Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

thinking ninja

I see some people posting blogs (and comments about them) on thinking and the role it plays in human life.  As someone who has expertise in thinking—especially in what some call “critical thinking”—I’ve been feeling more and more like chiming in.  (By the way, I actually prefer the term “creative thinking” to critical thinking because all healthy thinking is, de facto, critical.)  Therefore, when I hear the term “critical thinking,” I hear redundancy.  Because all good and healthy thinking is naturally “critical,” critical thinking is really just another way to say “thinking thinking.”  Do you get my drift?

Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m trying to say is this:  Criticality is built into the very fabric of good and healthy thinking.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “healthy” a lot so far.  I think it’s really important to point out, before I get any deeper into my discussion, that I have to distinguish between thinking that is healthy and thinking that is unhealthy.

I have heard it said that all overthinking is somehow bad.  I would like to add a little nuance to such a claim because I don’t think that overthinking is necessarily problematic.  It depends on what is meant by “overthinking” and on whether or not the sort of thinking that’s being exercised is healthy or not.

Overthinking can be unhealthy if it is obsessive.  Obsession is a kind of thinking that is unhealthy.  Obsessive thinking is also ineffectual in the sense it is not used to come to any sort of conclusion or solve a problem or provide greater understanding or clarity.  The purpose of obsessive thinking—to the extent it can be called purposeful—is to perpetuate the obsession.  In a sense, obsessive thinking is a kind of thinking loop.  The same idea or thought pattern just keeps replaying in the head, thus crowding out everything else.  Healthy thinking—when it is done well or artfully—liberates the thinker because it (hopefully) leads to a breakthrough or even an epiphany.  Unhealthy thinking, when it takes the common form of obsessive thinking, enslaves the thinker.  He or she is unable to move beyond the obsession and is trapped.

Not all overthinking is unhealthy, though.  When I was in graduate school working on my MA and PhD in the liberal arts and humanities, I was trained to be a kind of critical thinking Ninja.  My analytic abilities were honed to a very fine point.  This point allowed me pierce through the surface of things and understand them deeply and profoundly.  In a sense, I was turned into someone who overthinks or hyper-thinks—I’m pretty sure I just invented a new word.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never accept things at face value.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never stop asking questions.  They remain skeptical.  They tear apart and analyze and then reconstruct.  They try to build associations where none existed before.

Some might read this and call it overthinking.  I would call it hyper-thinking—the kind of thinking I can never turn off.  Nor should I ever want to it.  Why would I ever want to embrace artless or sloppy thinking?  I can’t come up with a single situation where doing so would be in my best interest or the right thing to do.

One who has the ability to think well should think well.

I’ve certainly given us some things to discuss.  The floor is yours…

7 thoughts on “Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

  1. Hmm that’s true as overthinking is usually defined as the act of looking to much into a certain situation or word and building imaginary scenarios or meanings behind them, most of which are untrue. Nevertheless, the brain never stops working, observing, thinking no matter how much you want it to. You can try to ignore it, but it’ll always be there. Call it instinct, gut-feeling, whatever-the-name-is, it’s original name is simply thinking. And so, I believe that there is no such thing as over-thinking. You’re only listening instead of tuning it, and you and it became so in sync that it appears as if you’re not doing this “over-thinking” conciously (?). In the end, it’s your choice to use the weapon wisely or badly, causing harm. Thinking is a weapon to weild. The choice is yours in how you handle it.

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    1. Thanks, Nour Lee, for the insightful response. One of the more interesting aspects of “overthinking”–like you, I don’t think it’s possible to really overthink things unless the kind of thinking being employed is something akin to obsessive thinking–is that our minds continue to work on/consider things even when we’re not consciously aware that they are doing so. To use a computer metaphor, that’s thinking that’s “running in the background.” This can give rise to the “ah-ha!” moment, the epiphany. Have you ever had such a sudden insight where the light suddenly went on about some topic? Again, I appreciate you reading my piece, thinking about it so deeply, and then commenting.

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  2. Hi, Bernadete. You’ve asked a complicated question that requires a very long answer. I’ll try to make this as concise and clear as I can. First of all, I think asking questions (about everything) is very important. Don’t believe things just because everyone else believes them. Be skeptical. Check things out for yourself. Read philosophy and expose yourself to other thinkers–to people who hold unorthodox views. Be curious all the time. Try new things. Experiment. Distrust things that are told to you. You may have to end up giving up some of your old ideas and beliefs and views. That can be scary. But once you start thinking for yourself, you’ll feel freer, happier, like you are your own person. If someone or some group controls your mind, then he or she or they control ALL OF YOU.

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