By Margalis Fjelstad – Ph.D., LMFT, Shannon Connery – PhD, Emmily Weldon – LPCC, LMHC, Amy Ziegenhorn – LMHC, Sandra Possing – Life Coach, Regula Badertscher – MSW, LGSW
“Thinking too much leads to paralysis by analysis. It’s important to think things through, but many use thinking as a means of avoiding action.”
~ Robert Herjavec
Everyday you make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of choices without being even aware you are doing so. Many of these choices have become habits that may be beneficial or detrimental. You probably don’t give them a thought or worry about them much. They keep your life rolling along in the same way day after day.
Other choices have the potential to change the direction of your life and can send you into a state of anxiety, stress, and fear of moving forward—analysis paralysis.
These kinds of decisions force you to think not only about the positive results but also the possibility of failure, disappointment, and fears. They also make you confront inner value conflicts and emotional insecurities.
Few choices bring totally positive or negative consequences. They almost always involve costs as well as benefits, which can leave you paralyzed.
Do you stay with what you have? Or do you try something different? You may find you’re comfortable taking risks in some areas of your life, but other areas seem so overwhelming that you put off making a decision until the choice passes you by.
Not making a decision, then becomes the decision.
What are the factors that are most likely to send you into analysis paralysis?
Self-criticism and self-doubt. Negative self-talk, lack of confidence in yourself, and feeling undeserving can really hold you back. It’s hard to take chances when you immediately doubt yourself.
Fear of failure. Disaster-vision can keep you paralyzed. Thinking about every possible mischance or misfortune can take a huge amount of time and energy, and will keep you from moving forward.
Fear of success. Strangely enough, possible success can bring fears of possible new responsibilities and expectations if you move forward. These thoughts can also keep you stuck.
Not enough information—You will never have all the information you may want, because you can’t actually predict the future. New choices always require a best guess.
Need to control all outcomes. New choices and opportunities require you to step into the unknown. You may search endlessly for the right answer, fearing that your expected and preferred outcomes may not pan out. If you need absolute proof of a specific success, you’ll never be able to move forward
Fear of disappointment. Too often your own fear of disappointment becomes a stumbling block, but you may also fear the disappointment of others, bringing up feelings of anxiety, obligation, and even guilt about choosing or not choosing what a loved one would want.
Inner conflicts and fears– Practically every choice in life has negatives as well as positives—pros and cons–on both sides. You may also find you have competing values—like pleasing others and also pleasing yourself. If you fear others being angry or hurt by your choice, that can leave you glued into inaction as well.
How can you move toward a solution, select the right action, and make a choice that reflects your desires, your values, and your sense of self?
1. Gather information.
The minute you see a possible new choice, start gathering information before you even start worrying about what choice to make. Be curious, explore, look at all the possibilities not just the positive or negative. Research until you get bored. Only then start considering what you might choose.
2. Encourage yourself.
Being positive and encouraging toward yourself is not narcissistic. Talk to yourself as you would to your best friend. Point out your strengths, beliefs, preferences, and yearnings. But don’t be a fake cheerleader. Be real.
3. Practice self-compassion.
Be as considerate of yourself as you are of others. Too often people with analysis paralysis are spending way too much time wondering about the right answer, or what a loved-one would choose. Make sure you consider what you want, you value, and what you dream about. What you want is equally as important as what anyone else wants.
4. Remember whose life you’re living.
You are the only one who makes choices for you. Even if you’re trying to please someone else, you are still deciding to use their wants and needs to make that choice.
You cannot blame anyone else for the choices you make—you are fully responsible. Regret most often happens when you let other people’s responses, mandates, and needs rule your choices. This is your life—you are the one responsible to make yourself happy.
5. Remind yourself of past success.
Make a list of your skills, talents, and competencies and how these have helped you be successful in the past. Count on your own abilities to meet unexpected outcomes.
6. Count on serendipity.
You’re right. Things in the future will not turn out exactly as you expect when you start out. That’s actually a good thing. You don’t know all the possibilities, but if you trust yourself, then you’ll find that what appears unexpectedly can have marvelous results.
7. Practice acceptance.
The technique that makes the improvisations of life work out is facing every result with YES. That may sound crazy, but it’s the only way anyone ever moves forward. Accepting the facts of your situation moves you forward more quickly to success.
- Yes, this is what happened.
- Yes, this is what I did to get through it.
- Yes, these were the consequences.
- Yes, this is what I learned.
- Yes, this is how I can move forward.
8. You are actually never stuck.
Saying YES to life is what you do every morning and every minute of every day, whether you notice it or not. You can never step back, because the past immediately dissolves every second that goes by.
Life is always propelling you forward. Whether you choose something new or not, life moves you somewhere new and unexpected every day. Embrace your right to choose and know you can find a way to make things work out for yourself.
Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT – www.margalistherapy.com
Almost everyone struggles with overthinking, worrying, and negative self-talk at times. It’s frustrating because we tend to repeat the same material, despite knowing it isn’t helpful and doesn’t lead us towards our goals.
Let’s start by calling all these thoughts by another, more accurate name: fears.
If you peel the onion back one more layer, you will discover that worries and automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are often rooted in fear.
If I tell myself I’m fat, it might mean I’m scared that no one will ever love me the way I am. If no one loves me, I will be alone. When you go deeper, it is clear that negative self-talk is oftentimes fear in disguise.
Fear thinking, in general, is designed to keep us safe.
When we worry that we are not good enough, it is often our fear trying to motivate us to change so that we can remain part of the tribe. Historically, belonging to a group was what kept us safe and fed, so it was important to know that we were an accepted and valuable part of our tribe.
Fast forward to modern day life, and these fear thoughts don’t serve us in the same way.
We don’t live in groups and we are mostly safe. So, how do we get rid of something that is deep wired in our survival brain? I am going to lay out three tools, two that I have learned in psychology literature and one from a former coach of mine.
Step 1 — Create Distance from the Thoughts
In ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), one tool I recommend combines mindfulness and distancing. At its core, this means that you develop awareness of your thoughts and then create distance with some easy phrases. Instead of “I’m never going to find a job I like,” you say, “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m never going to find a job I like.”
As you can see, this creates separation between the thought and the thinker. A thought is something you have. It isn’t who you are. In fact, thoughts aren’t always real or accurate. Distance from all negative thinking creates a sense of calm so you can analyze with more clarity.
Step 2 — Use CBT and Kindness to Create New Thoughts
There is a phrase I have been using a lot this year with my clients. If you don’t like the story you are living, tell a better story. If you beat up on yourself routinely, try this tactic.
Imagine that you are not talking to yourself, you are talking to a child.
Would you say to a child, “I cannot believe you ate those chips. You are disgusting.” Of course not. By default, we are kind to other people; especially children. The next step takes a little more effort, but you only have to do it once. Make a list of all the mean things you say to yourself; you know, the juicy stuff.
Next, using the kindness you would use with a 4 year old, create a new phrase.
Change, “Your thighs are dimply and gross” to “Your thighs make it possible to move your play, run and move your legs. They are wonderful.”
Make the phrases real and genuine.
This is easier when you use the tone you would with a child. Refer to the list as often as you need, until the new phrases are automatic. Remember, kindness is a muscle that gets stronger with practice.
Step 3 — Use Clarity Cards to Solve Analysis Paralysis
If you have too many things you want to do, you can suffer from analysis paralysis. How can you achieve your dreams and do all the laundry and cooking, and host your book group? The truth is, sometimes you can’t.
Clarity is the answer.
By creating a pyramid of 10 index cards, you will learn how to set boundaries without overthinking anything. I used this tool with an old coach, Dan Blank, and have never stopped.
You start with a “brain dump” writing down everything you have to do and everything you want to do.
These could be things like workout, clean house, write a book, join PTA, spend time with my family, start a company, learn yoga, etc. After the dump, create three piles: low, medium and high priority cards.
The last step is creating a pyramid that has only 10 cards. That’s it!
The card on the top will be where you put most of your time and effort. The two below that take the next priority until you have 4 rows of 10 cards in a neat pyramid.
These 10 cards now dictate your time and energy.
You can’t learn yoga if it isn’t in the pyramid. When someone asks you to join PTA, if it isn’t part of your clarity pyramid, the answer is a clear no.
Play with cards, imagining how it would feel to have different things at the top.
Redo your cards as often as you need. The genius is that you will change your tormented thinking in a fun, creative task.
Shannon Connery, PhD – www.shannonconnery.com
Back and forth and back and forth.
Your brain bounces endlessly between two options. Scrutinizing every detail.
You’re playing a never-ending chess game in your mind, while wringing your hands, and fretting over the possibility of… <gasp!> making the wrong choice!
Unfortunately, for many of us it’s not only familiar, it’s every damn day.
We torture ourselves with the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves coupled with our debilitating fear of failure.
Overthinking and overanalyzing prevent us from making decisions and moving forward, which then exacerbates our self doubt, and the cycle continues.
It’s all too common. But the good news is that it’s not necessary!
Like so many of our unhelpful tendencies as humans, analysis paralysis is oftentimes simply a habit.
We do it because we’ve been doing it for a long time and we don’t know how NOT to.
Thanks to the neuroplasticity in our brains and the power of a growth mindset, we can absolutely unlearn this habit and adopt new, better ones.
WHY do we overthink and overanalyze?
There can be a number of causes, but some of the most common are perfectionism, fear of failure, self doubt, and a lack of self trust.
Each of these is a topic for another article, but it’s helpful to cultivate some awareness about what might be causing YOUR analysis paralysis in general, and in any particular situation. Get curious.
How to prevent analysis paralysis in the first place
Before we move on to how to overcome it, let’s look at how to prevent analysis paralysis from happening in the first place!
First of all, recognize that perfectionism is not helpful. Studies show it not only hurts your performance, but can be quite harmful to your mental health.
Instead embrace imperfection. Imperfect, inspired, and even messy action is usually far superior to perfect inaction.
Often there isn’t even a right answer, but the longer you stay stuck in indecision, the more worse you feel and the slower your progress.
Focus on taking action, any action. Even the tiniest baby steps.
Action creates clarity when you’re stuck in uncertainty.
Action creates energy and momentum to get past the paralysis.
Action creates confidence while indecision exacerbates the self doubt.
How to overcome analysis paralysis
While you’re strengthening your abilities to prevent the overthinking and overanalyzing in the first place, here are some tips on how to overcome it once it has you in its grips:
- Get grounded
Overthinking happens in your head and is likely stressing you out, which is then releasing stress hormones into your body and making you feel crappy.
To mitigate that, create a pattern interrupt that will help to calm your nervous system. This can often be achieved by getting out of your head and into your body.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein.
Breathe. Take a walk. Move your body. Stretch. Dance. Jump up and down.
- Step away if you can
Absolutely agonizing over a decision? Try this. Pause and ask yourself if the decision actually needs to be made right now.
Sometimes we need to step away, take a break, and focus on something else rather than trying to force it. That may naturally shift things.
- Write it out
When you’re all up in your head silently spinning out, it can be impossible to figure things out and get unstuck. Put pen to paper or type it out, to get it out of your head.
Write out a pros and cons list. Capture all the rational, logical benefits and costs. Pretend you are arguing for each side in court with passion, and see if there’s a clear winner.
- Check with your intuition
Those of us who tend to overthink and overanalyze are often very intellectual. We’ve relied on our intelligence to get ahead, and can be out of touch with our intuition.
Human intuition is incredibly powerful! But in order to access it, we need to practice getting quiet and still and tuning in. You can hone this skill through meditation and other mindfulness practices.
You can check in with your intuition through an exercise like this: Get quiet and focus on your breath for a few minutes.
Then, close your eyes and visualize in vivid detail a scenario where you go with option A. Feel all the feelings of fully committing to that. Then do the same for option B.
Journal on any insights you may receive. This often makes it very clear what you actually believe and want.
- Talk it out
Naming it can help. Simply hearing yourself state the decision you need to make – and all the possible choices – out loud may loosen things up.
Or, if appropriate, discuss it with a friend or colleague whose insight you would trust in this context.
- Call on your future self
Imagine your best self 5 years from now. That version of you is badass and successful and has overcome many similar challenges. How would they counsel you?
- Step into leadership and trust yourself
Decide to show up as a leader. Leaders often need to make decisions without knowing what’s best and simply train themselves to do it anyway.
As a result they start to trust themselves and their ability to figure things out and take responsibility for the impact of their decisions.
Do the best with what you can in the moment and trust that no matter the outcome, you are strong enough to deal with whatever comes next.
- Get hungry for the learning
When you genuinely embrace a growth mindset, you start to see everything as a growth opportunity. Every failure is a chance to get better.
Embrace that. Learn to love it. Get hungry for it.
Sandra Possing, Life Coach – www.sandrapossing.com
You go shopping, looking for the perfect outfit for an important occasion. One grabs your eye. It’s your favorite color. You like the style, and it’s the right size. Not a bad price. You are almost ready to buy.
But then the questions arise.
Do I wear too much of that color already? Are people going to think that’s all I own?
These doubts start to have their own voice. Can you hear them?
- You don’t have great taste in clothes, you know.
- You don’t deserve something that looks that good.
- Spend your money on somebody else. You shouldn’t be so selfish.
- You never can figure things out. You will not get this right.
Indecision and self-doubts about making the wrong choice plague many of us. We can spend endless hours laboring over pro and con lists. We keep rethinking our options and lose sleep (and peace of mind) trying to come to the “right” decision.
Where did those voices come from anyway?
Most likely from our parents, caregivers and others who dismissed our true needs and wants.
Their harsh judgments got planted in our psyche and we carry them around like faithful companions in our mind. They keep us from getting what we genuinely want and need.
Do self-critical messages keep you from making decisions comfortably? Try this approach to free yourself from them.
First, validate those pushy voices.
That’s right. I’m suggesting you notice them, listen carefully to them, and thank them for trying so hard to protect you from making mistakes. Once they “hear” your validation, they won’t need to put so much pressure on you to get your attention.
Then, with mindful awareness, try to locate where the critical messages are located in your body.
Does that self-demeaning message make you slump over?? Is your belly tense? Does your back hurt?
Now place your hands where you feel this sensation.
What you notice may be a very tiny sensation. Take your time. Let your breath be relaxed and easy as you allow yourself to notice what you’re feeling.
See if you can generate kindness toward this sensation.
Allow the critical message to just be there for a few moments. As you do, notice if anything changes in how your body feels.
Next, turn your internal attention to what’s underneath this message. What do you really want and desire?
Can you sense in your body where this genuine desire within you resides?
Place your hands on your body where you notice this new sensation. Perhaps you will be gently holding your heart or your belly and hearing it say to you, Yes, this feels good right now to be seen and heard.
While holding this area with compassionate attention, ask yourself: What would I need to have for that desire to be fulfilled? Ask: How can I begin giving this to myself? What is my next step?
Whatever inner nudging arises, treasure it like a little seed you’re just planted.
Give space to grow. Even if no obvious guidance shows up right away, allow yourself all the time you need for this seed to grow in the soil. Create room inside yourself for this new awareness, this new growth.
Consider journaling about it or dancing it out or singing about it aloud. You may be surprised what you express. Receive it with tenderness.
Trust that leaving behind negative messages and discovering your true wants and needs is a process of discovery.
Go back to tend what you planted from time to time, like you would return to a seedling to watch it grow. Get to know this emerging part of yourself, your true desire that may be leading you to something new — and homegrown within you.
Of course the old voices might reappear with their “shoulds” and “not good enough” messages. When they do, acknowledge them again and hold your body where those voices can be felt residing. Validate and appreciate them again.
Keep going through the process again and again of thanking the critical messages, then stepping back to make room for new seeds to be planted and valued.
Tend to them so they can grow. Let your awareness of your bodily sensations and the kind attention of your hands or the freedom of expressive movement support you.
Now you can feel comfortable making a decision based on the deeply felt wants and needs within you.
The new seeds you planted will generate greater confidence and ease. Water them with care. Enjoy making decisions that honor who you truly are.
Regula Badertscher, MSW, LGSW – www.regulabadertscher.com
Oh man. Have you ever found yourself facing a decision and knowing you need to do SOMETHING, but instead choose to go take a nap? Or eat? Or watch Netflix?
For some of us, getting overwhelmed means shutting down. The stress of making a decision puts us into a state of panic that is intolerable.
Often what happens is, in regard to making a decision, we expand out, like the Big Bang, thinking of all the implications and all the things that could go wrong and we find we have too many variables and too many factors and we just…..stop. Then, sometimes, we make a choice and rue it later. Or we simply don’t. And just accept what happens because we don’t do anything.
For people who experience this kind of stress, it is agonizing.
It can be as simple as what to eat for dinner or as complicated as how to decide on buying a house or changing jobs. Sometimes this is known as analysis paralysis, which simply means we get stuck in the process and can’t move forward. The resulting feelings are self-doubt and often a litany of negative self-talk because we are angry or disappointed in ourselves for not being able to move forward.
It’s a hard cycle to break because it feeds itself.
The self-doubt and negative self-talk continue and another decision comes around and we falter, confirming all the doubts and negativity for ourselves.
So what do we do?
There isn’t a really simple solution.
Every way out of this involves being able to overcome the soundtrack in your head that is telling you you are going to do the wrong thing. So the key seems to be to narrow our focus and change our message.
When we get to this point, we feel out of control and our brains are just taking things every direction and we feel frozen. We have to slow that down and make it smaller.
Let’s start with self-talk.
When faced with self-doubt over making a decision, really listening to our self-talk can help.
Because when we really listen to it, we can slow down and try to give ourselves more encouraging messages. Self-talk often is an automatic thing. And it is ingrained. But when we pay attention we can hear how unreasonable or derogatory it really is.
Becoming aware of that allows us to hit pause and change the message.
Again, I want to stress that the paralysis and indecision that happens is because our brains are running away with us and we feel out of control. Focusing on how we talk to ourselves and making it a little more forgiving can help break that paralysis. As can pulling focus down to a starting point.
To find a starting place, one thing I have found helpful is to determine if I have enough information.
I have found that sometimes we get frozen in place with a lot of questions. And if we could get some additional information, instead of just asking ourselves the same questions, we can feel better about moving forward.
So identifying what we know and what we need to know can help us narrow our focus to a manageable point.
Once we know what we need to know, we can identify where to get that information. The basic idea is to be able to break each thing that we are overanalyzing, or frozen over, into smaller chunks that feel more realistic.
Now with that being said, it is also important not to overdose on information.
A simple example is reading reviews before buying a product. Boy, can that be confusing. Before we start our research, identify exactly what we need to know (what is most important to us in this product) and set a limit to the sources we will consume. Build parameters around it so we know when to stop researching.
For example, I need to know durability, ease of use, and warranty information. I am going to read two review websites and look at 4 and 5 star reviews to get a sense of what people generally think. From this we can feel like we have information and can start to formulate a decision.
Seeking out a confidante can help as well.
Having someone we trust to bounce it off of can take some of the feelings of being overwhelmed away. Talk to them about the decision because sometimes the simple act of sharing and saying things out loud makes them clearer and less daunting. This can increase understanding and rationale as well as increase confidence in a choice.
Lastly, know that if you are someone who experiences being frozen in the face of decision, big, small, or all of the above, you are not alone.
There is hope and there are ways to overcome this. Give it a try. Slow down, talk nicely to yourself about it, and make the task (decision) at hand manageable through breaking it into pieces or narrowing the focus and talking it out.
Amy Ziegenhorn, LMHC – www.amyztherapyservices.com
Analysis paralysis is often rooted in anxiety.
There is a need to feel like you are making “the right decision” and it leads to overthinking and overanalyzing. This creates a barrier and leaves you paralyzed, stuck, and even feel like a failure because of it.
As a result, there is no decision made or you end up going with what others have influenced you to do as default. This can lead to a lot of self-doubt and even more indecisiveness.
How do we overcome the cycle of analysis paralysis?
We have to start by recognizing when it is happening.
This thinking pattern becomes automatic because it has become engrained over time. It has served a purpose to protect you from making a ‘wrong’ decision, but it can prevent you from making any decisions at all.
The anxiety and worries about making the wrong decision causes so much distress and you start to feel like the only way to feel less anxious is by having more information and analyze even more.
However, it only feeds the anxiety making it more intense rather than soothing it.
Pay attention to your thoughts and acknowledge when this thinking pattern is starting.
This allows you the opportunity to try to interrupt the thought process. When there is no recognition of the thought process, you can’t do anything to overcome it.
By having recognition and awareness, you can work to find the gaps where you can change the thought process and, therefore, your reaction/response.
This is easiest done with the assistance of a therapist because they can approach it in an unbiased way to help guide you through the process of untangling the web of thoughts.
Take some time to think about how important the problem is for you.
With anxiety (which drives analysis paralysis), everything feels important. In trying to assess how important this decision is, consider the bigger picture. How will it impact your life in a week, a month, a year?
Confront that worst-case scenario.
Often, we want to avoid facing the worst-case scenario, but that only continues to be in the back of your mind continuing to wreak havoc on your life and even manifesting physically for you. How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will happen?
Consider what is causing concern for you in the decision-making process.
- Is there an expectation from others that you are afraid you won’t meet?
- Are you worried about rejection from others?
In my experience, many people who tend to struggle with analysis paralysis also struggle with being free to express their true self.
They weigh their words and worry about each action/word and how the other person will respond or react. It is not your responsibility to predict and know every situation. That is impossible and the only way that you can live your life and not fear the “wrong decision” is by working to be vulnerable to speak up and speak your truth in a respectful way.
To try to overcome analysis paralysis, you have to be willing to put in the work and practice making decisions quickly.
Again, therapy is a great tool that can help you change these patterns in a long-lasting way. Certain types of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can provide tools and techniques in challenging, reframing, and dismantling the thoughts that are leading to analysis paralysis.
Emmily Weldon, LPCC, LMHC – www.mindfulsolutionscorp.com