Getting to the root cause of overthinking

There are many reasons why you overthink and multiple reasons why you are overthinking at any given time. Maybe you have analysis paralysis or decision fatigue. Maybe you’re worried about messing up or wasting time. Maybe it’s something new and you don’t feel like you know enough to proceed or you don’t think you will succeed if you try.

When you are stuck in an overthinking cycle, one of the best ways to break that cycle and start being productive is to get at why you are overthinking. One way to do that is through Root Cause Analysis (RCA) which in its simplest definition is getting to the core of why something happened the way it did. In this case the goal is to take a deep dive into why you are overthinking, getting below the surface to really help you understand your actions.

Once you have started to figure out your reasons for overthinking, you now have specific cause that you can address. Instead of just trying to get past this particular instance of overthinking, you can work on the root cause which will lead to long-term change.

The basics of root cause analysis

Root Cause Analysis is often used in the world of business and engineering, but the basics can be applied to many situations. When a problem presents itself this provides a way to get down to root of why it happened.

By addressing the deep roots of the issue you can make lasting change as opposed to a bandage to just fix the issue right now. Before trying to jump in and solve a problem, this helps you understand what the actual problem is.

When an issues arises in our work or home life we may focus on treating just the symptom. But, that means that issue may keep arising and we just keep using the workaround to get done what we need to get done.

If our coffee maker won’t shut properly, we may address that symptom by using the almighty duct tape to keep it shut. If we can’t get into a document because it is locked by someone else, we may address that symptom by simply saving that document in a new folder. If we’re overthinking starting a new project, we may address that symptom by telling ourselves it’s just not the right time and stepping away.

In the above scenarios we haven’t looked into why those issues arose, we just looked at the symptom that was inconveniencing us at the time and worked to fix those. Instead of just trying different solutions and hoping one sticks, RCA allows the process to be more efficient by getting at the heart of the issue or issues so they can be addressed.

Get into thinking long-term

Addressing just the symptom feels easier in the short-term. It means we don’t have to spend a lot of time doing something and we can still get the outcome we want or the outcome that feels most comfortable. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier in the long-term. In fact, that simple solution you put together could end up being detrimental.

By not looking deeper to truly understand why the symptom arose we are not actually addressing the issue.

Short-term thinking can be “I don’t want to deal with this right now, I just want it to go away” or maybe “I’m scared to look deeper into this because I don’t know what I will find”.

Long-term thinking can be “I want to really look into this to figure out why it happened” or maybe “I want to allow myself to be vulnerable to better understand myself and reasons for doing things”.

Three main steps

A quick search online can provide you with a variety of ways to approach RCA. Below is one simple way to approach it, but if this doesn’t work for you I encourage you to look into other ways to do RCA that will work better for you. Considering this a starting point if you are new to RCA and a foundation off of which you can build.

The Four main steps to RCA for overthinking are:

  1. Put the issue into words.
  2. Get to the root cause
  3. Work to understand the root cause
  4. Address the issue

Step 1: Put the issue into words

Start by writing down what you are overthinking about and be as specific as you can. The more detail you can provide the better you are able to get to the heart of the issue. In order to get at why you are overthinking you first need to be able to put into words the specific scenario in which you are overthinking.

By writing it down, you are being upfront and honest with yourself that you are overthinking and that it is impacting something you want or need to do. Writing can help bring clarity and provide social-emotional health benefits.

Example 1: I want to start traveling on my own but I have yet to do it because I just keep thinking about everything involved and everything I would have to do and plan and I don’t even know where to start, so I just never do, I am stuck thinking about it.

Example 2: I have always wanted to write a book and have a first draft but every time I think about doing something with it I see too many possible next steps and don’t know which to choose so I just sit here with my draft not knowing what to do next.

Example 3: A new friend texted me and I’ve been trying to respond but I just keep writing out a response and erasing it and starting over, I can’t figure out exactly what to say and now I’m overthinking how much time has gone by since they texted me.

Step 2: Get to the root cause

Once you have a sense of the issue, now it’s time to take a deep dive to figure out the root cause.

One way to get to the root cause is the 5 whys approach. The basic premise is that you continue to ask yourself why until you get at the root of the issue. It may not take 5 whys, it could take 2 or 12, for you to start to understand why you are overthinking, so don’t worry about the exact number of whys you ask yourself. Just work to to continue asking why and work on going deeper to get at the heart of what is causing the overthinking.

This process may not be easy. This could be due to not being able to identify your whys, it could also be due to not wanting to confront your whys. Be patient with yourself as you go through the process, try not to rush and instead take the time to really consider your answer for each why.

The examples below are simplistic versions of going through the 5 whys and your process will look different. It’s important to remember that your overthinking may stem from more than one root cause. Humans are complex creatures and there is often not just a single reason for why we do what we do.

Example 1: I want to start traveling on my own, but I keep overthinking the planning and don’t get to the part where I actually do it.
Why? Because I don’t know how to start.
Why? Because I’m afraid of doing it wrong.
Why? Because I’m afraid of the unknown.

Example 2: I want to publish a book but I overthink what to do next.
Why? Because there are too many options.
Why? Because I haven’t been able to narrow down what next step I want to take.
Why? Because it means putting myself out there which makes me feel vulnerable.
Why? Because I am afraid of failing.

Example 3: I keep overthinking how to respond to a text from a new friend.
Why? Because I am worried about saying the wrong thing.
Why? Because if I say the wrong thing I will feel stupid.
Why? Because it means they may not want to be my friend.
Why? Because I’m worried about people not wanting to be my friend.
Why? Because I fear people not liking me.

How do you know when you have gone far enough? When you get to an underlying reason that helps explain what caused the overthinking that’s a good place to stop asking why and start exploring what you can learn from that information.

Step 3: Work to Understand the root cause

Now that you have a root cause for your overthinking, you can start working on addressing it. Some of the root causes of overthinking can originate in our childhood. Experiencing emotional abuse or emotional neglect in childhood is associated with depression, anxiety, and self-sacrifice later on in life. How we were raised affects how we experience life as an adult, but it doesn’t mean it has to control our life. That is not to say that all overthinking or mental illness stems from a traumatic childhood, there are many reasons that lead us to overthinking.

Take the time to sit with your root causes and write out your thoughts, feelings, and any ideas about how to address them.

Example 1: I want to start traveling on my own but fear of the unknown is holding me back.
I had it in my mind that if I just prepared enough then I would know when I was ready to travel because I would feel comfortable with the idea of traveling on my own. But, the more I research and plan the more I realized how many unknowns there would be and no amount of planning would get rid of all of them. I know that at some point, if I really do want to to travel alone, I will need to be OK with some level of unknown. I don’t know yet how to do that, but I know I am not the first person to feel this way, I am going to start reading other people’s experiences with traveling alone and how they worked through their fears.

Example 2: I want to start the process of getting a book published but I am afraid of failing.
I know that I would feel deeply embarrassed if I failed to get my book published. I would feel that I was a failure and not a good writer. There was so much pressure on me to do well in everything when I was younger that I have a hard time putting myself out there when failure could be an option. I feel I have some deep-seated issues that I should talk through with a therapist to help me figure out what I can do.

Example 3: I want to respond to a new friend’s text but I am worried about them not liking me.
I don’t know where my worry about being liked stems from, but I’ve always been worried that people won’t like me. I can tend to be a people-pleaser by acting how others want and saying what others want to hear. I worry that if people see the real me then they won’t like me. But, every time I do or say something to appease someone else or put their comfort above mine, I’m not being true to myself. I have to work on being true to myself and being content with the person I am. Being comfortable with the person I am is more important than being liked by others.

Part of addressing the root cause may be to get comfortable expanding your comfort zone. Learning to be more comfortable with change or the unknown is a powerful tool that can help you experience your truest life to its fullest.

For some, this may be the first time you have acknowledged the root cause that you identified. Take some time to sit and reflect on what you have uncovered and think about ways you could break the overthinking cycle and move forward. As you work through the emotions you are feeling and the new thoughts you are having, know that you do not have to do it alone. Talking to a mental health professional can provide the guidance you need to be able to make a plan to address your root causes.

Step 4: Address the issue

Understanding your root cause may take some time, but once you get there you can apply that understanding to address what you have been overthinking about. Use the knowledge you have gained to address your overthinking that goes deeper than a simple bandage. When this same or a similar situation arises in the future, build yourself a toolbox with items that will help you to not overthink.

Even if you have an understanding of why you are overthinking, it does not always mean it’s a simple road to apply that knowledge. There will likely still be times when you overthink, changing your behavior is a process that takes time. But, each time you start to overthink you can go back to your root cause and everything you have learned about that root cause.

Example 1: I want to start traveling on my own, but I keep overthinking the planning and don’t get to the part where I actually do it. I now understand my overthinking is due to my fear of the unknown.
To start getting comfortable going on a solo trip I have started going out and doing more things on my own. I have gone to a restaurant by myself, taken a yoga class, and went out to a museum. Some unexpected things happened, but I was able to handle them and was glad that I did not miss out on these opportunities. I have also watched videos and read articles from other solo travelers where I heard about their fears and what held them back. Knowing that I am not the only one who fears the unknown of solo traveling has helped me feel better about actually traveling by myself. I have finally booked a short weekend trip away.

Example 2: I want to publish a book but I overthink what to do next. I now know my overthinking is due to fear of failing.
I have started seeing a therapist to talk through the childhood experiences that have led me to having a fear of failing. I better understand that external pressure made me feel that I always had to succeed or else I was made to feel that I hadn’t worked hard enough or wasn’t worthy. I am working on seeing my own self-worth and not relying on others to tell me what I am worth. I am working with my therapist to create a timeline for when I will send my book to publishers and which publishers to send it to.

Example 3: I keep overthinking how to respond to a text from a new friend. I now know this is due to fear of someone not liking me.
I have been working to spend more time with myself lately to better understand the person I am and the person I want to be. By getting in touch with myself I am working towards accepting the fact that not everyone will like me, but I need to like myself. It still takes me a little while to respond to a text because I sometimes do overthink, but I am getting better at responding how I want to respond and not trying to think about how others want me to respond.

Final thoughts

One way to stop or reduce the cycle of overthinking is to get at the root cause of your overthinking. This allows you to address the deeper underlying reason you are overthinking. By doing that you are able to make a long-term change and not trying to address overthinking with a short-term bandage.

It is important to remember to be patient with yourself. Looking insider to try and understand who we are and why we are the way we are takes times and strength. Know that the journey is worth the time and effort.

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