Review of WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH: HOW TO BREAK FREE OF OVER-THINKING AND RECLAIM YOUR LIFE by SUSAN NOLEN-HOEKSEMA
I saw this book in the library - titled WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH - and felt so flattered that someone had written a book about me that I borrowed it without...well, without thinking too much. Once I started reading I quickly discerned two key facts about myself: 1. I am actually not so much an overthinker as I am a worrier, at least by the author’s definitions. And 2. I intuitively picked up on accepted strategies for when I do trend dangerously near overthinking. Enough about me, though. The key facts about this book are: 1. It’s a vital read if you overthink. And 2. It’s an informing read if you know someone who overthinks. (Hint: we all do.)
First let’s differentiate between the author’s descriptions of overthinking vs. worrying. Overthinkers fixate on events in the past while worriers obsess over what could possibly go wrong in the future. If you can’t put the way your boss snapped at you out of your mind, you’re overthinking. If you plan ahead for all the different kinds of terrible bosses you might have one day and how you would handle each type, you’re worrying. Myself, I spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over highly unlikely events that could befall me...and yet when something difficult does come my way I buckle down, handle it, and put it behind me. So I am a worrier but actually not much of an overthinker. Nevertheless, I found this book extremely interesting and informative and caught snippets here and there very relevant to my own experiences.
One of the fundamental issues with overthinking is that people think what they’re doing is useful. Some people justify that by fixating on something that bothers them, they’re working through it. In truth, more often than not, fixating means stewing. Overthinkers wind themselves up, whether in anger, depression, or insecurity. Take the example from above of obsessing over how your boss snapped at you. An overthinker could dwell on this for hours or even days: “Maybe my boss was having a bad day. Maybe I messed up on something. Maybe she never really liked me, just usually hides it better.” Each thought balloons out with more and rarely buys the overthinker the resolve they want, but rather feeds the negativity.
Luckily, the author provides a plethora of concrete strategies for handling overthinking, most extremely simple. I realize now that I already use two of these strategies to steer away from overthinking without even knowing that’s what I was doing. The first is a variation on meditation; simply turn the thoughts away. How exactly people handle this differs depending on what works for you. I simply tell myself, “Nope, I won’t think about that.” Or “Not going there.” Usually that’s enough, but if not I might use a visualization exercise that I’ve done for meditation: picturing the thought as a physical thing trying to enter my mind, a physical space, and then imagining myself gently ushering the thought back out the door. Some people actually say, “Stop!” aloud when they realize they’re overthinking or do something physical like shake their head. All that’s important here is that the method of self-correction works for you. The second strategy I’ve used is to schedule overthinking time. This sounds bizarre, but if you feel you need some time to obsess or if you believe you really should focus on this particular issue at some point without letting it consume your whole day, block out some time. If you catch your mind wandering to the issue, remind yourself it’s not time yet. I’ve only done this on a handful of occasions, usually when I don’t want something bothering me to slow my productivity. The interesting part about this approach is that many overthinkers find that whatever wound them up so much earlier seems much smaller and easier to handle if they make themselves wait a bit before reflecting on it.
The author uses plenty of case studies to make her points. I always enjoy case studies, because they move abstract psychological concepts into applicable situations. The earlier chapters are peppered with snippets from different case studies while later chapters - that zero in on specific, common overthinking pitfalls such as family, romantic relationships, work, and trauma - follow primarily one case study very closely. Some stories end happily with people who either learn how to handle their overthinking themselves or seek out help to do so, while other case studies represent the cautionary tale side of spectrum: here’s what happens if you don’t address your overthinking.
Before wrapping up this review, I wanted to single out some of the facts, insights, and advice that I found most intriguing. For starters, there’s the fact that women overthink much more than men. I won’t go off on a longwinded tangent, but suffice it to say that the author fills an entire chapter, with additional mentions throughout the book, on how gender ties in with this problem. She also references something I’ve read in numerous psychology books: that our modern tendency to frequently ask ourselves, “Am I happy?” does more harm than good, leading us to dissect our lives in a manner unheard of in earlier generations.
I realized I’m guilty of one significant overthinking problem: when I’m down or upset I try to pinpoint why. This is dangerous because it asks us to break down our life into all the possible reasons we could be unhappy. The ridiculous truth is that maybe, while we’re wondering about big life questions, the real reason we’re down is the weather, hormones, our diet, or something else quite simple. Start small, the author suggests. If you insist on searching for why you’re low one day, ask yourself if it could be something you ate or not enough sleep before you jump to interrogating yourself about your marriage, career, and other life choices.
I agreed wholeheartedly with what the author says about forgiveness. Throughout the book and especially in the chapter focused on trauma, the author addresses overthinking terrible things that have happened to us, where we feel wronged, victimized, and entitled to justice or revenge. In summary, she explains that forgiveness is not condoning a person’s actions but accepting what happened, perhaps - in some situations - understanding the culprit’s motivations without excusing the crime, and ultimately letting go of any anger, anxiety, or despair this event created. Some people struggle with forgiveness, because they feel the culprit doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but it’s not about what they deserve. It’s about what the victim deserves, which is: to forgive and move on, and to transition from the identity of a victim to that of a survivor.
The last topic I wanted to call out has to do with how we measure our success. Several psychological studies have discerned that some people measure success by their own performance while others measure success more by rank. In one study, participants performed a task and were then told how they performed. Some people only listened to whether the evaluation of their performance was good or bad and decided if they were successful or not based on that. However, other people paid close attention to everybody else’s evaluations and cared less about getting good or bad feedback than in ranking above their peers. They seemed more pleased if they got a bad evaluation that was better than someone else’s worse evaluation than if they got a great evaluation that was less impressive than someone else’s glowing evaluation. I singled this discussion out, no doubt, because I believe the first method (measuring success by your own performance) is better but fear I sometimes fall in the latter category (which may be inevitable, to some degree, as a writer; our work is constantly compared against others’ and found better or worse).
It’s funny how a great book about the ways in which we should all think a little less can give us plenty of excellent food for thought!