Monday, May 1, 2017

Gifted overthinkers: What makes them tick?

Gifted people sure do think a lot.

Logic, reason, introspection. Thinking is one of their greatest strengths and a source of delight as they ponder the complexities of...well... just about anything. They love to problem-solve, find a creative solution, deconstruct an idea, let their imaginations soar, and debate and disagree.

But this remarkable asset and companion can be a torment when it goes awry.

What causes overthinking? (And what can you do about it?)

Take charge at all costs

Overthinking can stem from a need for control. Some overthinkers are the high achievers and perfectionists who stand out in a crowd. They grab the controls on any project, seem to have all the answers, and master every detail. They take pride in their knowledge and barely come up for air as they race to keep up with the latest information and theories.
I have to be on top of this
Others expect me to get it right 
If I spend enough time sorting through all the options, I'll figure it out

In an effort to stay in control, these gifted overthinkers seek fool-proof plans to ensure that problems will not arise...or that their presumed flaws will not be discovered...or that they will perform perfectly. This fuels perfectionism, repeated checking. and obsessing about what might go wrong. If they miscalculate, they berate themselves for both the outcome and their failure to devise a perfect plan. And while perfectionism is not exclusive to gifted individuals alone, overthinking can increase the likelihood that this pattern will develop.

When gifted overthinkers strive to be the best, and base their self-worth on accomplishments and praise from others, they not only abandon their intrinsic love of learning, but set themselves up for a lifetime of disappointment. Learning to accept failure experiences and using these as a springboard for future growth is essential for all of us. When overthinkers become entrenched in perfectionistic expectations and the rigid pursuit of external goals, they often end up with nothing more than anxiety.

Hijacked by shame

Some gifted children, teens and adults just can't leave an idea alone. They obsess, worry and overthink. They rework every potential glitch in their plans. They torture themselves with "what-ifs" and worst-case-scenarios.

Thinking - once a joy and refuge - becomes hijacked by shame.

Yes, shame - defined by Merriam-Webster as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety" - takes hold. Shame is the culprit that fuels overthinking for some gifted people. Of course, genetics, biochemistry (in obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example) and external pressure all play a role. But in many instances, shame-based fears drive these thoughts.
What if they discover I'm not as smart as they thought? 
What if I don't succeed? 
Maybe I don't really belong in this advanced class. 
I don't deserve the award - it came too easily.
What is particularly distressing is that most often, their self-doubt and shame is completely unwarranted. Gifted overthinkers worry that their perceived flaws will be discovered, that they will not perform up to par, and that they are undeserving of their talents or recognition. Shame fuels obsessing and overthinking, which in turn, drives even more shame-based fears. They are deprived of relishing their accomplishments and even the activities they enjoy.

Sometimes shame-based fears develop in response to events unrelated to their giftedness (such as depression, traumatic events, or family problems). But all too often, gifted children become ambivalent and ashamed of their talents from an early age. Shame builds when they are chastised for "showing off"... or shamed for correcting a teacher... or teased about the occasional low test score... or when they realize that other children think they are weird.

Gifted children and teens learn to mask their abilities if they want to fit in, as exposing who they are - gifted, with flaws - seems too much for others to bear. These lessons are the building blocks of shame. Overcoming shame-based overthinking requires support and reassurance from caring adults (including teachers who understand and respect the needs of gifted students), finding a niche of like-minded peers who truly accept them for themselves, and sometimes counseling to address low self-esteem and negative thoughts and feelings.

Too many choices

With a mind that races from one fascinating idea to the next, gifted people can be distracted by their own imagination and creativity. It is easy to ignore the tedious task at hand when one's mind conjures up material that is so much more interesting. In fact, some gifted children are misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) because of their high energy level and difficulty focusing on a task.

Gifted overthinkers may become overwhelmed by the choices they face on a given project. They freeze on tests when presented with too many options. They second-guess their answers. They also obsess over the many ideas they can generate when starting a paper, unable to make a clear choice. Rather than appreciate their ability to create so many ideas, or analyze information from different perspectives, they feel anxious and overwhelmed instead.

Too many choices also can create conflict for gifted people with multiple talents and abilities. Often labeled as possessing multipotentiality, they must choose from an array of possible career paths. Making any selection eliminates other options, and many struggle with the implications of letting go. Attempts to juggle and organize competing interests, and tackling more than one pursuit or career goal may contribute to overthinking and distractibility.
How do I combine my love of art with engineering? 
I just can't focus on math when I keep thinking about the screenplay ideas I want to write? 
How do I get started on this paper when I could choose SO many different ways to approach it?  
OK, if I fit in my homework for an hour after school, then I can go to tennis lessons, eat dinner while I write my newsletter article, send off an application for a summer internship, and then practice clarinet. And I'll try to text my friends and help them with their boyfriend drama at the same time. OK, yeah, I think I can fit this all in...
The busy minds and multiple interests of some gifted overthinkers can create an organizational bottleneck. Their greatest challenge is learning to pace themselves, slow down, and develop mindfulness skills to focus on one task at a time. Regardless of how well they think they can multi-task, keeping a distracted focus takes its toll, and learning to pay closer attention to one interest, task and person at a time is essential.

Taming this particular beast

Overthinking can become a stubbornly entrenched pattern that creates the illusion of safe harbor. It reassures the overthinker who assumes that by acquiring just enough knowledge, and reviewing every possible option, the right solution will appear. What eludes overthinkers is the realization that mistakes happen and they will survive with their self-esteem in tact.

In addition to counseling, techniques such as mindfulness, challenging negative beliefs (i.e., cognitive distortions), and values clarification can help. Overthinkers benefit from challenging shame-based messages (from self or others) and setting priorities for what is intrinsically meaningful and of greatest value.

When overthinking strikes, it may be helpful to ask yourself, or have your children or students ask themselves the following:
What is the worst that could happen?
What is the likelihood that the worst will happen?
Where is the data? If I were a scientist, what facts would support my beliefs?
Will this matter five years from now?
Is this consistent with what is important to me and to my values
How can I focus on what is happening right now in this moment, rather than on the past or what might occur in the future?

When gifted overthinkers unburden themselves from anxiety, shame and uncertainty, thinking can resume its role as a source of joy and creativity. If you or your child are tormented by overthinking, get the help you need. Reclaim thinking for what it once was before negative emotions took hold.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overthinking. To see more blogs, click on the following link:


  1. Wonderful post and advice! I especially love your tips for prompts and questions to ask students. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    1. Emily, Thanks for your feedback. I am glad it was helpful.

  2. Lots of valuable information here, Gail. Clearly organized with great strategies and resources, as always!

    1. Thanks, Paula. I always appreciate your feedback!

  3. You just helped me learn something about myself. I never realized I was grasping for control, but lately, in stepping up leadership in my activist organization, I have become hyper-aware of every comment each person makes about something I’m overseeing, and I think of all the problems that could be implied by each of these comments, and I come to meetings bracing myself with so much overthought – only to realize that the commenter hadn’t intended the worst case scenarios that I extrapolated from their comments at all, and just wondered if I had thought of the issue. (Oh yes, I definitely had.) And then the energy of my response comes pouring out. They then tell me that this is “leadership” and have nominated me for the steering committee! Oh! Is this what they meant by leadership all those years they talked about it in school? I had no idea. I never overthought *that*, I guess.

    And your too-many-choices scheduling part just described my weekend. (And I wonder why I’m stressed out all the time….) I think I’ve experienced this thing the medical journals are calling "telomere shortening," but I’m afraid to research that more for fear I’ll learn that my brain wiring is permanently damaged, and start overthinking that, too.

    1. Great comments! Your points are very meaningful and will hit home with many, I'm sure. Thank you so much for feedback.

    2. You're not alone

  4. Helpful questions for sure! I especially relate to the too many choices type of overthinking - even when I'm pondering good things sometimes my brain just won't shut up!

    1. Aurora, Thanks for your feedback. It does seem that too many choices are a problem for so many - at least for those who worry about making the wrong choice! Gifted people with multipotentiality worry in particular because of the paths they must choose. I hope you can figure out how to calm those voices in your head!

  5. This article describes me exactly. I just wish I can shut off my brain sometimes.

    1. Unknown, It's tough when you feel that way. A lot of people can probably relate to you. I hope that you find a way to manage this. Good luck.

  6. Yes. This. All of this. The need for control, the multi's just so much.

  7. This reminds me of a mantra from IDEO, the Design company responsible for so much of the in-roads design thinking and design-based learning is making into education. When they talk about starting up a project or entrepreneurial endeavor they like to say, "Don't get ready. Get started."

    They seem to know something about overcoming that tendency to want to avoid failure by preparing for everything, which, of course, is impossible and one of the main causes of overthinking in ANY population of learners, especially in a culture which still looks upon failure as a negative in the learning process.

    1. Thank you for these great points. Trying to avoid failure is a hopeless endeavor. We can never avoid it, and overthinking just makes us miserable. I appreciate your feedback.

  8. Wow Gail. I never thought about my overthinking being related to feeling a need for control over a situation. I'm going to have to ponder this for a bit.

    1. Jen, It may not be control...or it could be. There are many reasons. Thanks for your comments, and I hope your sort it out!

  9. I enjoyed your post very much. I even recommended the Blog Hop to my daughter, who is having to make a major life decision.

    1. Thank you, Linda. I hope your daughter has success with her decisions.