When you’re conscientious and driven, it’s natural to think deeply about situations. However, for many people—especially highly sensitive people, or HSPs—contemplation can quickly trend toward overthinking, and just as quickly, turn into paralyzing anxiety and stress that blocks your productivity and creativity.
About 15 to 20% of people in the US are highly sensitive, which means they have a more finely calibrated nervous system. That means approximately one in five people identify with thinking and feeling everything more deeply, sometimes to an overwhelming extent.
Elaine Aron, the psychologist who coined the term in the 1990s, has observed that HSPs are easily overstimulated and emotionally reactive, process information intricately, and are acutely aware of subtleties in ways that non-HSPs are usually not.
Studies have also found that in the workplace, HSPs face a unique set of challenges:
- Employees who are highly sensitive experience greater levels of work stress than non-highly sensitive individuals
- Highly sensitive dentists were shown to be especially prone to burnout and more impacted by patients’ pain than non-HSP dentists
- Because HSPs are responsive to other people’s emotions, they are easily affected by criticism and can slide into detrimental people-pleasing
As a coach for highly sensitive leaders (who I call sensitive strivers) and an HSP myself, let me be clear: sensitivity is not a weakness. In fact, it’s a strength, and correlated with high-performing behaviors like conscientiousness, empathy, loyalty, and diligence. Still, in order to leverage these upsides, it’s essential to balance out the downsides of being an HSP, including the tendency to overthink.
Here’s how to ward off the hyper-analyzing, needless worry, and imposter syndrome that often accompanies being an HSP at work.
Overthinking is driven by negative self-talk, which in psychology is more well-known as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are automatic but irrational beliefs that reinforce negative emotions and keep you stuck in a mental loop. All-or-nothing thinking may sound like “I have to be perfect, or I’m a complete failure.” And if you’re jumping to conclusions you might find yourself thinking, “He didn’t respond to my email. I know he hates me.” Most likely, these types of thoughts bring on a familiar feeling. They can even feel soothing in a way, because you’ve become comfortable with the habit. It’s worth taking the time to reflect more deeply and label cognitive distortions when they arise. Try to take a second, pause, and acknowledge to yourself: “This is an unhelpful thought.”
What are the thoughts that typically occupy your mind when you slip into overthinking? The stories you tell yourself may not reflect the truth of the matter.
Next, to consciously reframe these unhelpful thoughts, try to find a more positive alternative. My favorite reframing technique is one I call the “rule of five.” When overthinking seizes you, pause, look at your hand, and brainstorm five other ways to view the situation. Count the possibilities off on each of your fingers. Ask yourself: If I knew everything would work out, how would my view change? What other angles have I not considered yet?
Using the rule of five helps you change your self-talk from unhelpful to neutral, or even to balanced. Consciously choosing a more generous thought allows you to move forward instead of simply defaulting to your old, ingrained response mechanisms, so you can approach situations and yourself with more equanimity.
You may try to deal with overthinking by berating yourself to “stop worrying so much,” or “just get over it and move on.” If you’ve tried this approach, then you know firsthand that it doesn’t work. Trying to suppress your thoughts is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. The ball will keep trying to force itself to the surface, and eventually it will make a big splash. Instead, create an outlet for your thoughts. Many of my clients find the practice of “worry time” very beneficial. Put simply, they designate a short block of time to do nothing but pour out their concerns. Once they are all out, they can constructively take action on them.
It’s impossible to think clearly when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. This is true for absolutely everyone, but especially sensitive strivers who are more easily overstimulated. One quick fix is to add buffer time in your schedule. Avoid rushing into meetings when you can. Create a 15- to 20-minute gap in between appointments on your calendar to give yourself time to decompress. If you’re in a leadership role, opt for an office hours model instead of an open-door policy. Have set hours where team members can drop by or schedule time on your calendar versus interrupting you at will and spiking your stress.
Remember, thinking and feeling deeply is a gift. With some simple recalibration, you can leverage your mental depth for the strength that it is.