Monday, September 24, 2018

Is it obsessing or just overthinking?

Many gifted children and adults are overthinkers. They can debate an idea, concept, or theory, dissect the meaning of a sentence, and critique a casual comment like nobody's business. But when does gifted overthinking morph into obsessiveness? How does deep, meaningful thinking transition from something that absorbs and amuses a busy mind into worry, self-recrimination and sleepless nights?

Is obsessive thinking the same as OCD?

Struggling with obsessive thinking does not necessarily indicate obsessive-compulsive disorder, a biochemically-mediated psychological disorder that involves repetitive, intrusive and sometimes disturbing thoughts, often accompanied by compensating behaviors that are used to quell the anxiety evoked by such thoughts. OCD symptoms can range from mild to disabling: however, when the OCD label is used casually in daily life (e.g., "his desk is so neat - he's so OCD"), it both diminishes the seriousness of the diagnosis, and inaccurately mislabels the many people who do not have OCD.

Obsessive thinking is often less intense than OCD obsessions, and may include any of the following: worry; anxiety; ruminating, repeatedly thinking about and trying to solve the problem; sorting through and reliving situations from the past; and planning and predicting the future, what other's think, and the outcome of an event. Obsessive thinking can stem from various triggers, including a genetic/biochemical predisposition, but is often grounded in insecurity, difficulty with uncertainty, fear of vulnerability or failure, and high expectations. It can be situation-specific (such as worrying before a class presentation), or a more global response to anxiety.

(Note: if you have concerns about whether you or your child have OCD, though, please seek an evaluation with a psychologist or psychiatrist. There are treatments available that can address this condition.)

What about "obsessions?"

Many of us are acquainted with gifted children who become "obsessed," especially when we can't tear them away from their newest preoccupation. Whether it's learning all about dinosaurs or solving global warming, gifted children and teens might seem obsessively attached to their interests and ideas. And you don't have to be gifted to become obsessed with a pop star or doggedly pursue the latest tech device or fashion trend. Although these "obsessions" might be emotionally intense and sometimes costly, they are fairly common. They involve a desire, a preoccupation, an outlet for one's passion, and are quite different from obsessive worry and rumination. Unless the "obsessions" are excessive (e.g., result in social isolation, infringe on another person's rights, cause financial ruin), they are usually short-lived and are developmentally common among children and teens.

Gifted people and obsessive thinking

Gifted people are no more likely to have psychological problems than anyone else. But a highly active mind, and some of the traits associated with overthinking that affect some gifted people - perfectionism, a tendency to critique everything, and a whirlwind of thoughts (sometimes mistaken for ADHD) - might tip the balance toward obsessive thinking or rumination. This is even more likely to occur when a gifted child, teen or adult is experiencing underlying anxiety, insecurity, low self-esteem, depression or family/school/work/relationship stress.

Even in the absence of psychological issues or distress, if a gifted person possesses any of the following traits, they might increase the likelihood of a spiral into obsessive thinking:

1. Perfectionism

While not all gifted people are perfectionists (and gifted people are no more likely to be perfectionistic than anyone else), this burden takes a toll. They may strive to achieve at all costs, berate themselves for any real or perceived failure, and base their self-worth on their achievements. Obsessing may include worrying about everything and anything that might go wrong, mastering every detail, overstudying and overpreparing for tests or presentations, and ruminating over flaws or missteps in performance. Learning to risk failure and imperfection is an important and necessary challenge.

2. Need for control

Similar to perfectionism, obsessive thinking may be fueled by an attempt to control for all factors in a given situation. To alleviate worrying, control-seekers will take charge of every project, hoard resources and information, learn everything they can about a topic, and devise seemingly fool-proof plans in an effort to eliminate any chance of failure. They don't need to be perfect - they just need to get it right and avoid surprises or derailments. Repeated checking, researching every aspect of a situation, and avoiding risks become their norm. Learning to trust and rely on others, chancing failure and less than perfect outcomes, and weathering roadblocks that emerge along the way as part of any project are their challenge.

3. Critiquing everything

Some gifted people become the self-appointed watchdogs for all that is wrong in the world. This, of course, includes school, family, relationships, and friendships, along with film, books, politics, and even how well the local supermarket organizes its shelves. They don't mean to be judgmental; they just can't stop scrutinizing everything around them. While deconstructing the details, theory, strategy, vision, and meaning of what's at hand might be intellectually entertaining, it can rob them of joy - like the film critic who no longer enjoys the show. Some become obsessed with finding the "right" answer, and fixated on seeking the truth - or convincing those around them of their findings. Letting go of this drive to scrutinize and uncover the correct answer is difficult, but also liberating.

4. Lightning fast thinking

The fast-paced minds, thirst for knowledge, and need for intellectual stimulation common among so many gifted people can sometimes fuel obsessive thinking. Gifted children and teens may not know how to manage their very busy minds, and when bored, stressed, insecure, or overwhelmed, their thoughts might spiral into obsessive or repetitive thinking about something that is not easy to resolve. Gifted children and teens benefit from tools such as healthy calming techniques, mindfulness, appropriate distraction skills, and how to stop their thoughts from taking over.

5. Setting sky high goals

Some gifted people feel compelled to achieve at an exceptional level. For some, perfectionism is part of this process; for others, the drive is targeted toward a specific goal, and does not reflect a generalized approach to life. Whether stemming from a need to please others, meet real or presumed expectations, or arising from a burning passion, some are driven to be the best. They push themselves to the brink of exhaustion, eschew other interests or activities, and ignore pleas to find balance and perspective. Sometimes their achievements are staggering - they receive acclaim and recognition, excel in sports, science or the arts, master a new invention, or become recognized as the best in their field.  While some find great joy and a sense of creative flow when delving into what they love, an obsessive drive can quickly go awry, leading to social isolation, burn-out, and even health problems when self-care is neglected. Pacing and balance are critical for high achievers.

What can you do?

When you or your child are plagued with obsessive thinking, when overthinking spirals out of control, the first step involves understanding what contributes to these thoughts. Sometimes it can be fears, expectations, and low self-esteem; other times, unrealistic beliefs and assumptions about what might occur. Uncovering what drives these thoughts can start with some basic questions:

Understanding obsessive thinking

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What is driving this obsession?
  • Is it consistent with what is important to me and to my values?
  • Can I feel good about myself even if I am not perfect or the best?
  • What are the drawbacks of being so driven?

Challenging obsessive thinking

  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • How likely is it that the worst could happen?
  • Where is the data? If I were a scientist or detective or attorney, what facts would support my beliefs?
  • Will this matter five years from now?
  • How can I focus on the present - on what is happening right now, rather than the past or future worries?

The above questions are a start. They can help you or your child challenge obsessive thoughts and gain perspective on what is truly meaningful. But when obsessive thinking becomes an entrenched pattern, or is associated with psychological distress, such as low self-esteem, body image concerns, heightened anxiety, depression, or even irrational thinking, additional help is needed. While self-help efforts and support from family and friends are an essential first step, when obsessive thinking spirals out of control, therapy with a licensed mental health professional can help you manage and quell these thoughts.

What have you found helpful for challenging obsessive thoughts?

This blog is part of the GHF Blog Hop on Gifted People and Rabbit Holes. To see more blogs, click on the following link.

No automatic alt text available.


  1. My son is very anxious about grades and has been since he started school. It is a constant struggle for him to pull back and not worry. Of course, he usually does well, but I worry about when he hits a hard class and then doesn't do well and it just confirms his greatest fear. I am trying to get him to see that grades are not that important, especially since he is not even in high school. He still seems to feel that he cannot let go of this obsession, though.

    1. Anonymous, I hope that you can help your son with questions about his perspective, and perhaps get his teacher to introduce more challenging work, so that he can encounter "failure" experiences along the way. Good luck.

  2. Well, number 3 and 4 are me - I've learned to shut my mouth and not share (they really don't want to hear it, brain, so shush!) but it's a struggle. Good post! Channel it, direct it, and balance it.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It is really hard to not share opinions when it seems like you see things so clearly! I appreciate your struggle. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Some gifted people become the self-appointed watchdogs for all that is wrong in the world.
    ^^^Trying to teach my very direct and literal 5-year-old that he does not have to correct everyone and everything is not an easy task!
    I enjoyed reading your post!

    1. Elena, It sounds like your son has some great ideas and perspective on what is going on. It is hard to restrain such enthusiasm - even when others don't appreciate that forthright approach. I imagine he will eventually learn to restrain himself more. Thanks.