is forever processing everything that is going on externally but also internally, including our emotions. The scenario part is crucial because it’s the only way we can make decisions. We need to predict and imagine as many outcomes as possible to figure out what is the best course of action. When you think about it, it’s quite extraordinary for the mind to operate like this, often without us prompting it to do so and often without our conscious awareness of it either.
#2 Our value system places productivity very high
Our values, whether we are conscious of them or not, play a crucial role in determining what and how we do things. We inherit our values from all over the place, including society and culture. We currently live in an era that values productivity and action, two very good reasons for our brain to do even more of what it was engineered to do in the first place.
#3 Society values “over functioners”
As the term suggests, someone who over functions is someone who has a tendency to step out of what could be considered her domain and gets involved in other people’s. The idea is that, like animals, our natural tendency should be to stick to solving our own direct personal problems and let others deal with theirs. But growing up, many of us (especially women) have been taught and rewarded for getting involved in other people’s lives. It can be something as simple as charity work or helping the neighbour out but it can often evolve into getting involved in someone else’s life. While there are some great things about over functioning (such as helping others), one of the immediate costs is that over functioners naturally take on other people’s problems. That means thinking about their problems too, in addition to their own.
In other words, given the incredible nature of our brain, combined with society and culture that give tremendous value to productivity and over functioning, it is little surprise that we are constantly thinking about something whether we want to or not. It’s not our fault, it’s in our nature and it has been – and continues to be – reinforced by our culture. No wonder it feels like a never ending uphill battle!
Given the incredible nature of our brain, combined with society and culture that give tremendous value to productivity and over functioning, it is little surprise that we are constantly thinking about something whether we want to or not.
Fighting our nature is counter productive. Instead, we can rechannel it in a way that suits us better. We can do this by identifying problematic, unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and transform them into helpful thoughts. Confused? Let me give you an example.
Imagine that you’re walking through the local park. You’ve had a tough day at work and you want to unplug. As you walk, you admire the trees, the plants and the flowers. You look at a family playing with their dog. As you stroll, you suddenly catch yourself thinking about that email you received just before stepping out. You didn’t realise it, but you’ve spent the past few minutes drafting answers in your head.
Irritated with yourself, you push the thought away and try focusing on the trees again. You blame yourself for not being able to relax, reminding yourself that this over-thinking business is a waste of your time and energy. You’re taking this walk in the park to unplug and you just wish you did! Why can’t you switch your damn brain off sometimes?
These thoughts are problematic in a number of ways. First, they are rather unkind to yourself. Secondly, they deny the very nature of your mind and the decades during which you unconsciously believed that you must be efficient, productive and help others. It’s a bit like punishing a child who’s trying to do their best. In the end, this approach just creates more frustration and resentment…towards yourself.
If you were dealing with a child working hard to do her best, you’d identify her strengths and how to redirect that energy and determination in a way that serves whatever she is trying to achieve. It’s the same with your brain.
In my case, I have created a new, much more helpful and kind thought process. Instead of beating myself up, I tell myself that my natural ability to overthink is an analytical strength that helps me solve problems. That I want to learn to channel it in the right way so that it continues to help me when I want it to and lets me rest when I need it.
Instead of beating myself up, I tell myself that my natural ability to overthink is an analytical strength that helps me solve problems.
Now, every time I catch myself overthinking, I say the following mantra: “Thanks for caring, brain. I trust your ability to figure this out, as you always do, at some point later on. Right now, you can relax.”
Then, I repeat this process about a billion times. Rewiring problem thoughts takes time. We’re up against decades of a different type of thinking that has shaped our behaviour and created patterns. This approach is designed to break patterns. Instead of fighting myself, I thank my nature. Compassion and gratitude naturally calm us down and, over time, wear out resistance.
You, too, can come out with your very own mantra, one that makes sense to you and is aligned with your values. The mantra should be true to who you are and should not trigger any negative emotions. Make sure you’ve got it written somewhere so that you can easily revert to it until it becomes an automatism.
One client of mine, Claire*, consciously changed the way she defined ambition so that it came from a place of plenty instead of a place of fear of lacking. That simple shift enabled a complete change of mindset that was both liberating but also soothing and calming. Another client, Julia*, decided to trust her mind’s ability to deliver what she needed. After fighting for years with herself, undermining herself and self-doubting, she is on a new journey to change what she felt was a huge burden (her overthinking) into an asset that she can use when she chooses to.
Our tendency to overthink is a completely natural one, the product of millions of years of evolution. The values taught by our culture and society have reinforced this tendency, causing potential harm along the way such as burn out, exhaustion and self hate. The solution is not to blame this incredible tool of ours but to teach ourselves how to use it when and how we want. Our mind is a tool at our disposal, not the other way around. Identifying and transforming problem thoughts into helpful ones is a crucial and very effective part of this process.
Our thoughts are the fuel to our emotions. Hence, we must work with (and not against!) them to turn our emotions into our allies.
If this is something that you’d like to work on, my program could be for you.
*Not their real names