Picture this: a centipede gracefully gliding through the meadow, its numerous legs moving in perfect harmony. But suddenly, it stops as an unexpected thought arises in its once-peaceful mind, bringing it to a grinding halt—which leg should it move first? As it tries to decide, it finds no leg feels just right to be the first. Each attempt proves to be just as futile as the last until, finally, its legs become a tangled mess of misdirection, and the centipede wonders if it must be the worst centipede in the world.
This conundrum is known as the Centipede’s Dilemma—a name derived from an 1881 poem—and serves as a humorous metaphor for the hindrance that comes from overthinking. Most especially from overthinking the things that come naturally to us.
What is overthinking exactly? Merriam-Webster defines it as “to think too much about something: to put too much time into thinking about or analyzing something in a way that is more harmful than helpful.” Safe to say we’ve all been there – a seemingly straightforward decision or action step turns quickly into a mental labyrinth. Over time, it robs us of focus, productivity, growth, sleep, and even our confidence.
According to a recent study by Forbes, a whopping 73% of 25-35-year-olds chronically overthink, along with 52% of those 45 years old and above. That’s quite an extensive cohort of tangled centipedes! Understanding different ways that we overthink can help us get back in control of our minds, and there are a few ways this sneaky thought loop can grip our minds.
Rumination: an obsessive replaying of past events—typically ones involving failures or mistakes.
Hypervigilance: constantly looking out for threats or assessing for dangers or risks.
Imposter Syndrome: consistently questioning your abilities when there is no real evidence of incompetence.
Generalized worry: imagining things that could go wrong, repeating mistakes, or preparing for worst-case scenarios.
So many limiting thought patterns could fall under the umbrella of overthinking, but one thing they all have in common is that they’re rarely accurate. Think again about the Centipede in the midst of its pickle: it has stopped walking because it’s overthinking its ability to walk. That’s about the silliest thing possible, isn’t it? What if you could look at your own overthinking with the same kind of levity?
Overthinking not only clouds our judgment but can also hinder our ability to enjoy the present moment. The more we dwell on ourselves and our choices, the more convoluted they become, leading us down a rabbit hole of uncertainty and paralysis.
So, how can we begin to stop overthinking in its tracks?
One word: simplicity.
Embrace the beauty of spontaneity, and remember that not every decision requires meticulous planning. Life is a dance, and sometimes, it’s okay not to know every step in advance. Think of your most memorable moments. Just let a few pop into your mind right now. How much of that moment was planned or orchestrated by you? My guess is little to none.
Letting go of our preconceived notions and embracing the spontaneity of the present leads us out of the loop of overthinking and into the magic of life. Rather than obsessing over the “perfect” choice, relish the joy of the unexpected. For those of you who are already overthinking how you’ll let go of overthinking, here are a few tips:
Breathe and Ground. Take a moment to breathe deeply and ground yourself in the present. Mindful breathing can help calm the storm of thoughts swirling in your mind. Even just saying to yourself out loud, “I am overthinking right now,” can help you calm your thoughts.
Set Realistic Expectations. Understand that not every decision needs an exhaustive analysis. Allow yourself the freedom to make choices without demanding perfection.
Embrace Imperfection. Life is beautifully imperfect, and its imperfections often give way to the most exhilarating experiences. Embrace the small flaws and imperfections, knowing that they add character and uniqueness to your journey—and to you.
Laugh at Yourself! Humor is a powerful antidote to overthinking. Learn to laugh at the absurdity of the centipede moments in your life.
As we navigate the messy, awe-inspiring dance of life, let’s not get caught in the web of our own personal Centipede’s Dilemma. Embrace the simplicity, find joy and meaning in the unscripted, and allow yourself the freedom to enjoy the beauty of the present moment.