Overthinking or Superthinking?

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.

Just an ordinary family grappling with the challenge of bizarre abilities.

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

16 thoughts on “Overthinking or Superthinking?

  1. This is such a wonderful view of overthinking. I really like your distinction between superthinking and overthinking, and how the depth and intensity of thinking deeply has so many positive attributes. Great ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Gail. It’s what came right away to mind when I saw the topic for the month, so I’m delighted to see that it’s resonated!

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  2. Oh my goodness, I love this post so much! Another writer-of-many-drafts here… and I am looking forward to reading more of your posts! I love your superthinking! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, thank you, Emily! I’m delighted to hear that this struck a chord, and thank you for such kind words! I’ll try to live up to that standard in future posts. 🙂

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  3. Where was that picture with the rock formation taken? It looks a lot like the hills around where I live.

    I sometimes think my books are spreading like kipple and there are more of them than there were the day before. I love having several related thoughts at once and going on a learning binge. When you have books about power generation, spiritual enlightenment and Bolsheviks all open at the same time, that’s the good stuff. ‘The Thermodynamics of Enlightenment and Revolution’ – the book I would write if I was going to live forever.

    Requisites for a life of ease in the socialist utopia:
    a. Basic universal income.
    b. Five hour work day.
    c. Four day work week.
    d. The former bourgeoisie in chains. 🙂

    As a socialist with OEs, how do you keep a lid on it enough to be an effective activist? You’ve also made me want to read a comic about a socialist who gets superpowers and struggles with the temptations of adventurism and substitutionism. 😉

    “Kids will still pick on classmates who make boring digressions” – this dug into something that has been playing on my mind. Similar to you, I don’t know if I’m a natural introvert or if I just spent too many years surrounded by assholes. When I became a socialist I was largely doing it for the sake of others, but also because I thought it promised a world where I would have a place. Now I’m doubting if even an anarchist utopia would offer that. This question is a feature of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Disposessed: An Ambiguous Utopia’ and it seems more prominent each time I read it. (I have all the main utopian novels and consider it a major idictment of the imagination of humanity that they don’t even fill a single shelf.)

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    1. Oh, you remind me that I’ve been slacking on giving credit to these wonderful artists who have put their work out there for free. With a CC0 license, no attribution is required, but I still want to do so. This artist is from Aix-en-Provence: https://pixabay.com/en/users/lecreusois-25340/

      The Thermodynamics of Enlightenment and Revolution? I’d read that! And how funny that you bring up LeGuin’s The Disposessed, because a member of our local DSA chapter who mentioned when I posted my G-Word blog that he also was in a GT class then started talking about the overlap of these same two subjects and he ended up giving me a used copy of the book, which I just read over this past Christmas. I thought it was fantastic. And I think Shevek’s problem is indeed one that will be hard to escape; perhaps the key is to aim for utopia, but not for paradise? I’d just be happy if I didn’t have to keep going to do boring things with people who feel bored/intimidated by me. But indeed, what you bring up in your comment is a big part of why I think it’s perfectly logical to put socialism and giftedness in one blog and not worry that my topics are too disparate. I could say so much more on that that I’ll just save it for future blog posts. (SO MANY POSTS. Today I started thinking about how rather than having ADHD, many of us have OASH – the Order of Attention Surfeit and Hyperactivity. (What’s the opposite of a disorder? An order? Well, why not put it at the front and make it a full-on honor, I figure!)

      How to be an activist with OE! Now there’s a post worth writing! Hmm, well, I’ll tell you, I definitely had to learn to repress overexcitability early on (you know the story about bleeding from the gums from Lucinda’s blog), and that actually has done even more to keep me from being the best activist I personally can be. Whereas when I realized that actually, unlike that nasty girl from Girl Scouts, people actually like me. It constantly boggles my mind to realize this…that there are interesting people out there, unlike those you’re stuck with in grade school! (And I also think there are a lot of gifted/creative/kindred-spirity people in socialist activism, even if they don’t realize this themselves.) So the work I’ve been doing in DSA has been stuff that makes use of OE — intellectual OE to memorize and give presentations and answer questions, as well as the psychomotor “talent” that apparently makes me a good presenter. (I move around on stage a lot.)

      That’s all off the top of my head. I could say something more (and better) with more thought, and it’s in line with my telling my DSA chapter that I want to make them the subject of my PhD thesis on Dabrowski if I ever get a PhD.

      Also, I would definitely read that comic.

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      1. “I’d just be happy if I didn’t have to keep going to do boring things with people who feel bored/intimidated by me” #SQUADGOALS 🙂

        Since you’re a fan of The Disposessed #MIRROR LIFE (I may just keep doing this every time there is some surreal similarity between us), you may like some other utopian books. My favourites are Ecotopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, The Fifth Sacred Thing and the Culture novels (getting lazy not referencing properly). Despite some political flaws, they provide some much needed inspiration. News From Nowhere, on the other hand, is so sappy it made me want to buy shares in Halliburton and cut down a tree. Do not read The Last Capitalist, it is one of the worst books ever written (and I say that as someone who has read Heinrich Wolfflin’s ‘Principles of Art History’).

        I was ranting about the difficulties of finding kindred spirits/fellow travellers over on Crushing Tall Poppies. I agree there seem to be quite a few of us involved with socialism (resisting urge to say cruel things about the right). Another place that seems like a safe harbour is the death positive movement. Basically everything on Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician flies the flag (my new term for people doing nothing to disguise their giftedness in public). Like the gifted community, it is overwhelmingly led by women.

        A story of flying the flag. One time in a garden centre my mum was walking towards me with a bunch of canes over her shoulder. I said “You look like a Roman lictor with your bundle of fascines!” (technically it should have been ‘fasces’ but I was remembering the military engineering version) She got it but nobody else payed any attention, except one old man who turned and looked at me with an expression I’ve come to recognise as “You’re like me…I’m not alone.”

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      2. Oh, thank you for the book recommendations! And I love the term “flies the flag.” Yeah, I guess I ought to be comfortable doing that. Odd that in a country only 60-some years removed from Joseph McCarthy, it’s easier to fly the Red Flag than the flag you’re talking about! (Which, by the way, we all did at the Climate March last weekend. The Red Flag, I mean. It was super inspiring to see!)

        I love the story about the old man’s recognition. I have had that experience before. One instance: a teacher in grad school getting excited about some unexpected comments I made. But sometimes it’s more subtle than that…and always powerful when it happens.

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  4. I love this, Jessie: “…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 your distinction between “over” and “super.”

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  5. Great thoughts! It really got me thinking about my own college experience. Though verbally I tend to run on and on, my school writing tended to be pretty concise – mostly because for me, I got the point right away so no detail was neccesary. In college when I had a teacher who said I needed to write more, he then said I was “rambling.” I realized that since it’s all superfluous information to me, I wasn’t quite sure what was relevant detail for anyone else. I still teeter between too much and not enough information in my writing. It’s definitely an ongoing process!

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    1. Thanks Aurora! I’d say it definitely depends on the context and the nature of the content. Sometimes, if someone just wants something short, I can give them something short and sweet. Bottom line: bam. There it is. Done. Especially when I’m writing for someone else and don’t have anything else to say myself! (Though usually I can come up with my own commentary if someone wants that, haha.) But when I’m pulling disparate ideas together, that’s when it gets to be an endless stream for me.

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  6. “In other words, overthinking fueled my most meaningful contributions to others and greatest experiences of personal fulfillment.” Yes! This. I love your take on overthinking.
    PS My “writing process” sounds a lot like yours… except I have 85 partial drafts and fragments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I figured I wouldn’t be alone in this! I’m up to 48 now, so I’m on an upward trajectory. You’re more experienced than me, so your experience gives weight to my hypothesis that eventually my blog sink will overflow. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to invest in a mop. 🙂

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