Overthinking part 1: Stories we tell ourselves and how they harm us as leaders

I love stories! I love them so much that my life is soaked in them. The problem is that not all stories love me. How come?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that there are two types of stories:

  • stories we tell others
  • stories we tell ourselves

Both types of stories can be positive or negative and have many emotions attached to them.


Today I want to focus on the stories we tell ourselves.


I chose this topic because stories we tell ourselves are often the foundation of overthinking and keep us stressed and stuck in the past or the future.

Yesterday, I asked you on Linkedin if you ever overthink. By 10 pm, 21 of you replied.  These are the results:

  • 71% often overthink
  • 19 % sometimes overthink
  •  5 % rarely overthink
  •  5 % never overthink

Even though the sample is tiny and in no way representative, the difference between often and sometimes vs. rarely and never is staggering.

Because I’ve created this series around leaders and leadership, let’s make an imaginary story and pretend that 90% (the bigger half) of people are team leaders. That sounds like a disaster, no?

A leader who is overthinking cannot make decisions, is stressed out, focused on themselves, and unable to lead a high-performing team.

Taken out of the leadership context, the stress and its effect on the body and mind remains. So, let’s do something about it.

To talk about the stories in our heads, I need to talk about the brain and pull ideas from neuroscience – narrative thinking, default mode network, and negative bias. As this is not a scientific article, all knowledge is highly simplified.


The brain and the default mode network

The brain is like a supercomputer in our heads. It is a complex thing that helps us think, feel, move, see, etc. It’s made up of tiny particles called neurons that are like little humans running around our brains, bringing all sorts of messages where we send them. They run around using pathways created in the past or anew when we learn something.

The brain, as the supercomputer, is built together with different parts that all have specific functions and work together like a well-oiled machine. For example, we have a part responsible for thinking and another for feeling, moving, etc.

Often these parts work in collaboration with one another and form a network of brain regions.

For us here, the most interesting network is the DMN or the default mode network. It’s a network used when we remember past events, imagine the future, and when our mind wanders.


Narrative thinking

This network is closely connected with narrative thinking. In its essence, narrative thinking helps our brain make sense of the world by creating stories based on the past (remembering) or focused on the future (daydreaming). This thinking often happens unconsciously when we are doing other things – like driving our car, brushing our teeth, walking down the stairs, etc. We rarely do these consciously as they’ve become habits, and it’s as if we’ve turned on autopilot and our mind goes into the world of narrative thinking.

For example, when walking down the stairs, I might think of the bus I need to catch, the meeting in the afternoon, or how lovely the last vacation was. I am not thinking of walking down the stairs: step, step, step, another step, open doors.

But there is a catch. Our brain is wired to make sense of the world, and when we don’t fully understand something, our brains help us fill the void by creating a story that makes sense to us. Because imagination thrives in narrative thinking, these stories often aren’t true. But with time, they become the truth for us. And quickly, they can become problematic.

Furthermore, these stories can be problematic because of a negative bias.


Negative bias

Negative bias is a tendency of our brains to give more weight to the negative than to the positive, which makes these stories, in our heads, primarily negative. The bias has evolutionary roots as it served our ancestors as a survival mechanism but is limiting us today.

There is more. When we get caught in these vicious circles of negative thinking, we experience a range of uncomfortable emotions that also affect our levels of adrenaline and cortisol, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure, quickened breathing, muscle tension, headaches, etc., and that prevents us from thinking clearly.

Now we are back at the beginning. Leaders who cannot think clearly cannot make good decisions for themselves and their teams.

I almost hear you say: “Thanks, I get it now. So, what’s the solution?”


The solution

Funny enough, when I was halfway through this post, ⚡️Zander Whitehurst posted a book he recommends to all designers who experience stress and anxiety -> the power of Now by Eckart Tolle.

I’ve always disliked that book as it triggered me in a big way every time I’ve tried reading it (for a good reason). I’ve always lived in the future. So it pains me (just a bit) to say that the solution is to try and live in the NOW.

When we are in the now, we don’t experience stress, fear, anxiety, and other emotions that negatively affect our bodies.

I’ve already written what feels like half of a novel, so I’ll stop here for today. I’m all about solving problems, so I want to publish a few concrete exercises on Monday to help you stay in the moment. If you’d like that, please leave me a comment below.

Until next time, stay in the now,

One Comment

  • Zoe

    This was really insightful and helpful; thank you!

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