After a bit of a meltdown Wednesday night, I decided to re-read a book I first discovered back in 2004: Women Who Think Too Much by Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.
If you've never heard of overthinking, check out these links, which will help you understand the concept:
Trapped in Reflection
Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle
I found two sections of the book particularly useful on this reading, Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema's ideas about the cultural causes of overthinking and her chapter about overthinking in the workplace.
Causes of Overthinking
The Vacuum of Values
Previous generations seem to have had a stronger cultural tradition telling them what they should expect and want from life, and few deviated from that. People were more willing to accept their lot in life because they expected nothing else. Today, we face a myriad of choices. We question everything--religion, patriotism, and humanity in general. Faced with such a wide-open range of options, we can be overwhelmed by trying to make the 'best' choice for ourselves without a consensus of values to help us define what 'best' means. We brood and wonder and second-guess ourselves in the absence of clear-cut rules and ideas imposed by the community. We only have the vague notion of 'success' handed to us by pop culture, but being richer, more beautiful or more powerful than the next person is a moving target. As Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema states, most of us would not want to return to the stricter days, but our current cultural situation seems to lead some of us into floundering and overthinking.
The Entitlement Obsession
Somehow how in our current culture we've got it into our heads that we are entitled to being nothing but happy all the time. Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema summarizes it so well in three core beliefs:
I deserve whatever I want.
No one else has the right to make me feel bad.
Anyone who makes me feel bad should be punished, publicly if possible, so everyone else will know I am right.
I never really saw how this misconception has permeated our culture, and how I myself have so deeply internalised it. We have all somehow come to the conclusion that we are meant to be feeling great all the time, enjoying success all the time, and if we're not, we conclude that we aren't getting our basic human rights and someone had better answer for it right now.
The entitlement obsession has led to a litigious culture where small conflicts become major disputes ending up in court. Neighbours won't speak, or even physically fight each other. Parents argue and yell on the playing field. Everybody is constantly battling for their 'right' to be happy.
One problem with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement is that it keeps our focus on how we are not getting what we deserve rather than on what steps we can take to deal more effectively with our problems--and on how well things may actually be going. The second problem is it puts us in an adversarial relationship with everyone in our lives. A third problem is many of us will begin to doubt whether we really deserve the very things we thought we had wanted.
We can blow up at the perceived villains in our lives, and as Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema says, that feels good for the moment, but then we just end up back where we were before, plus having to deal with the results of expressing that rage.
The Compulsive Need for Quick Fixes
If we're feeling bad, we think we ought to change something right now. We jump into changing jobs, leaving our partner, breaking ties with family members. Sometimes, though, what is called for is a change in the way we act and think, not in the job or the partner or the family member. We act too quickly and this leads to us feeling like a quitter trailing a string of failures behind us.
Our Belly-Button Culture
Finally, Dr. Nolen-Hoeskema blames the pop psychology that emerged in the 60s for a lot of our trouble with overthinking. We've become so obsessed with analysing our every tiny thought, mood or interaction with others for a 'deeper meaning' that we can't tell the difference between something minor and something major. Not everything is the 'universe' trying to teach you some 'life lesson.' To put it bluntly, we all need to stop picking at our tiny little emotional scabs and get over ourselves!
I know I can see a lot of truth in Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema's observations. I think she is dead right about our culture and our self-obsession. In part two of this review, I will share with you her suggestions for overcoming these problems, and her insights into overcoming ruminant thinking in the workplace.
May all beings be at ease.