“I overthink all the time. I can’t switch my brain off”
It’s a common observation in my small room, where people come to tell me about what troubles them, but I’m not convinced that “under thinking”, if such a thing exists, is any better.
My favourite time of the day is early morning, the hours when I can be up but still alone. Before the world is fully awake there seems to be more time, everything happens more slowly, and there is much more “nothing” in which to move.
We are, largely, uncomfortable with nothingness. In order to protect ourselves from thinking we will put on the radio, do the housework or talk to a friend. It is as if we find our deepest thoughts intolerable, that we truly imagine being damaged by what is in our heads, fearful of descending into a loop of ever decreasing circles in which decisions are remade in a myriad ways until the perfect solution is found.
This week a client tells me that he likes to imagine his past in a different way. He enjoys playing with the idea that his years were different. He tells me it feels like a temporary comfort. “And afterwards?” I ask. “Then it’s depressing”. No wonder, it’s hard to enjoy the process of imagining we are someone different. Distraction from that particular train of thought is understandably alluring.
In therapy there is a lot of silence. Some of it feels almost too heavy to bear and some of it is truly golden. The freedom to think and “be” without expectation or restriction is a liberation we don’t afford ourselves enough. We are afraid of our thoughts more than we are willing to see what they offer. We imagine that “nothing” is preferable to pain, but in reality a refusal to accept and move into the spaces is the greatest cause of enduring pain there is.
Once, in a group therapy session, we are given paper, paints and crayons. We are asked to paint or draw whatever we feel. John, who always sits next to me, is still. I am engaged in daubing swathes of deep colour across the paper interspersed with thinner edges of black and grey. I am not aware of my thinking being separate from me but instead of a unity between the two. I am conscious of darkness and colour but neither is more or less valuable than the other. John still sits with a blank page. Afterwards, he explains that he is unable to think of anything to draw or paint because there are so many choices, and he can’t make any of them. With guidance and instruction he can function, but left with “nothing” he is paralysed. I wondered how many of us experience something similar.
We fear the boredom of nothing and we struggle with the idea that creating nothingness can be valuable. But ideas and invention can only emerge from a freedom to think. The most delicious food emerges from a cleared kitchen, the greatest songs from an empty manuscript, and the most beautiful writing from an empty page. Without nothing there is no art, no creativity, and no emergence from the shadows.
It is perhaps in bereavement that this is illustrated most powerfully. When someone is lost there is no choice but to acknowledge the space, the “nothing”. We can distract from the pain temporarily but, in the end, it will emerge. The Hindu god Shiva wears a Cobra necklace to indicate that, even though she is the destroyer, it is only through destruction that something new can emerge. It is only when the snake loses the old skin that it can adopt a new one. Far from being the end, the nothing is no more than the mark of a new beginning.
So when we fear our thoughts, when we are uncomfortable with silence, when we find it hard to maintain eye contact and work tirelessly to fill the space that opens up in the day, these are not really ways of combating “overthinking”. If you are overthinking you are simply not listening to yourself or you are hoping for a different answer. It might not always be comfortable to be quiet and create space for your own thoughts, but without that space nothing new and worthwhile can emerge. Far from being something to fear, nothing is absolutely everything.