you should think too much

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who accuse others of “thinking too much.”

Think too much

There are two ways that people most often use the phrase “you are thinking too much” or “he thinks too much.”

One of the ways is simply mean. It’s a criticism of the person’s personality. Inevitably, what it really means is “you are thinking more than I like to think, and listening to you talk is making me tired.” In many cases, what it means is “I don’t get what you’re saying and I don’t find it interesting so I’m going to dis’ you to make myself feel better.”

If someone is telling you something that is long and complex, or revealing some trivia that you don’t care about, then don’t tell them “you think too much.” Don’t tell them “you have too much free time.” It’s not your place to denigrate their personality or interests just because they care about something that you don’t care about. Get the hell over yourself, and if you really are taxed by listening to them, then… walk away from the conversation. Excuse yourself to go to powder your nose. Have a conversation with someone else.

The other way that people use the phrase is well-intentioned, but wrong. It is when a friend sees another friend second-guessing himself, being paranoid, or coming up with excuses. When a person says “you are thinking too much” in this way–compassionately to a friend–what he really means is: “You are thinking poorly.” You are thinking in a negative and unhelpful way. You are reading your own doubts into things and allowing your doubts to make you feel anxious, insecure, or depressed.

If someone who you care about is doing this, then don’t tell them “you are thinking too much.”  Don’t tell them “don’t think about it.”  Instead, you should tell them that they are thinking the wrong way about it. They are allowing themselves to get stuck in a rut. They are allowing their fears to control their thoughts. You should encourage them to keep thinking, and even think more about it, but to think differently. You should suggest more things to think, as in, “But have you considered this other possibility….?” You shouldn’t be trying to shut them down.

On a very abstract level, is it possible for a person to think “too much”?

I suppose an argument could be made. There are people who are so analytical that they actually miss details about what is going on around them because they are caught up in their own heads. Of course, even then it might be a conscious choice: he might be more interested in his thoughts than what’s going on around him. Who are you to say that his thoughts aren’t more interesting?

If someone is so lost in thought that he, for example, gets hit by a car when crossing the street, then that is a situation where one can honestly and objectively say “He was thinking too much.”

But those people, and those situations, are far and few between. Like voter fraud and brilliant modern art, there are far more people who claim that it happens than there are actual examples of it happening in real life. Is it possible in theory? Sure. But in almost any situation where people claim that it happens, they are wrong.

Finally, there are very few social situations where you can’t benefit by thinking more… as long as you are thinking correctly.  “Thinking more” doesn’t mean making assumptions about people’s motivations or being paranoid or second-guessing.  In these cases “thinking more” can mean thinking about the possibly unintended ways you might be coming across, thinking seriously about what opinions people might have the differ from your own, or considering the possible unintended consequences of your words or actions.

In my experience, a huge portion of social stress and misunderstandings come from people thinking too little, not too much. When you don’t realize that you’d inadvertently insulted someone that you’re talking to, it’s because you were thinking too little. When you don’t pick up on the fact that your friend was trying hint something to you without saying it, it’s because you were thinking too little. When you blame a fight on someone else without considering their point of view, and what you might have contributed to it yourself, you’re thinking too little.

So the next time it crosses your mind to accuse someone of thinking “too much”, remember this: you should be more worried about what that says about you, than what it says about them.