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The Addiction to Thinking

People can become addicted to all sorts of things. The reasons vary widely. Trauma, genetic predispositions, and social influences are just a few. But hopefully, it’s not too reductive to posit that all addictions are some form of pain management, be it physical, emotional, or existential. In that sense, they’re an escape from reality.

Thankfully, I’ve avoided the big addictions. I know, and you probably know, people who haven’t. They deserve empathy. There’s plenty of pain to go around and ample reasons to want to escape reality. All it takes sometimes is one loose choice to become addicted.

I’ve had a lifelong addiction to thinking. What does that mean? Well, I’ve always had a bent for problem solving. That’s what I love about writing — you solve problem after problem, hopefully in a way that satisfies both you and the reader. It brings me great pleasure to help my character think his way out of a jam or to figure out what plot complication will spin the story off in an intriguing direction. The dopamine hit I get from figuring shit out is why I keep doing it and always will.

The problem is, relatively few real-world problems can be solved by thinking. Emotional or relationship problems, for example. An emotional problem can’t be solved through a cognitive process. I wish to hell it could. What it can do is help convince yourself of this fact. Last year, I’ll bet I wrote a novel’s worth of analyses of my relationship issues only to reach the conclusion that they were at least half my fault. At the time, that was easier than vulnerability and honest introspection. Asking, “How do I contribute to the problem?” would’ve saved me an awful lot of time, and Dark Dodgers would’ve come out much sooner.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I used to spend inordinate amounts of time chewing on problems that I can never, and will never have any role in solving. I didn’t know it then, but my brain was often so preoccupied with thoughts and worries that I frequently wasn’t fully engaged with the present. Thinking when no thinking is required is like paddling frantically downriver instead of letting the current do the work. The desire to fix anything outside your immediate control — of which you have precious little — is just an effort to control your environment. It’s a waste of energy.

It’s fine and healthy to wonder why people are the way they are, and sometimes, you can even get them to tell you. But thinking about what someone could or should do is useless. Figuring someone out isn’t your job. Being curious about them is.

Which brings us finally to thinking about oneself. For me, that was the deepest wormhole of them all, and it’s ongoing. Why did I react that way? Why do I walk with hunched shoulders? I really should do more cardio. Don’t get me wrong — it’s good to ask some of these questions some of the time. But the premise is flawed. You aren’t a problem to be solved. You’re a human being carrying around a big, smelly bag of shit. Some of it came from your parents, and their parents, and so on. Some came from the world — your boss, your neighbor, the morning news, etc. But a lot of it came from you. You can and should endeavor to lighten it, but you’ll never wash your hands of it, so to speak, or set it down.

The most insidious part of overthinking is getting stuck in loops. When I encounter an especially puzzling question, like, “What fresh hell is this?”, I tend to ask it over and over and over and over. This is called rumination, and it’s unhelpful mental activity.

So how did I start to break my addiction to thinking? I did, and continue to do three things:

  1. I gave myself a break. 99.9% of all problems either shouldn’t be framed as problems or aren’t mine to solve. Therefore, they aren’t worth the energy it takes to think about them.
  2. I monitor myself. If I get fixated on a thought or problem, which still happens sometimes, I say, “STOP!” in my head and shift my attention to the present, such as it is. The more I meditate, the easier this becomes.
  3. I accept and embrace my reality as it is. This statement is taped to my wall along with many other affirmations. Accepting what you cannot change feels like sticking your head in the sand sometimes, and maybe it is, but it’s essential. I don’t like the reality we’re living in, and I wish it were different, but I can’t make it so.

If you’re an overthinker, maybe this will give you some useful insights. If not, then good for you. Either way, I welcome your thoughts at [email protected].


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