themighty logo

7 Warning Signs I'm in the Grips of Obsessive Thinking


I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on thought patterns that are neurotic, repetitive and unhelpful — and I know a lot of people who have similar experiences. How can I spend less time running in circles in my head and more time engaged with the present moment without that loose thread of doubt and anxiety? This is a question I’m trying to answer for myself, and I hope to be able to help others free themselves, too.

Below are some warning signs I’ve learned to look for. None of these are solutions in themselves, but I’ve found that merely noticing and acknowledging I’m engaging in obsessive thought can be really helpful. An important first step is recognizing the thoughts are obsessive, and therefore their content is pretty much never accurate or helpful.

Here are the warning signs I look out for:

1. They’re all about me.

Should I choose to do X or Y? What if some terrible thing happens and I’m held responsible? Does that group of people think I’m the worst? What if I end up going to hell? When I worry about mistakes I made, I’m worrying about being held responsible or blamed. When I’m obsessing about how busy I am, I’m worried about myself failing or otherwise looking bad. Insecurities about my performance at work, social interactions or actions I regret all have me right at the center of them.

2. The guilt and shame are no longer useful.

I used to justify beating myself up by telling myself it would make me a better person and unlikely to repeat the same mistakes. Guilt and shame themselves are not bad emotions, after all, and they can be good guideposts to make sure we’re on the right track. But when the mental self-abuse continues long after I’ve learned whatever lessons there are to learn from the experience, and resolved to do better next time, I know I’m thinking obsessively.

3. They fade suddenly, and seem foolish or irrelevant in retrospect.

For a while, I’m fixated on the thought and can’t focus on anything else for long. The obsessive thought will be the worry theme of a couple days. I’ll stress out about one particular social dynamic where I feel I need to maintain stronger boundaries, or fixate on one mistake I made and the (imagined) dire consequences that mistake could produce. Days go by, and I fix the social issue, or conclude that those dire consequences I was imagining probably aren’t going to happen. The thought hangs on, fighting for my attention… and then another, often totally unrelated thought, takes its place. Once the new obsessive thought is in my sights, the previous obsessive thought seems nonsensical. Oh, we don’t care about that any more, the obsessive part of my mind will say. That was never that big of a deal anyway; you shouldn’t have taken it so seriously. No, this is the real issue!!! Pay attention to this!! Then, of course, that thought eventually fades too, to be replaced by another.

4. I wouldn’t speak to a friend — or to anyone — in this way.

When a friend confides in me about a stressful upcoming event or a mistake they made in the past, I respond reasonably. I might say we’re all works in progress, and that mistakes are an excellent opportunity for growth. I might offer some encouragement. When my inner voice lacks this compassion, I know I’m in the grips of obsessive thinking. You idiot. You shouldn’t have screwed that up, it was so easy. Sure, you can learn from your mistakes and strive to be a better person, but that doesn’t undo your mistakes. And man, those were dumb mistakes. Now, when I hear this tone, I know I’m engaged in obsessive thinking.

5. On some level, I know they’re BS.

This is a subtle one. The possibility of the worst case scenario is usually quite terrifying, and when my mind really goes there, it feels real and it hurts. But there’s usually a background knowledge that the thoughts aren’t really real. I feel distracted, removed from the present moment, resentful and irritated by the thought. I’m upset to have found the thought, since I know that will mean wasted hours of obsession, rather than being actually concerned about the content of the thought.

6. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Obvious, I know — they’re called obsessive thoughts for a reason. But I find it useful to reflect on non-obsessive, healthy thoughts to really see the difference. What do positive thoughts feel like? Sometimes, during loving-kindness meditation, I have a sense of breaking through my self-centeredness into the universal field of loving-kindness, and I might have a happy thought, in the midst of my meditation, that all other people are beautiful, and that I love them. Sometimes, feelings of intense compassion and well-wishing for others will steal up on me. But I never feel overpowered by these thoughts, or at the mercy of them. I’ll put it this way — my mind has never repeated to me angrily: “Don’t you dare forget the Great Mystery and the field of loving-kindness that unites us all!” Or, “Every person is beautiful, complete and perfect in their own way!”

7. They have a “gatekeeper” quality.

It’s like they’re standing there between me and genuine enjoyment and experiences in my life. They tend to show up just when I’m starting to let me guard down and enjoy myself. It feels like they’re subtly blocking me from my own experience. It’s like right when you’re going to let yourself get involved in whatever you’re doing, the thought jumps in and tells you that you can’t, or you shouldn’t.

Follow this journey on Obsessively Thinking.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Getty image via RaStudio