I’m planning a trip to Spain. I’ve been wanting to go for years. But I don’t just buy a ticket and go. I start thinking. That’s when the research starts—and the endless things to consider.
When would be the best time to go? What will the weather be like in each region I plan to visit? What will I wear? What do people in Spain wear? Will my shoes be comfortable enough for lots of walking? How will I deal with an overnight flight and jet lag? And on, and on, and on. . .
My overthinking isn’t limited to planning trips. A few years ago, when I was dating, I remember talking to an extroverted friend about a guy I had gone on a few dates with. I had so many concerns. I analyzed every little thing he did. I looked for hidden clues in his words like a detective. I imagined what our life together would be like in 20 years, what our children would be like, and our home, and my happiness. Would I have any regrets?
My extroverted friend just laughed. “You don’t have to figure everything out right now!” she said. If I was having fun, I should keep seeing him and not think too much about it, she advised.
But my introverted mind doesn’t work like that.
Like a massive connect-the-dots puzzle, it links everything to everything else. I want to make sure that I’m not missing any facts, that I’ve considered all the possibilities, and that I’m making the absolute best decision possible with the information I have. And I can always find more information — another data point to consider, another article to read, or another personal reaction to analyze.
Because of reactions like the one from my extroverted friend, I try not to let on just how much I’m overthinking things. People don’t want to know. They run out of patience listening to your concerns, and they make you feel like a weirdo for caring so much. It’s not cool to overthink; you’re supposed to live for the moment and just do. So in the end, I usually just shut up.
Oh, how I’ve wanted to be that person who just throws things in a suitcase and goes.
Why Introverts Might Overthink Things
When doing research for my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, many introverts told me that they struggle with overthinking. Turns out, the introvert's overthinking is related to the level of activity in our brains. According to Dr. Laurie Helgoe, researchers have mapped electrical activity in the brains of both introverts and extroverts, and found that the introverts have higher levels of electrical activity than the extroverts, indicating that the introverts have greater cortical arousal. (Cortical refers to the outer layer of the cerebrum, the part of the brain that integrates complex sensory and neural functions, and coordinates voluntary activity in the body.)
According to this research, it didn’t matter whether the introverts were in a resting state or engaged in a task: They all showed more brain activity than the extroverts. This means that introverts may process more information per second than extroverts, which helps explain why introverts are prone to overthinking.
Similarly, Helgoe explains, neuroimaging studies found that in introverts’ brains, activation is centered in the frontal cortex — the part of the brain that is responsible for remembering, planning, decision making, and problem solving. These are, of course, activities that require turning one’s focus and attention inward, as introverts are prone to do — and they are activities related to overthinking. Introverts’ brains also showed increased blood flow in Broca’s area, a region of the brain associated with speech production, which is likely responsible for self-talk — again, something that happens during overthinking.
Is Overthinking Always Bad?
We typically talk about overthinking like it’s a bad thing — and in many cases, it is. Overthinking can lead to worry and anxiety. It can keep us rooted in fear, indecision, and doubt. It may even prevent us from moving forward with our lives. Imagine if I refused to buy a ticket to Spain until I waited for the absolute perfect moment to take time off work. I would probably still be waiting, never finding a time that is “perfect” enough.
But I also believe that overthinking can be an introvert’s superpower. If I didn’t “overthink” things — like my writing, for example — I would throw anything on the page, without taking the time to research, edit, and proofread. A lack of overthinking probably wouldn’t have resulted in the creation of the Introvert, Dear publication, or my first book.
If I didn’t “overthink” things, I may have ended up in a romantic relationship with someone who wasn’t right for me. Overthinking also usually makes me become an expert on the topic I’m overthinking about because I do so much research on it, whether it’s jet lag, women’s comfort shoe brands — or introversion.
I believe it’s all about balance — about knowing when to lean into your introverted overthinking tendencies and when to pull back. If overthinking is causing you fear, anxiety, sadness, or stagnation, it’s time to pull back.
When I find myself battling unproductive overthinking, I do something to “change the channel” in my mind, like going for a walk, listening to music, talking to someone, or just forcing myself to do any different activity than the one I’m currently doing. When you’re obsessing, it’s all about getting the powerful engine of your mind to start chugging down a different track.
Introverts, you have powerful minds. “Overthinking,” when used the right way, can be one of your greatest assets.
My book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, has been called a “decoder ring for introverts” and "one of the best books [on] introvert empowerment.” It's available now on Amazon, or through most major booksellers.
Helgoe, Laurie. "Revenge of the Introvert." Psychology Today, 1 Sept. 2010.