How Do I Stop Worrying and Overthinking What I Say?

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFTSocial Anxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

We worry before we say something. Planning and anticipating what we will say and how the other person will respond. And we rehearse all the possible scenarios.

We worry while we are saying something. Concentrating more on how we are coming across than the conversation itself. We imagine what the other person is thinking about us.

And we worry after an interaction. We replay in our heads what we said. What we could have said that would have been better. Sometimes it’s like we blacked out. We don’t remember anything and start to imagine awkward or even terrible things we said.

Worried or overthinking about what you say?

Here are some important things to remember:

  • Worry is future oriented. When we worry we live in an imaginary future.
  • Worry is helpful when it leads to problem solving. Actionable steps.
  • When worry becomes circular, it crosses the line into overthinking, rumination, and anxiety. This is not helpful.
  • Anxiety essentially is an intolerance for uncertainty. It urges us to find 100% certainty, which isn’t possible.
  • Excessive worry and overthinking are often symptoms of perfectionism. Unreasonable, high expectations we place on ourselves.

Why Do We Worry About What We Say

We all want to be accepted and liked. And we all try to avoid being rejected. Worry is a way that our brain tries to protect us from these things.

Imagine not caring or every worrying about how your words impact others. Initially it might feel like a relief. But, long-term, our lives would become a mess.

We would be reckless with our words, which would destroy our relationships.

Our brains create worry to keep us in check. To avoid negative consequences.

Your worry is normal. In fact, if you didn’t worry, you’d likely be a psychopath.

At the same time, it’s common for our brains to misfire. It overestimates social threats or creates social threats that don’t actually exist.

When worry goes in to overprotection mode, it can start to negatively impact our lives.

Worry and Rumination

Worry helps us when it leads us to problem solve and take action. That’s productive.

Often times, worry becomes circular. In psychology, we call this rumination.

Rumination when continue to ask ourselves questions that really can’t be answered. Take for example the worry of “Did I say something inappropriate.” This really can’t be answered by just thinking about it. It’s dependent on the person who was listening. It’s their opinion. We can speculate what their opinion is, but that really is just rumination.

Rumination is like a cow chewing grass. Over and over and over. Never ending.

Our Brains Ruminating

Rumination is the illusion of problem solving. Our brains are busy and active, but it’s not leading us anywhere.

Rumination is often questions in our heads that really we believe we already have the answer to. We never acknowledge the answer though.

For example, take again the question and worry, “Did I say something inappropriate?”

Not only can we not find the answer by just thinking about it, it’s likely we “Did I say something inappropriate” is actually, “I feel like I said something inappropriate and I feel awful because of that.”

And the answers are more often than not based on distorted thoughts.

Thought Distortions

Our brains are powerful. But, they’re far from perfect. All day we have thoughts that fall into what we call in psychology, Distorted Thinking.

Thought Distortions are flaws in our thinking. Some of us experience more of these thoughts than others. And some of us are more sensitive to these thoughts. That is, we put more value into them. We believe them.

Here are some common distortions:

Forecasting: “I have no idea what I’ll say during this first date. She’s going to think I’m crazy.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.

Mind Reading: “They think I’m awkward when I speak.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking and we know their intentions. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.

Catastrophizing: “I’m not going to know what to say, I’m going to freeze up and lose control, I’m going to lose all my friends, and I will die alone.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.

Personalization: “Jim didn’t even say ‘Hello’ to me this morning. I must have said something inappropriate yesterday. He must be mad.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. It’s likely Jim is just having a bad day.

Black and White Thinking: “I didn’t say it perfectly. I failed.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. It’s all good or all bad. Rarely life is all good or bad.

Should Statements: “I shouldn’t feel nervous when I speak with others.” Should statements are way of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up.

Negative Filter: “There were two audience members that looked terribly bored the entire time I was speaking.” Even though there were 50 people in the audience, and many had questions and were engaged, we focus only on the negative aspects of the situation, ignoring anything positive or neutral.

Emotional Reasoning: “My heart is racing, which means I must be in danger.” Just because we feel there is a threat, doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Our emotions mislead us all the time. Especially anxiety and worry. Often times when we feel nervous, we make up a reason why we are in danger, which isn’t true: “I feel nervous, they must be judging me.”

The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety and Worry

Anxiety and worry tell us to seek safety. We do this in a number of different ways, like seeking reassurance from others, avoiding situations, or trying to obtain 100% certainty.

When we seek safety, we initially get a reward. We feel calmness.

Long-term, however, it maintains the anxiety and worry.

When we run into another triggering situation, anxiety and worry scream even louder. Making it even harder to avoid reassurance and avoidance, which then reinforces the cycle even more. 

The “safety” we seek, is not safety.

I’ll now talk a little more about these false safeties.

Coping Using Reassurance

Worry and anxiety is essentially an intense intolerance and fear for uncertainty. Both the emotions urge us to find certainty. And reassurance is one way we try to achieve this.

We ask our friends, “Did I seem too nervous when I was speaking?”

We ask our partners, “Was that socially acceptable? Did I say something inappropriate?”

There’s nothing wrong with asking for honest feedback. Wanting feedback is driven by a desire to improve ourselves.

Reassurance on the other hand, is driven out of worry, fear, and anxiety. It tells us, “I’m not going to leave you alone until you get an answer that gives us 100% certainty.”

A great way to tell if you’re looking for feedback or reassurance is by the intensity of your emotions. If it feels like you MUST get the feedback in order to calm down, it’s more than likely reassurance and false safety you’re seeking.

If you’d prefer feedback, but not getting it won’t change your current state, it’s likely that you’re looking for actual feedback.

Coping Using Perfectionism

One way many of us try to avoid being rejected or negatively judged is by trying to be perfect.

The logic is, “If I choose the perfect words. If I say it in a perfect way, then I won’t be rejected.”

It makes sense. However, when perfectionism is the goal, we set ourselves up for failure every time. It can’t be achieved.

And when we try to be perfect, we are unnatural. Others can sense it, their turned off by it, and it makes it difficult to connect with others. We end up bringing on the rejection and negative judgement that we’re trying to avoid.

Things You Can Do

Avoid avoidance and reassurance seeking

Worry starts out small, but can quickly escalate to anxiety. And once anxiety appears, it wants to take control and the urge to avoid is strong.

Anxiety lies to us. We need to do the exact opposite of what it urges us to do.

Instead of asking someone for reassurance, remind yourself you’re trying to find certainty. And that’s not possible. And remind yourself, even if you’re friend or partner does reassure you, the relief is short lived and that you trading short-term comfort for long-term pain. Resist the urge.

Instead of not going to that party out of fear of saying something stupid or calling in sick when you have an important meeting, remind yourself that if you avoid, you’ll reinforce the fear.

Try to lean into the fear. Do what’s uncomfortable short-term. Remind yourself of your values and long-term goals. Let guide your decisions, not the anxiety.

Make your worry get specific and play it out to the end

Worry loves to be vague. Often times our worries stay vague because we want to avoid where it will go. We think, “If I make it get specific, then the worry is really going to be scary.”

In general, we try to avoid thinking about our worry.

The problem is, the worry usually sticks around when it remains vague. It’s impossible for us to use reason or challenge it as long as it remains vague. So, the worry just continues.

We also want to really question the worry. To ask it why it’s so worried and make it play itself out to the end. We do that by continuing to ask it, “Ok, then what will that mean? What will happen if that’s true?”

Here is an example of self-talk we have when worry remains vague:

Worry: “I might have said something inappropriate.”
Us: “Oh no. That would be bad.”
Worry: “Right? How are you going to figure out if you said something inappropriate.”
Us: “I have no idea. I could call and ask them.”
Worry: “But, that might be strange.”
Us: “True. I could Google search it and see if I can find a forum or something.”
Worry: “That might be a good idea. Let’s Google it for awhile to see if was inappropriate.”

When worry remains vague, it’s in the drivers seat. It tells us what to do.

Let’s try to make it more specific:

Worry: “I might have said something inappropriate.”
Us: “What do you mean by inappropriate.”
Worry: “You know, something that’s not socially normal or something that’s rude.”
Us: “If that was true then what would happen?”
Worry: “What do you mean? That would be awful.”
Us: “Why?”
Worry: “Well, they would think we are weird if it was true.”
Us: “Maybe. And what would happen then?”
Worry: “What do you mean what would happen? They would think we were weird.”
Us: “Yea, sounds scary, but why is it scary?”
Worry: “Well then they would talk bad behind your back.”
Us: “Ok, then what would happen.”
Worry: “Then they might tell your good friends.”
Us: “Ok. Then?”
Worry: “Well you wouldn’t lose potential friends and you would lose your good friends.”
Us: “And?”
Worry: “Then you’ll live a lonely life and die lonely!”

As you can see, worry will fight us when we try to make it get specific. It urges us to stop questioning it and just be afraid.

Also, when we play our worry out to the end, we realize, yes, that would in fact be awful to live a lonely life and die alone, but that it’s highly unlikely. And scenarios that are more likely, aren’t as scary as the worry makes it out to be.

Acknowledge the rumination and don’t engage

Playing out the worry can be helpful to defuse it’s intensity, but the worry doesn’t necessarily vanish after that. It will likely keep coming up. That’s normal.

We need to be careful about trying to get rid of it though.

For example, close your eyes for 15 seconds. Pay attention to the thoughts that come up. At the same time, try hard not to think about a pink elephant.

It’s impossible. Some people report the pink elephant was front and center the entire 15 seconds. Others are able to force thoughts to the front of their mind, but notice background self-talk that says, “Don’t think about the pink elephant,” over and over.

The point is, if you try to stop thinking about something, it means you have to focus on the very thing you’re trying to get rid of. It’s impossible.

So, instead, we simply acknowledge the pink elephant, the worry, the rumination, and we don’t engage.

We don’t try stop it. We don’t try to negotiate with it. We don’t try to reason with it. We don’t argue with it.

We simply nod at it like it’s bully on the street we’re walking past us. We don’t want to run away in panic, that will just get the bully’s attention. We also don’t want to poke at or start arguing with the bully. We don’t want to ignore like the bully’s not there. We just want to acknowledge the bully is there, but keep going about our business.

Another example is thinking of our thoughts as a passing weather system. Sometimes it’s clear and life is easy. Other times, it’s a thunderstorm. But, we’re just letting it pass. We know it will pass. We know it will come back. And when it comes back, we let at it pass again at it’s own pace.

Focus on the external and get completely involved in the conversation

Anxiety directs our focus internal: “am I giving the right amount of eye contact,” “what am I going to say next,” etc. We focus on what the other person is thinking about us, which in one sense is external, but it’s really internal focus. It’s mind reading, which is thinking, which is also internally created.

 

Here’s a funny example of not being completely involved in the conversation, and instead being distracted.

 

Instead of focusing internally, it’s essential to shift our focus completely to the conversation. Get completely involved in the conversation.

Pay attention to their words, not your thoughts. Pay attention to their body language, not yours.

Think of a person you feel completely yourself around. Someone that when you talk to, it’s easy to be focused on the conversation and the goals of the conversation. Use this experience and feeling as template and as a gauge.

Then practice, practice, practice.

First practice while you walk or exercise. If you pay attention, you’ll likely notice you’re in your head worrying, having a conversation with yourself, trying to find a solution to something that can’t be solved.

Catch yourself doing this, then refocus on the external. Focus on the trees or the cars passing by. Feel the temperature or the breeze.

As you practice, you’ll notice that your focus will continue to come back to the internal. That’s ok. It’s impossible to stop it. No matter how much you practice.

The goal is to get your brain used to being aware of where it’s focused. And get used to redirecting the focus externally.

After you practice in non-social situations. Start to practice it in conversations. Start with less challenging situations where you’re emotions are pretty low. Then work your way up.

Remember that it’s like building and maintaining a muscle. It takes time to build, and it takes ongoing maintenance.

Remember that no matter how much you practice it’s impossible to remain 100% externally focused. And that it’s normal for your mind to shift back internally. We’re not after perfection, instead the goal is to simply to build the muscle of awareness and focus.

Conclusions

It’s normal to worry about we say in the moment and we we’ve said in the past. It’s essential to remaining a thoughtful, caring human being.

But, when we notice the worry getting sticky, not going away, and turning into anxiety, it’s usually a sign that we’re responding to our worry in a way that’s reinforcing it.

It’s not permanent though. We have control and we can learn and create new habits that keep our emotions from hijacking what we really want to do.

If you found this article helpful, you might find the Self Help section to be useful.

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About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.