In 2022, while I endured a cancer journey, I was faced with many difficult and confusing decisions.
Before my diagnosis I had already experienced two cancer scares and knew that I was high risk. So oddly, I had some practice and ample time to think about what felt inevitable.
But thinking about it excessively wasn't a productive use of my time. If anything, it was like a blackhole that sucked me in until minutes turned to hours. Over-thinking just created a greater sense of stress and discontent.
Despite that, I couldn't seem to stop myself from stepping into the land of over-thinking. The lure was powerful because I deeply believed that I could exert some semblance of control, if I just thought long enough and hard enough.
Instead I spiraled into despair. I entered my go-to threat response of freeze and was caught in a cycle of demoralizing thoughts coupled with aggravating inaction.
This was not a viable place to stay. I endured months of not having any clear answers before finally getting my diagnosis in early 2022. The only way I was able to navigate the ongoing situation without getting entirely depleted by it was to face and redirect my tendencies towards over-thinking.
Here are three lessons I learned in the process.
1. A non-decision doesn't eliminate over-thinking
We make over 30,000 decisions a day. It's a staggering number. Most of those aren't conscious decisions. They're habit.
One common habit is the non-decision. Deciding not to decide is, in and of itself, a decision.
When I first received news of multiple suspicious masses on my imaging, I thought "I can't handle this right now." And moved into the land of non-decision making.
Despite "deciding not to deal with it," my mind kept racing as I played out one horrible what if scenario after another. My brain felt like swiss cheese as I struggled to focus. It turns out non-decisions don't eliminate over-thinking.
If anything, the non-decision kept the doors open for me to perpetually over-think. As long as I was non-committed, I could continue to play out every scenario in my mind in a vain attempt to "figure it all out." As though my imagination was capable of doctoring me back to wellness again.
2. A pre-emptive decision doesn't make dealing with hard things easier
Because this wasn't my first cancer scare, I had already thought through ample "if this, then that" scenarios. As in, if this happens, then I'll do that thing.
I even had extensive conversations with my husband about what I would and wouldn't do if I were faced with a cancer diagnosis. I had his support enlisted before there was anything to actually deal with. And that made me feel like I was being proactive, which I expected would make things easier.
It turns out a pre-emptive decision doesn't make dealing with hard things any easier.
For starters, pre-emptive decisions like that are thought exercises. There's a safe level of detachment that makes it easier to feel certain. It gives a false sense of confidence, kinda like how watching someone perform a skill on YouTube inflates people's belief in their ability to do the thing.
Whereas, being faced with the situation in real life comes with a breadth of feelings and a depth of information that's unfathomable until you're living it.
What's more, there are very real consequences that come with the decisions which need to be made. Facing the reality of those consequences is both alarming and sobering.
As my therapist advised, "adaptation is required regardless of what decision you make here!" A pre-emptive decision doesn't eliminate the hard work of dealing and adapting.
3. All possible choices can be rationalized as the right one
Because my situation was complicated, there wasn't a single right answer for treatment. There were a number of different options, "each one is perfectly reasonable," a world renowned doctor told me during a consult.
As an over-thinker, I of course, played through every possible option. And I realized something astounding - I could rationalize all possible choices as the right one depending on my mood.
One minute I would be sure of option A. Then an hour later, I was convinced option B was the right one. I even entertained option C, even though I vowed I never would do it if I didn't have to.
I bounced around from option-to-option-to-option like a pinball. Finding rationale for each option that dinged with new points to add to my total score. But never actually winning the game because I could never land the ball in the jackpot.
As a classic over-thinker, I learned I couldn't rely on my rational brain to make this decision because I was too swayed by my inner weather. It was disappointingly clear that emotional world ruled my rationale.
And so I did something risky. I asked my heart to help me make the decision.
I stopped letting my over-thinking, rational brain run the show. And I used my HeartMath practices to enable my inner wisdom to guide me. And every time I did that, I received the same direction to the same decision. My heart was more consistent than my thinking brain has ever been.
I know for some, this might seem crazy or woowoo. But the heart brain exists. And the heart brain modulates the brain in our head more than vice versa. It's actually science.
When our hearts are incoherent, our brain function is inhibited. We struggle to make decisions and think rationally. And we experience greater stress, discomfort and brain fog.
Whereas, our brain performance is optimized when our hearts reach high coherence. We experience a greater sense of ease and peace (even in the face of daunting circumstances). This gives us clarity and insight that goes beyond convention.
I've worked with many wholehearted leaders that are overthinkers like me. It's addictive, in part, because we were fed a lie that we can think our way out of any problem.
This doesn't work because the quality of our thinking doesn't match the needs of our circumstances.
Over-thinking isn't a super power (sorry if that disappoints you). It's a crutch. A way to hide from our deeper, innate wisdom.
Over-thinking doesn't create the safety or control we want it to. Instead it projects mirages on the horizon. Complicating the problems we must deal with in the future because our thinking clouds our perspective.
Wholehearted leaders recognize the shortcomings of over-thinking and have practices for intentionally shifting into the heart brain. Finding ease, clarity and acceptance that the answers will reveal themselves in due time regardless of how much we think about it here and now.
I'd love to hear about your experience! Are you an over-thinker? What's helped you shift gears?