Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

Metathinking

What to do when you think too much

Posted Aug 28, 2011

Photo: karindalziel

I also like to think about thinking itself—a uniquely human ability that's led to all sorts of consequences: self-awareness as well as awareness of our mortality, to name just two. Awareness of our mortality is as terrible as our self-awareness is wonderful (leading, as the latter does, to the ability to live happily and well until we die). Without the ability to self-reflect we couldn't challenge our weaknesses, gain wisdom, and improve ourselves. But metathinking—thinking about thinking—can also be taken too far. For me, the nature of consciousness—of the self—is the most fascinating topic of all (to a large degree the main reason I practice Buddhism, to penetrate the mystery of my own existence), but thinking about it, I long ago discovered, increases one's understanding only up to a certain point. After that, it only leads to rumination.

Rumination, or persistent circular thinking, blocks us from experience. This is one reason psychologists use metathinking to help people manage anxiety: it tends to bounce them out of experiencing it. Imagine finding yourself in the middle of sex and having your partner suddenly ask you: "On a scale of one to ten, how's this going for you?" Once your attention is drawn to the fact that you're having an experience the experience you start to have is one of watching yourself having it. The same principle holds true when we become aware we're watching a movie or reading a book.

For us natural metathinkers, rumination represents a real danger. Rumination has not only been linked to reduced levels of experiential enjoyment, but also to depression. But it's danger to non-metathinkers as well. What do most of us do when we find ourselves with a problem we can't figure out how to solve? We think about it. And think about it. And think about it. Rarely do we learn anything from all this thinking. Usually we just develop a sense of helplessness.

What I've learned to do instead when confronting a problem I don't know how to solve is to not think about it, but to take concrete action. It doesn't even matter what. I just need to try something, to see if it works. If it doesn't, I almost always learn something that merely thinking about my problem wouldn't have taught me—something that may suggest another course of action that's far more likely to produce results. When we allow our thinking to run in circles our thinking becomes an obstacle itself. We need, in a sense, to meta-metathink: that is, to recognize when our thinking about thinking has paralyzed us. Breaking a ruminative cycle isn't easy. For one thing, it's addictive. For another, it's hard not to believe if we only continue a little bit longer that we won't somehow stumble across the answer we're looking for.

But we almost certainly won't. So instead, we must close our eyes and leap. It doesn't matter how or where so much as that we do. Getting ourselves unstuck isn't accomplished by more thinking; it's accomplished by more doing.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.