Stop Overthinking Your Life

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The Joker, a DC Comics fictional villain, is an evil genius: unpredictable, always a step or two ahead of the good guys, seemingly unbeatable. Definitely not crazy. No, he is pure evil.

But we know Batman will win in the end…don’t we?

It’s kind of like how we know that Christ already broke the chains of sin and death; the battle is already won. But meanwhile the Joker has Gotham City tied in knots! We see evil all around us. Like the good folks of Gotham, we get discouraged. We turn against Batman and lose faith in our system of justice.

There is a psychological explanation for our discouragement.

As psychologist Roy BaumeistJoker_(Alex_Ross)er puts it, “bad is stronger than good.” He doesn’t mean that bad will win in the end. What he means is that bad thoughts, events, or feelings are stronger than good thoughts, events, or feelings.

We remember bad events more vividly than good ones, the mean things people say hurt us deeply and are difficult to overcome, negative emotions are stronger than positive ones, and bad reputations are easy to acquire (and difficult to shake).

This is why we tend to dwell on our mistakes and find it difficult to combat negative stereotypes.

If your parents called you lazy when you were a child, you might have a hard time shaking that opinion of yourself even as a hardworking adult.

The metaphysical battle between good and evil is being waged on a personal level, as we struggle each day to combat negativity and self-deprecating thoughts that threaten to send us into a minor funk—or even depression.

Ultimately good will prevail. But on a day-to-day level, if we are presented with an equal number of good thoughts (or emotions, or comments, or events) as bad ones, the bad will dominate.

I can still remember the time in fifth grade when Sister Julie Therese made fun of something I did, and everyone laughed. I can’t remember anything else about fifth grade.

Not only do we remember the bad or traumatic events more distinctly, we also react more quickly, and with greater intensity to bad things. In fact, the disproportionately strong reaction we have to something bad might have contributed to our evolutionary success, suggests Baumeister.

If I fail to appreciate the good, I am merely missing out on something. If I fail to react appropriately to a threat, however, I may not survive. So survival favors the stronger effect of bad things.

Are you overthinking it?

OverthinkingSome people are also temperamentally more sensitive to the bad. By temperament, they have a tendency to think too much, or to focus too much on the negative.

Hippocrates would call them melancholics. Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University calls them “ruminators.”

Their physiological makeup is such that they are more sensitive to stimuli, tend to react more intensely, have difficulty suppressing negative stimuli, and are inclined to mull over and dwell upon the past or the future.

Women tend to be ruminators. In fact, we think too much. We think about our appearance, our relationships, our work. Over-thinking can lead to anxiety and depression and serious physical problems.

Transform your negative thinking

But whether we are melancholic, a “ruminator,” or simply tend to focus on the negative, we can change our attitude. Affective neuroscience is studying the way the brain affects our emotions. It may be that we can retrain our brain to take different neural pathways. Just as exercise can transform our bodies, new ways of thinking can transform negative thinking.

Focusing on the negative can also be bad for your spiritual life. Father Frederick William Faber, whose powerful Spiritual Conferences were written in the 1800s, wrote about the hazards of dwelling on hurt feelings. Father Faber observes keenly the path many of us take under the rule of sensitiveness: we begin by imagining a slight or an offense, where none had been.

We exaggerate the offense, building an entire imaginary history on a completely innocent remark or action.

We place “monstrous significance” on a chance phrase, and then “brood about it for years…From being fanciful we pass to being suspicious…From being suspicious we pass to being umbrageous. We grow moody and bitter. We add sulkiness to our suspicions. There is no dealing with us.”

The true culprit may not be sensitivity (which is a good thing when not inordinately self-focused) but the dwelling upon hurt feelings, over-thinking and over-analyzing a careless remark or an odd glance, turning innocent incidents into serious misdeeds of enormous significance, becoming discouraged about problems instead of looking for solutions.

You gain confidence by practicing it

In the end, the power of bad can be defeated by the sheer quantity of good things in life, according to researchers. But we have to make a conscious effort to combat the bad thoughts with good ones.

Happy couples make at least five positive comments to every one negative criticism. Authoritative (rather than punitive) parenting helps children eventually become both disciplined and self-confident. Some people have been able to battle depression by retraining themselves to think in positive, constructive ways.

Father Faber would prescribe prayer, the sacraments, and supernatural confidence. We gain confidence by practicing it. Though we never relinquish our fight against evil (beginning with the evil we find in ourselves), we can place our trust in God and strive always to see the good in our neighbor.

And that is what confounded The Joker in the end.



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8 Comments

  1. Michael-1439246 May 13, 2017 Reply

    I agree with much that is said here, but I feel that I must point out that the mention of Human evolution is false. We did NOT evolve, nor did any of the other creatures on Earth. The Catholic Church teaches that the concept of evolution, under the pretext most of us know, is false and that it denies the existence of God Himself as the sole Creator of the universe.

    • James-1062561 May 13, 2017 Reply

      Pretty sure the Church is fine with people believing it so long as God remains at the center of it all, imbuing us humans with souls and such.

    • Clem-1095266 May 14, 2017 Reply

      The Church teaches that God created man and man evolved. The Theory of Evolution as Darwin expressed it has been taken out of context and accepted as scientific law. However for Darwin he drafted up a theory based on his scientific observations of more simple life forms. Some of the supposedly educated people of today are some of the most gullible because they have accept Darwin’s theory as law and there is still not empirical evidence to support it. It dawned on me one day that the atheist, science only crowd have a big problem with the Big Bang Theory. Isaac Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion defeats the origin of the Big Bang.

      I think the Catholic Church has been the most accepting in its willingness to see the confluence of science and faith. We must not forget that the Catholic Church has the most well educated clergy in the world, that is not an accident.

  2. Ljerka-1420272 May 13, 2017 Reply

    So true. And as a teacher I can see every day that kids seem to respect tough teachers more, but in fact they have to in order to survive, and I guess they will appreciate the kind ones only later in their lives 🙂

  3. Jim-397948 May 13, 2017 Reply

    Great Article. Just end started dating after a 3 years relationship. Glad I read the book The Four Agreements

  4. Stephanie-1368834 May 13, 2017 Reply

    +JMJ+
    Melancholic temperament? Guilty as charged! I am just about 80% that, plus a teensy weensy more. 😉 That being said, I realize I fall prey to ruminating as the author mentioned above. I realize only too well my shortfalls, but it’s ever oh, so challenging to not overthink things. I constantly fall but I do make it a point to continue getting up and striving to do better. Thanks be to God for the Sacrament of Penance! God bless.

    • Clem-1095266 May 14, 2017 Reply

      Trust me when I say you are not alone. I have been struggling with this for over a decade now, its just been in the last couple years that I have realized that there is hope. If we exercise God’s Grace we can overcome anything. We have to work at overcoming these obstacles and God knows when we are trying and when we are not. However if we put in the effort and ask for His help He will not let us down.

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