The torn identity

3 Things to Do When You Overthink Everything and Can’t Make Decisions

It’s called analysis paralysis, and here’s how you can overcome it.
Cartoon of person confused with thought bubble options
Valery/Adobe Stock

Every day, you make thousands of decisions—whether you realize it or not. Some have little bearing on your future, like choosing between chicken or carnitas at Chipotle or debating whether you’ll take a bus or Uber back home. Other choices—like starting a small business for your crafty hobby, say, or leaving your cozy hometown and moving across the country—may require a serious pros and cons list.

Weighing so many options and pondering all the potential outcomes can be extremely stressful, especially for those of us who overcomplicate even the simple things in life (like figuring out the best route for a road trip or how much to tip your waiter). And the anxiety doesn’t always stop there: Even after you finally choose, you still might be exhausted and drained from all that contemplation, Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EdM, therapist and founder of career consulting firm Forward in Heels Coaching Practice, tells SELF.

There are plenty of reasons why someone might overthink nearly everything they say and do, but “analysis paralysis,” as it’s casually called, is usually a symptom of perfectionism, Maenpaa says. “People often find themselves procrastinating and overanalyzing decisions, not because they don’t know what they want, but because they believe they have to make the absolute perfect choice or else they shouldn’t do anything at all.” As a result, “decision paralysis” (another name for this frustrating predicament) can look like being late for work because you couldn’t pick an outfit, or maybe missing out on a vacation because you took too long to actually book the flight and hotel.

No matter how much googling and ruminating you do, though, you’ll probably never know for sure what the single “right” choice is because (as you’ll see momentarily) there often isn’t one. Plus, the fear of messing up can not only stress you out but can also keep you stuck. So the next time you’re tangled up in what-ifs, keep these three tips in mind to overcome analysis paralysis and determine the best course of action—without so much stress and anxiety.

Break down big decisions into smaller steps.

We’re not talking about choices like which shampoo to buy or what book to read. When it comes to higher-stakes matters, such as choosing your college major or deciding if it’s time to break up with your partner, figuring out what to do can be all the more daunting. If the possibility of picking the “wrong” path for your future is freaking you out, Maenpaa suggests breaking the decision down into simpler, smaller, and less intimidating parts. “Looking at the issue in terms of more manageable and achievable steps can help reduce overwhelm,” she explains.

So, for example, don’t just analyze your romantic relationship from the perspective of breaking up versus staying together (which really isn’t so simple). Instead, start with whether or not your partner makes you happy, for instance, or if the specific argument you’re having is an unsolvable dealbreaker. And for the college major example, the best fit might become clearer if you determine your career goals first, or start by comparing the difficulty (and enjoyability) of different courses.

Ask a friend for a gut check.

We overanalyzers can get so far into our own heads that we become consumed by an unrealistic expectation to find the perfect therapist to “fix” us, say, or the most bang-for-your-buck pair of jeans—to the point where we waste way too much time and energy. When you’re between two options, Maenpaa recommends asking a friend or family member for their opinion. This strategy can help chronically indecisive folks get to an answer ASAP, she says.

Even for highly personal decisions, like getting married or adopting a pet, a third party who knows you can offer fresh problem-solving viewpoints to help you feel a little less stuck, Maenpaa says. Instead of asking them for the “right” answer though (“What should I do?” “Help me decide!”), inquire about their perspective. That way, you might discover a new way of looking at the situation—from your married coworker who can share the ups and downs of their experience, say, or your “cat lady” BFF who has plenty of first-time pet parent advice —without putting the decision-making burden on them.

Whomever you decide to consult, just make sure you don’t call them up every single time you’re dealing with uncertainty. Repeatedly asking for advice can be overwhelming (and c’mon, kind of annoying) for your loved one, and let’s face it: You’re going to need to make some life decisions on your own. That’s why it’s important to gain confidence in the process, which brings us to our last and most important pointer:

Understand that there really are no “perfect” choices in life.

No, this doesn’t mean that you should make every decision lightly, or that you’ll never make a choice you kind of wish you hadn’t. But rather than putting a ton of pressure on yourself to get it right —and then beating yourself up if you fall short—give yourself some grace.

“We assign so much outsized importance to everyday decisions, as if each and every one will alter the trajectory of our lives, or that picking the ‘incorrect’ option will make us a failure,” Maenpaa says. More often than not, however, one choice probably won’t mess up life as you knew it.

Showing some self-kindness and compassion is easier said than done, of course. That’s why Maenpaa suggests asking yourself: What’s the worst that could really happen? And before you catastrophize about all the what-ifs, seriously stop and consider the logical, long-term consequences. So what if you pick a meh show on Netflix and end up retreating back to that feel-good sitcom you’ve already watched three times through? Is it the end of the world if your manager thinks your question is stupid? (Hint: They probably won’t.) Even with tougher choices, like accepting a job offer or relocating to a new city, you can always quit or move again if the outcome isn’t what you hoped for. By holding yourself to impossible standards of perfection, out of fear that you’ll fail or be judged, you’re only holding yourself back from growing as a person, Maenpaa adds.

Regardless of your overanalyzing, you’re going to make a ton of decisions in life—some good, some not exactly ideal. You’ll probably date the wrong people, no matter how much you vet each suitor, and order the wrong entrée, even after scouring every online review. Chances are, you’ll regret at least one impulsive purchase and agonize over a “dumb” thing or two you said. But taking risks is a part of living, and making any choice is better than staying stuck, Maenpaa says. Consider, too, that what you might call the “wrong” choice isn’t necessarily bad in the long run—especially if it’s something you can learn from—and it’s almost never worth stressing about.