A Therapist Explains 5 ‘Thinking Errors’ That Lead to Overthinking

An introvert who is overthinking

For introverts, who spend a lot of time in their heads, these common thinking errors can lead to a painful spiral of overthinking.

Can you recall a time when something happened — like someone’s reaction (or lack of a reaction), or a worry about an upcoming event — that led you down that renowned introvert rabbit hole of overthinking

Overthinking is something that everyone has experienced at some point in their lives. I know I have experienced it, and in my work as a therapist, overthinking often presents itself in sessions with my clients as well. When it happens, it can really feel like a tailspin, can’t it?

How would it feel if I told you that most of the time when overthinking happens, it’s based on the meaning that you give to the experience? And, in many cases, that meaning is not completely accurate — it only serves to make us feel bad. The helpful thing is, it is in your control to shift the ruminating thoughts and redirect the tailspin. Yes, really, you can!

Let’s take a look at some cognitive distortions (also known as “thinking errors”) that can lead to ruminating thoughts, and strategies to overcome them.

You can thrive as an introvert or a sensitive person in a loud world. Subscribe to our newsletter. Once a week, you’ll get empowering tips and insights in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

5 Cognitive Distortions That Lead to Overthinking

1. Catastrophizing — worst-case-scenario thinking

Catastrophizing is essentially thinking about the worst-case-scenario — and getting stuck there. This thinking error makes it all too easy for those worrisome, ruminating thoughts to set in.

Here’s an example: Let’s say Maria has started dating someone she really likes, and she feels confident and secure when they spend time together. However, she is finding herself feeling anxious with the newness and uncertainty of things at this stage of dating, especially with their texting. She finds herself trying to interpret what is meant by his text messages… and when there is a gap of time in their messaging, she finds herself thinking, “See, he doesn’t like you, he’s probably talking to someone else, it’s never going to work out, and you should just forget about him.” This only causes more anxiety.

Have you ever encountered a scenario like this one? Notice how, in this example, Maria was trying to “interpret” the meaning behind his text messages (or lack thereof). This goes back to what I shared earlier, about how the meaning we ascribe to situations plays a big role in the direction that our thoughts go.  

Instead of catastrophizing, Maria could reframe her thoughts and say, “He must be busy, and I’ll hear from him when he has more time to talk.” It is possible the person she is texting with is working or spending time doing a hobby, rather than purposely delaying responding to her because he doesn’t like her. We don’t know what’s really happening, but it’s safe to assume there are other possibilities aside from the catastrophizing thought Maria was focused on.

2. Overgeneralization — making a conclusion about something based on generalizations

When you overgeneralize, you take one specific situation and make a conclusion about it, therefore, generalizing your conclusion.

For example, let’s say you are enrolled in a class. Perhaps it’s at a university, or maybe it’s a course to learn and develop a skill, such as a writing class. There comes a point when you receive some feedback on your work from the teacher or the other students. It can be a grade you receive or some constructive feedback to help you improve what you’re learning. 

How you take in this information can make a difference as to where your thoughts go. For the sake of this example, let’s assume it feels critical to you, and you find your thoughts saying things like, “See, I’ll never be a good writer. It’s just hopeless. I might as well give up on this dream now.” 

Your perception makes a difference in how you are feeling, and you may be overgeneralizing the feedback you received. But really, all the teacher did was let you know how you could improve — they didn’t say you are a bad writer — you just interpreted it that way.

When it comes to spotting overgeneralization, notice if you are using the words “never” or “always.” Then try reframing the situation by asking yourself, “Are these thoughts really true?” Instead, is it possible for you to use the feedback as inspiration to help you improve?

3. Mindreading — you assume you know what others are thinking or how they are feeling

Mindreading can be especially tricky for us introverts, as we are often intuitive and find it important to understand from someone else’s perspective what they may be experiencing.  

But there’s a difference in making assumptions and going down a rumination spiral as compared to asking clarifying questions to see if your assumption is accurate.

For example, Ben is usually punctual to work, but he was running 10 minutes late this morning. As he walked to his work station, he passed his boss, who was normally friendly toward him. But, this morning, his boss didn’t acknowledge him at all. Ben began to think, “Ugh, why is he being so cold to me this morning? I just know he’s really angry with me for being late.”

But there could be 101 reasons why the boss didn’t appear to be happy — and none of them may be about Ben. Perhaps the boss got a flat tire on the way to work. Perhaps a client just canceled a meeting. Or perhaps he just got scolded by his boss.

In this situation, it would be helpful for Ben to look at the story he was creating about what he observed. In reality, there are no facts to support that his boss was angry with him. It’s important to remember this when you find yourself mindreading.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.

4. “Should”-isms — thinking you “should” have done this or that 

Have you ever had a case of the “shoulds”? You “should have” done this, you “should not have” done that? As introverts, we tend to spend a lot of time in our heads, so the more you focus on the “shoulds,” the more you will experience ruminating thoughts!

For example, Monica has been hoping to make some new friends and decided to go to a social event to do so. This was a big step — as an introvert, Monica has found it takes a lot of energy to put herself out there. She was having some enjoyable conversations, but they didn’t lead to making future plans with people, as she’d hoped. 

When she returned home, she spent some time reflecting on the evening, as introverts often do, and she found herself being rather hard on herself. Yep, she went into an overthinking spiral. “I should have suggested getting together for coffee,” she thought. “I should have been funnier,” she went on… “I should have talked to more people…”

These should-isms will take you down the rumination trail, and when this happens, you tend to get focused on where you believe you failed in some way. Try reframing your thoughts by telling yourself, “I really wish I would have asked her to meet for coffee. I would like to make sure to ask to meet for coffee the next time something like this happens.” 

You could “should” yourself endlessly, but you can probably see how it’s not productive. In reality, perhaps the people Monica talked to were just as timid about initiating plans as she was!

You can’t change the past, but rather than being so hard on yourself, it can be helpful to use the experience as information on how you’d like to do something differently in the future.

5. Labeling — when you label yourself (or others) as a certain trait, usually a negative one

Labeling is when you label yourself (or others) as a single trait, which is often negative in nature. The negative connotation is what leads to overthinking.

For instance, Frank’s boss asked him to give a presentation. He spent a lot of time doing research and was feeling excited about the presentation. Two days beforehand, Frank’s boss let him know it would be moving from an in-person presentation to one that would be done virtually, over Zoom, and they were expecting 500 people to be attending. 

This caused Frank’s anxiety to spike. 500 people?!  

Although he was feeling enthused about giving the presentation, as an introvert, he was still a bit (or a lot!) nervous. Now he realized he needed to figure out how to lead a Zoom conference call on top of the presentation.  

The day of his presentation, he felt so nervous that he stumbled over some of his words. He became overly focused on his mistakes and kept labeling himself as “so incompetent.”

Frank was quite tough on himself. In this case, it would be helpful for Frank to ask, “Was I really incompetent — or was I nervous and doing the best I could?” It can be hard when you are putting pressure on yourself to show up in a particular way, but labeling yourself isn’t helpful or compassionate.

Plus, those watching probably barely noticed Frank’s stumbling and focused on the content of the presentation instead. That, too, is why labeling can be a dangerous path to take.

You Can Challenge — And Change — Your Thoughts 

Do any of these cognitive distortions feel familiar? Maybe you have experienced them or know someone who has.

They all have one thing in common: They are based on thoughts… and you can challenge these thoughts. Just because they are something that may automatically pop into your head does not necessarily mean that they are true.

A thought intervention that I recommend to my clients is to pause and ask yourself, “What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation?” This is also a question I ask myself, which I have found helps slow down that train! It’s easiest when you can ask this question as soon as you notice the overthinking spiral happening. 

You then have an opportunity to evaluate your thoughts and assumptions. Ask yourself if there is truth to the cognitive distortion — and if there are other possible ways to look at it. Keep these points in mind:

  • Take some time to notice when you may be experiencing some cognitive distortions. I have a hunch they will likely be accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling, such as anxiety, shame, guilt, regret, anger, embarrassment, or sadness. 
  • Look more closely at the facts — instead of your assumptions — about the situation. 
  • Ask yourself what the story is that you’re telling yourself. Also ask whether there’s an alternative way to look at the situation as you work to reframe it. 

Remember, catching the cognitive distortions in action is key — that way, you can reroute your thinking sooner and not get trapped in an overthinking loop.

You might like:

This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.