Superheroes are a subject on which I don’t speak with great authority, but living in twenty-first century America has given me at least a passing familiarity with the subject. So it’s occurred to me that these stories of people learning to manage their unusual powers could easily have been written by those people we call gifted to express their real life struggles, even if those real powers don’t lend themselves to flashy special effects.
For many of us, overthinking is one such troublesome ability. It springs from that wellspring of energy known as overexcitability (OE), one flavor of which is an intellectual intensity that cranks up the torque on our brains. Intellectual OE compels us to absorb oodles and oodles of data, mush it all up into proto-ideas, break those back down into notional chunks, and then let the fragments careen freely, colliding with and gloming on to the residue of ideas past. And I emphasize the compulsion and the careening. Perhaps it sounds impressive, but there are downsides to a brain with a mind of its own.
For instance, when I was a kid, my mental tangents got me picked on. In one poignant memory, two of my friends in the gifted class clued me in to the fact that I often went off on long tangents—and, moreover, that this was annoying. While this self-knowledge made me a better conversationalist, it’s also fueled my introversion, for fear of boring people.
While reading Miraca U. M. Gross’s longitudinal study of gifted children, I came across a letter written by one of the kids describing his trip to the emergency room. It was oozing with such details as seemed important to him, but that, as Gross recognized, would surely bore other kids. That part got me choked up. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I thought I was just weird.
As an adult, though I understand why people get impatient with me when I pour out every relevant-to-me-superfluous-to-others detail or pursue every conversational tangent, I consider anyone who lets me do so a true friend. And if someone will get on board that train of thought with me? Oh! That is a kindred spirit whose very presence creates the safest of spaces.
So it occurs to me that, just as many of us conversant in the subject don’t like the term overexcitability (which is itself a mistranslation from Dabrowski’s Polish original, which was closer to super-stimulability), perhaps the word overthinking is similarly flawed.
Maybe it’s superthinking. Maybe it’s a good thing!
Now, it’s definitely true that overthinking has caused me some challenges. (Hey, so would being able zap electricity from your fingers.) And yet, without a brain that tends toward overthinking, most of my creative work would not have been possible. In other words, overthinking fueled my most meaningful contributions to others and greatest experiences of personal fulfillment.
Here’s a fun fact about the blog you’re reading: right now, I have
45 46 drafts (a new one emerged in between drafts of this piece) sitting in the WordPress content management system in various stages of completion.
See, my writing process begins with a stimulus. It’s often a book, though it might be an activist meeting or a current event or something happenstance. If it doesn’t start off with a book, a related book often appears as step 1b. (This virtuous cycle of books has led to small piles of books around the apartment, but I endeavor to keep them under control.)
The best time to read these books is weekend mornings as soon as I get up. Usually I have a cup of tea. (Coffee is dangerous because it makes me really twitchy and jittery, though on rare occasions, that’s an acceptable price to pay for speeding up thoughts.) I read and I think and I read more and I think more and eventually I find myself doing more thinking than reading. Connections to other books and topics bubble up with increasing speed. (On that note, all the topics I write about here on this blog are, to my mind, intricately related, even though the search engine optimization experts—and perhaps some of you readers—would tell me that that’s not how it looks from the outside.)
By about ten o’clock, I am ready to start doing what Max (who is one of those patient kindred spirits I referred to earlier) describes as “whackety-whack-whack” at the keyboard. Out pours content! But it comes out in multiple threads. And part of what makes this exhilarating is the experience of braiding those threads together. I keep in mind, however, that readers’ time is a precious resource, and that too many digressions will lose them. And so some of the threads get cut out—but not thrown away. No, of course not! They get pasted into new WordPress posts, ready for weaving in with a future morning’s musings. And that’s why I have
45 46 drafts saved in various stages of completion.
And here’s the thing: some of the most interesting posts—and the ones that I hope are the beginning of in-depth threads that are my best chance at producing something of lasting value—are the ones that spin off of something else that I didn’t mean to write about. They interest me because they make a connection that wasn’t obvious before I sat down and thought hard about it. (You as a reader can decide whether there’s value there for you; I’m speaking only about personal fulfillment, which is what justifies all those whackety-whack-whack mornings.)
So when it’s fueling creativity, superthinking is great. When it’s fueling worry, however, overthinking feels like the better label. Those with imaginational OE know that the ability to spontaneously envision all the myriad ways that a small problem could turn into a huge disaster is no blessing. Anticipating a problem can, of course, enable us to prevent it, but it can be hard to strike the balance of worrying just enough and not a drop more. But it’s back to superthinking when it helps us envision how things could be different—and better! (I wonder how many with visionary intelligence have a tendency toward overthinking. My bet is that the number is high.) In the end, super/overthinking fuels both fear and hope. Would I give up the hope to escape the fear? Would I have skipped the creativity if it could also have spared me some social awkwardness?
No. That would mean being someone else. That wouldn’t be me. And I’m happy being me.
It’s also true that when there’s an acute need—an urgent need for a decision or result—overthinking poses a different sort of problem. I’ve brushed past that here because with practice, I’ve largely learned to overcome this, even though it will probably never feel comfortable. For instance, when I recently had the opportunity to write for a formal publication, the deadline afforded me only 48 hours to write each segment—which was effectively only six hours because I had to work 9-5 on something else each day. There’s no time for unrestrained overthinking when you’re on a tight deadline. So my manner of thought added to the challenge, but school and work deadlines have helped me develop this skill. The trick is that you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
So in my experience, overthinking becomes superthinking when you find both kindred spirits and time. When you have those things, you don’t hold back, and you can use your particular brain in the way it’s wired to be used.
This points back to the chronic scarcity of time in our lives as a root problem. While deadlines are valuable for teaching us versatility and efficiency, most of us have no shortage of opportunities there. Lack of time, on the other hand, makes it difficult for overthinkers to hone their powers and become superthinkers. And it certainly makes it harder for kindred spirits to find each other.
Yes, time and intimacy are luxuries to too many. I don’t have any advice for how you should find it if you don’t have it; I think much of that guidance is just a Band-Aid on a larger systemic problem. That’s a big part of why I’m a socialist who believes in universal basic income and/or a shorter work week. Of course, as Marx himself noted, even when we achieve a socialist utopia, there will still be struggles in life. Kids will still pick on classmates who make boring digressions.
Oops, sorry. I’m writing about giftedness now, not socialism. I’ve got to stay on topic, right?
Well, maybe not. But this post has gotten pretty long, so I’ll dump that digression that into draft #47 and squeak in under my self-imposed 1,500 word limit at 1,499 words.
This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
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