The 2 Biggest Side Effects of Overthinking in Women

What are the side effects of overthinking? Do women remember things better than men?

In How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith explain that women tend to absorb a broader range of information at a time than men do. However, this ability causes women to overthink things.

Continue reading to learn the two side effects of overthinking in women.

What Happens When You Overthink?

Women get caught up in hyper-analyzing past situations and focusing on details of present situations that may not be that important. This often prevents them from advancing their careers because it causes them to get stuck in a negative mindset (due to feelings like regret), struggle to find effective solutions, and lose their ability to focus and be present.

(Shortform note: In The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman list a few biological differences that explain why women tend to overthink. First, women have a proportionally larger cingulate gyrus than men on average—this is the part of the brain that spots mistakes, considers options, and worries about things. Further, unlike men, women have relatively more brain matter in the prefrontal cortex (used for reasoning) and the limbic cortex (used for processing emotions). These differences cause women’s brains to be more active than men’s, making them more likely to overthink, ruminate, and experience anxiety that reduces their confidence and holds them back.)

Helgesen and Goldsmith discuss two side effects of overthinking.

Side Effect #1: Losing Track of What’s Important

The authors explain that women are more vigilant of the smaller details of relationships and other people’s feelings. While this improves their leadership abilities by allowing them to better understand people, it can also undermine them. 

First, being overly focused on other people can cause you to lose your concentration and act ineffectively. For example, if you’re in a meeting and you’re focused on why the person next to you keeps frowning, you’re more likely to miss important information.

Second, being overly focused on other people can make you feel insecure and reduce the confidence you need to be effective. For example, you might start to think that the person next to you is frowning because of something you did. This insecurity might prevent you from speaking up and asking questions during the meeting—you’ll then leave the meeting confused, which will decrease your work quality.

(Shortform note: The authors of The Confidence Code argue that women are actually more confident, and therefore can act more effectively, when they’re focused on others instead of on themselves—in particular, when they think about how their actions will benefit others. So, for example, rather than losing concentration on the presentation by focusing on why the person next to you is frowning, or attributing the issue to yourself, focus on how your positive actions can help them. For example, if you pay attention to the presentation, you can help the person’s mood by filling them in on anything they might have missed while they were upset. This turns your habit of being other-focused into a benefit for you and others.)

Losing Track of What’s Important: The Solutions

The authors present a few solutions for filtering details so you can keep track of what’s important.

1. Sort your thoughts into two groups—primary and secondary. The primary group contains thoughts and observations that pertain to the specific task at hand. The secondary group contains any thoughts and observations that don’t directly relate to the task. For example, imagine someone says “I’d like you to have the report by tomorrow” in a snarky voice. His desire to have the report turned in tomorrow will go into your primary group, while the fact that his tone of voice was snarky will go into the secondary group.

2. Reframe your secondary thoughts and observations. Secondary thoughts and observations often distract you because you tell yourself a negative story about them—for example, “he’s using a snarky tone because he’s mad at me.” To prevent these thoughts and observations from distracting you, tell yourself a better story—instead of him being mad at you, maybe he was just frustrated because he hit traffic this morning.

(Shortform note: Differentiating between important and unimportant thoughts can be difficult—especially because our “unimportant” thoughts often feel important to us. Reframing these thoughts may be even harder since we often make assumptions automatically without realizing it. To better equip yourself to sort your thoughts and reframe the negative ones, experts recommend cultivating mindfulness—a focus on the present moment that increases awareness of your internal and external environment. Mindfulness is commonly developed through “mind-body” practices like meditation and yoga.)

Side Effect #2: Dwelling on the Past

The authors explain that another negative effect of overthinking is dwelling on regretful past situations, trying to figure out what went wrong, rather than moving on. Dwelling on the past holds women back for two main reasons. 

First, it causes them to be highly self-critical and engage in negative self-talk, which lowers their self-esteem and confidence. Second, it prevents them from making changes to overcome the original issue—dissecting the situation feels productive, but it just causes you more pain and delays you from taking action to change the behaviors that got you here in the first place.

(Shortform note: Recent research on rumination (dwelling on the past) concluded that the practice doesn’t necessarily prevent people from achieving their goals, as the authors claim. While rumination can lead to lower self-esteem, psychiatric conditions like depression, and inaction, these effects only happen if you take rumination too far. If you only allow yourself to ruminate for a short period of time, you’ll likely develop helpful insights once you snap out of it. For example, if you ruminate on being ignored by your boss and then reflect on your ruminations at a later time, you may uncover helpful solutions to prevent the situation from occurring again.)

Dwelling on the Past: The Solutions

The authors explain that interruption and distraction are the best ways to stop dwelling on the past.

1. Interrupt your negative narrative by reframing. When you sense yourself starting to dwell on the past, reframe your narrative using the advice from the previous section.

2. Distract yourself. The authors note that when men mess up, they tend to move on to the next thing rather than focusing on their past mistakes. They say women should do the same.

(Shortform note: The authors recommend distracting yourself to overcome rumination but don’t specify how to do so. Experts note that one form of distraction that’s proven to be effective is listening to music and focusing on the lyrics or melody. If you can’t seem to distract yourself, you can instead set a “worry timer” that allows you to ruminate for 20 minutes, for instance. This will help relieve the desire to ruminate without getting stuck in a negative feedback loop. Further, you can try to prevent rumination altogether by avoiding your triggers—for example, if talking to a certain coworker makes you ruminate on why your boss favors them over you, avoid sitting next to them at lunch.)

The 2 Biggest Side Effects of Overthinking in Women

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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