Overthinking is my Shakespearean tragedy

How I broke the cycle of self-imposed criticism and doubt 

Hyunny reflects on her journey with overthinking.

Overthinking has absorbed my university life. I find myself bound by standards for and perceptions of myself—and sometimes it goes overboard.  

I refer to my overthinking as an “analysis curse.” I would over-analyze my own work and capabilities to the point where I’d lose myself in my thoughts and panic. 

I remember writing a creative assignment for a philosophy course in my third year. I stayed up all night thinking about ways to craft the most inspirational and analytical piece of writing. After hours of worry, I had a conversation with my professor who helped me shift from trying too hard to write—with unattainable standards—toward writing without thinking.

This method helped me let go of some of my anxiety overbearing my writing and allowed me to simply let the words flow. I ended up criticizing myself less and moved to adopt what I call “free thinking.” 

Before my professor’s advice, I would restrict myself to unbelievable standards of creative skill, comparing myself to greats like William Shakespeare. Now, free thinking has helped me accept my conclusive and restricting attitude towards my work and prevent it from putting me in a tailspin. 

Rather than becoming the next Shakespeare I dreamed I could be, I’ve practised valuing my own unique thoughts and making peace with the negative aspects of my life, that I couldn’t overthink my way out of. 

Much of my overthinking stems from how I self-evaluate and analyze others’ perceptions of me. This course of thought, as expected, never ends well. 

At a certain point, overthinking became my routine. Overthinking even bled into my personal life, impacting my relationships with friends and even romantic partners.

During my first year at Queen’s, I was in a long-distance relationship and things were rocky. In the time I spent away from him, I had the perfect opportunity to question my feelings and overthink aspects of our relationship. Given the amount of people added to my life and my growing social circle, he only felt farther and smaller. Our relationship began to feel like a barrier between me and the other people I wanted to interact with. 

These feelings made me question whether I liked him, why I began the relationship in the first place, and why I ever thought a long-distance relationship would work. I worried about the possibility of liking someone else. And then my concerns mutated into self-resentment. I would say and believe that I was the most insecure and indecisive person and I should never date again. 

I would begin to isolate myself every time I overthought something, then found myself creating what-if scenarios in my mind until I spiraled, searching endlessly for deeper and darker thoughts. 

Alone and weary, my isolation pushed me into feeling as if I was a character in my own Shakespearean show. 

I needed to imagine the worst aspects of my relationship in order to feel secure.  It took time for me to finally realize how unhappy I was and—even worse—how unhappy I was making myself. 

I ultimately decided to end the relationship on bad terms, a choice that was driven primarily by the consequences of my overthinking. 

At that time, what scared me most was how easy it was for me to overthink anything. The turmoil of thought and doubts became more and more challenging to overcome. 

In many ways, I wasn’t only hurting myself by overthinking, but I was hurting the people around me too. Making my own assumptions about what they thought of me and drawing conclusions on my own wasn’t positive for my relationships.

A helpful first step in dealing with my overthinking was evaluating of how much I was hurting myself. It wasn’t easy to recognize and admit every time I was overthinking. Holding yourself accountable is not a static process—it’s always changing and evolving, but, trust me, it can be done. 

Even when I was younger, I was known to be an obsessive overthinker. Every time I began to lose control of my thoughts, my mother would sit me down and walk me though my anxieties. A question she asked me, something that is still stuck with me was “Did worries actually manifest as you expected them to?” My answer is always a resounding “no.” 

Though at times I value and admire my imaginative thoughts that aren’t bound by reality, it was beneficial to realize that, when I’m imagining a worst-case scenario, a little reality doesn’t hurt. 

One of my favourite poets, John Keats, coined the concept of ‘negative capability,’ which expresses one’s ability to accept uncertainties and, in the end, acquire an open mind because of it. This concept has contributed to my adoption of ‘free thinking’ and I’ve applied it with success to my overthinking turmoil.

In a letter to Charles Dilke, Keats writes, “the only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” 

Keats message resonated with me. He believed in keeping one’s mind open to all possibilities, just as I had done with my philosophy creative writing assignment. I adopted ‘free thinking’ rather than restrict myself to the idea that there must be an answer to everything. I now celebrate uncertainty. 

I came to realize that overthinking is really a battle of what I think about myself and perceive myself to be. On a practical level, I was fortunate to apply Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’ in adopting a new mindset, admitting to the fact that I don’t have the answers and don’t need to have the answers to everything. 

I dissolved my rigid standards and began to take on a much more imaginative and boundless expectation for myself and how I navigate of challenges—not just understanding Shakespeare, but in all aspects of life. 

This change in perspective has sincerely helped me cope with my overthinking nightmare. I’ve failed, time and time again, to accept the confusions and uncertainties in my life, but I’ve found it’s skill that can be learned, practiced, and acquired. 

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