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2 Reasons Overthinking May Be in Overdrive

When emotional intelligence collides with a vulnerable identity.

Key points

  • Overthinking is common but can be difficult and exhausting.
  • Emotionally intelligent people are self-aware. They reflect and engage in self-analysis regularly.
  • Situations that ding an emotionally intelligent person's sense of self may kick overthinking into hyperdrive.

Overthinking is often defined as thinking about something too much and for too long. Often overthinking can pivot around a massive self-analysis — for example, “Did I do the right thing? Am I a worthwhile person? Why can’t I turn off my negative thoughts? Am I selfish?” A person can ruminate on these thoughts for days. In addition, fixating on one worry can lure a person down a rabbit hole of spiraling worries that are somehow connected to the original anxiety.

Either way, overthinking can create a wave of anxiety and depression that is difficult to shake. Often a person finds relief in the busyness of the day because overthinking seems to occur at night. Although this is a tough situation, it may help to consider the precipitant for overthinking. Two factors may be at play.

Before articulating the two possible contributors to overthinking, it is important to acknowledge a common experience of the emotionally intelligent. It involves a critical aspect of emotional intelligence: self-awareness. This includes the capacity to look inward and introspect to assess personal accountability, gain insight, and understand that uncomfortable feelings help a person grow and evolve. It is a sophisticated gift, yet when a person’s identity is under duress, it can induce overthinking.

For example, an individual may spin after receiving negative feedback about who she is. She wishes to trust the person who provides the criticism, but she may not be entirely convinced the assessment is correct. This deep confusion can elicit shame and live inside her brain for days. The predicament may trigger an intense self-inventory because the person wants to figure it out. The confusion about her identity creates a surge of overthinking.

In combination with the emotionally intelligent tendency to self-reflect, two situations involving a person’s identity may create a susceptibility to overthink. One is developmental and the other is situational.

The years between 12 and the early 20s are often referred to as the identity formation stage in human psychosocial development. In adolescence, a person is inundated with new independence. She begins to make decisions for herself that do not involve attachment figures — for instance, what to wear, what music to listen to, what activities to join, etc. This autonomy forces her to think about who she is in the world, which can be a daunting and overwhelming task. As she moves through the teen and young adult years, her involvement with the outside world increases and she begins to attempt to carve her niche outside of the home — an exciting but sometimes terrifying journey. Self-reflecting questions naturally crop up: Am I going to be good enough? Do people like me? Am I worthwhile? Am I ordinary? Am I less than?

Often a helpful analogy to better understand this stage is to imagine a log cabin that represents the young adult’s identity. Because it is under construction, it may have a great foundation and two amazing walls; however, the young person still needs to construct two additional sides of the cabin and nail down a roof. So, if a strong wind blows on the young person’s cabin, she feels as if it may crash to the ground. She feels insecure and unstable. Conversely, a gust of wind blows against an adult’s cottage, which is fully formed, and the older person recognizes the structure is sound.

Despite its difficulties, the identity formation plight is necessary and, if all goes well, results in a well-adjusted adult. However, when it is combined with the self-reflective component of emotional intelligence, the process may be distressing, intense, and trigger a temporary overdrive in overthinking.

Second, a major life change forces a person to shed trusted aspects of their identity and, eventually, integrate new things. During this reconsolidation period, components of a person’s self-esteem are unguarded and exposed, resulting in him or her feeling raw, easily ashamed, and sensitive to feedback that is critical of whom he or she is.

For example, substantial life changes may include divorce, the birth of a child, a move to a new city, etc. Aspects of a person’s sense of self are discarded and new elements are incorporated. For example, a man who is going through a divorce may logically recognize it is a healthy decision, but his “title” as husband is gone and his family unit, as he knew it, is different. Although he has new credentials — single dad — it still takes time for him to mourn the loss of the old in order to fully embrace the new. This process creates momentary vulnerability in his identity. So, during this time, he may feel both relieved but also confused. He may feel sad but also excited for the future. Nonetheless, the period of loss and growth may elicit a surge in overthinking until he reaches consolidation.

When the emotionally intelligent characteristic of self-reflection collides with a vulnerable identity, it can create an intensification of overthinking. The developmental plight of identity formation and a massive life change may create temporary dings in a person’s sense of self, which may magnify overthinking. When this occurs, a person should remember that she is not “crazy.” Talking through this process with an empathic listener, engaging in mindful activities, journaling, spending time in nature, and seeking assistance from a counselor may help.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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