think about (something) too much or for too long.
My heart jumps at the sound of my phone alarm waking me up for the day. Immediately, I am set into panic mode and hastily grab my phone from my nightstand. What time is it? Am I late? Did I get any missed calls? Text messages? Emails? Am I prepared for the day ahead of me? Am I forgetting to do something? An assignment? A test? A person I need to return a call to? I have yet to be awake for a full minute yet I’m flushed, clammy, anxious and expecting the absolute worst. It takes going through my mental checklist — the whos, whats, whens, wheres, whys and hows that make each of my worries more complex — and making sure all my affairs are in line for me to finally calm down. Chill out. Everything is okay. Get your day started.
I can’t tell you when or why such agitation became a morning routine for me, but I can tell you that I’ve been an overthinker for as long as I can remember. Overthinking was so deeply entrenched in how I lived as a human being, shaping the way I thought and reasoned and the ways I approached problems and devised solutions. Throughout my journey of navigating my overthinking and what types of impacts it has on my life, I unearthed so many discoveries about myself including the fact that my mental tendencies and attitudes shape me in the same ways that my other identities do. Collectively, they make me the person that I am. So as a professional overthinker at 19 years old, I can’t help but wonder: Is my overthinking something that I should actively work to dismantle or come to terms with and embrace?
As a child, adults always complimented me for being “thoughtful” and “detail-oriented,” but I now realize that these traits were a direct result of being worried and nervous often. Don’t get me wrong — I’m blessed to say that I lived an amazing childhood, but the worst what-ifs always seemed to plague me. What if my mom forgets to pick me up after school? What if my siblings forget to walk me to the school bus in the morning? What if I’m stranded all alone after all the other kids go home? Questions that appeared comical, overreaching and quite frankly foolish now prove to foreshadow what was to come later in life. But for that time being, I was considered gifted, always thinking of the possibilities for problems and always producing solutions for each of them.
As I came of age, my overthinking transported into different spheres of my life from school to social life, and even my relationship with myself. I grew out of my worries that I would be stranded at school, and found my anxieties taking arguably more “creative” forms, where it attempted to disguise itself as simply being different parts of my personality, hiding itself as a trait like being funny or brave, and not explicitly as inherent worries that I always carried. For me, this translated to being an overachiever. As I approached later years in my schooling, I proved to be *that* kid: straight-A student, a member of every club, a student never settling for scores lower than 95%, and a people-pleaser always on top of what needed to be done. I embodied every trait of what it meant to be a “star student” and at the moment, it felt natural. But while my achievements brought me and the people around me happiness and pride, they also raised others’ expectations of me. It became “weird” if I didn’t embody these traits of “perfection.” During instances like a homework assignment gone wrong or a test that I forgot to study for or being overly talkative in class, the pressure that I placed on myself for falling short of my own standards fueled the standards that others set for me without me even realizing it. The unattainable perfection I was trying to force myself to attain caused others to think similarly of what I “should” be capable of, and it began plaguing my every move. Mistakes and times of difficulty brought me misery because a part of me wasn’t used to not being the best at whatever it was that I was doing. I struggled to come to terms with the fact that perfection is subjective and failure is inevitable, and it forced me to experience a “culture shock” when trip-ups and mistakes, which are experiences one learns and grows from, naturally became a moving part of my day-to-day life as it comes to be in every person’s life.
Ghaltet el shatir malyoun means a mistake made by a “good one” is worth a million mistakes. It’s an Arabic saying that I learned and stuck with when scolded by a teacher for a goofy moment — one I distinctly remember as a minor matter. When I defended myself and said that it wasn’t as big of a deal as it was made out to be, my teacher responded with this saying, further legitimizing the feelings I already carried of not being allowed to mess up. I felt like I was spiraling — completely consumed with the idea of being perfect, doing everything in my power to prevent that god-awful, pit-in-your-stomach feeling of being told that I should’ve or could’ve done better. I didn’t know why I was placing so much emphasis on this one thing.
Was it my fault for giving in to the pressure of others or was it my fault for putting so much pressure on myself to begin with?
I became explicitly aware of my anxiety in high school, although I am sure that it’s existed in me long before that. My “it” student traits still persevered, and the bars that I was setting for myself and those that were being set for me were constantly exceeding themselves. However, one thing was different: the nerves that somehow always existed in me were amplified and the what-ifs that somehow always fogged my mind were multiplied. Maybe it was a result of the increased stressors in my life, like coming to terms with what I wanted to do after high school and moving into the next phase of my life, or maybe it was the build-up of bottled feelings that had consumed me for long before that. But all I remember is staying up restless night after night, staring at my room’s ceiling only to pick apart every single detail of my day.
What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? I scrunch my nose as the negative version of my memories overcome me. Why did I do that? Why did I say that? Why didn’t I do more? What if…? What will tomorrow look like?
Simply stating that I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. But I was so accustomed to this pressure that I placed on myself that it felt normal. I remember nights where I would panic as I tried to sleep because thoughts of “failing” the SATs came to mind. Nights where I would drag myself out of bed to double or triple check my planner and to-do list to ensure I did not miss anything. Nights where I would reread my text messages and dwell on the smallest details in conversation to hold against myself — all products of my overthinking-turned-anxiety. Before long, I watched as it infested spheres of my life that I used to feel confident about. For example, having always considered myself a people person, I became convinced that I did not know how to hold a conversation. I became hypervigilant of the ways I socially presented myself and the interactions I had with others. In conversations, a voice screamed in my head.
Maintain eye contact. Smile, not too hard. Laugh. Why would you look away? You’re too loud. You’re too quiet. Stop mumbling. Don’t make lame jokes. You’re. So. Awkward.
It screamed toxicity. But my instincts kicked in, and in order to be my perfect, overachieving self that I “needed” to be, I was determined to not allow myself to give in. I adopted a “fake it till you make it” mentality. My internal battles could not be obvious for the world to see and judge. It would ruin the unattainable perfection that I was striving to achieve. In my mind, if I was struggling on the inside, the least I could do was not allow it to show on the outside, and maybe one day it would go away. And that’s exactly what I did. I presented myself as a confident, outgoing, worry-free person. I was living a paradox. It wasn’t the negative overthinking that I was trying to battle, it was the accusations this negative overthinking caused me to make about myself. For example, I never once sat back and questioned why I suddenly began feeling so socially insecure, where my then-current mindset and mental state was at, and how I can adopt healthier practices to battle these negative thoughts. Instead, I accepted the negative thoughts and made it my mission to become some sort of social professional. My desire to overachieve was no longer fueled by my happiness and striving for accomplishments, it was fueled by my fear of failure.
And to me, failure meant everything short of what I perceive to be as perfect. The perfect outfit, the perfect conversation, the perfect test score, the perfect public interaction, the perfect student, the perfect perception by others. But why did I care so much? Why was I allowing these thoughts to get to me? Why was I setting this inherently impossible standard to achieve for myself?
I don’t have answers. I won’t tell my readers that I’ve undergone an epiphany and figured it all out. This piece in itself is clearly constructed as a result of me overthinking about my tendency to overthink — a living example of what my writing describes at play. The feelings that I’ve described having are not explicit in my life until I make the effort to dissect them and reflect. What I do know is that such a mindset has become part of the way I operate, the way I approach situations, the way I navigate my life and the way I find solutions. Being such an overthinker made it so I was less likely to drift away from who and what I wanted to be. Did I end up reaping some of its benefits? Yes. Being so “worried” all the time forced me to consider every possible situation and solution before acting, and lit a fire under me that ultimately kept me going to achieve what I wanted to. On top of that, part of being “perfect” meant not succumbing to such worries and allowing them to get in the way of what I needed to do and who I wanted to be. But was it healthy for my mental being? No. My overthought worries so consumed every inch and crevice of my day-to-day life that they only seemed natural after time.
If you’ve read this far, one of the many assumptions I can make is that you’ve resonated with my story and shared similar experiences, so I’ll leave you with this: I am still an overthinker. And while I make an active effort to prevent it from plaguing my mind and interactions with others, I honestly still have a long journey to go. I can’t tell you what to do if you restlessly stare at your ceiling at night contemplating every single incident of your day, or if you feel your throat tightening at the thought of failing in any sense, or if you get a pit in your stomach when you discover that the level of excellence you are trying to attain is simply impossible. Figuring out what to do and how to handle it is up to each person to figure out for themselves, but the path that I am currently on to figuring it all out has taught me so much, including the fact that all good things come in moderation. Self-reflection is great, but how do I stop it from getting to the extent of becoming toxic? Should I thank my hyper-active mind for getting me to a point where I am able to make that realization and keeping me “in-line,” or should I hate it for the stressors, roller coasters, and series of events that it causes me to undergo on the journey? Tell me, is it a blessing or a curse?
MiC Columnist Reem Hassan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.