I never heard the phrase “analysis paralysis” until I was 19. When it was explained to me, I thought, “Wait, you mean my problem that I’ve been trying to figure out for so many years actually has a name?!”
I’m an over-thinker. I’ve come to see overthinking as one of my strengths (I wouldn’t be a writer without it). But for the longest time I saw overthinking as a weakness, and in some situations it can be. It’s a weakness when I become so consumed with weighing the pros and cons of a decision that I become incapable of making a decision. That’s analysis paralysis.
Here’s a simple example. When I was 12 years old, I attended a special class at church for young women ages 12-18. One day an older girl named Brittany (who I admired tremendously), approached me at the beginning of class and asked me if I would be willing to play the piano for the opening song. I thought to myself, “I can say yes or I can say no. If I say yes, then I’ll have to play, and I’ll probably make mistakes and get embarrassed and cry when I get home. But if I say no, then Brittany will wonder why I’m not willing to share my talents or she’ll think I don’t want to help her. So what’s it going to be? Yes or no? Yes or no? Yes or no . . .?”
If you’ve ever seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof, compare this moment to those moments when time freezes while Tevye weighs the different options on one hand and then on the other hand. Except that in my case, time didn’t freeze. Brittany was still standing there waiting for my reply. But I was so undecided about what would be the best thing to say that I couldn’t get a single word out. To break the awkward silence, Brittany finally said, “Uh, okay, well, if you want to think it over . . .” and she moved on.
When I became a missionary seven years later, my analysis paralysis resurfaced, especially when I teamed up with other missionaries to teach lessons. What made it worse was that I was trying to learn Spanish. Not only did I have to decide what to say at a moment’s notice, but I also had to translate it. By the time I finally figured out what to say, either my missionary companion had already jumped in to avoid an awkward pause or else the person we were teaching had moved on to a different tangent.
A frustrated mission companion said to me, “Don’t think about what to say next. Think about what needs to HAPPEN next!”
It was months before I realized just how profound this statement was.
Don’t think about what to say next. Think about what needs to happen next.
In a game of soccer, it’s like the difference between thinking about how to kick the ball in a perfect straight line as hard as you can versus thinking about where the goal is and how to get the ball closer to it. After all, you might have the perfect kick, but you might send the ball in the wrong direction, or overshoot the goal. But when your focus is on the goal, then you might have a series of short and imperfect kicks, but you score in the end.
Thus, in conversation, rather than thinking, “How can I say the perfect response or clever comeback to that remark?” I think instead, “The attention needs to be redirected to the task at hand,” or “This person needs to understand how our lesson applies to them,” or “This person needs to feel valued and validated,” or “This person needs to know that I empathize and truly care,” or “This room needs a fun and accepting atmosphere.”
If I can shift my focus, then suddenly I naturally know what to say. And when I word things imperfectly, it’s no longer a big deal because people can feel what I mean.
Overcoming analysis paralysis has more to do with changing how we feel than changing how we think or speak. When we plan what to say, it’s because we want to be perceived in a certain way. But if we BECOME the person who we want to be perceived as, then we don’t have to worry about putting on a facade. Monitoring and filtering everything that we say, in order to say the perfect thing, takes so much concentration that we can’t be ourselves.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” thing to say. There’s only a perfect way to feel. And when the person you’re talking to picks up on that feeling then they’ll understand your meaning, whether you use the right words or not. And if people still misunderstand you, then that’s because of how they’re feeling. On the flip side, if you’re not feeling joy, you’re bound to misunderstand other people. Learning to feel joy on a regular basis is the only way to be in touch with reality.
In my early teens, I often thought to myself, “Why don’t I know how to talk?” But my focus was misdirected to the wrong problem. I knew how to talk. I just didn’t know how to feel. In the incident with Brittany, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say. The problem was that I was ashamed of who I was.
The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say. The problem was that I was ashamed of who I was.
I didn’t have a heart of joy. What’s more, I hadn’t learned yet how to find and feel joy in advance. Instead of this perspective: “If I can start saying the right thing, then I’ll feel more joy.” I needed to have this perspective: “If I can feel more joy, then I’ll start to say the right thing.”
Can joy proceed a reason to feel joy? Well . . . Yes! First of all, you CAN rejoice in something that hasn’t happened yet. (That’s why the days leading up to Christmas can be as magical as Christmas itself.) If you truly believe people can change, then rejoice that you don’t have to be stuck forever with who you are now. Secondly, you can find other things to have joy in. If there’s nothing in your own life to have joy in (which I highly doubt, although it’s possible) then you can have joy in someone else’s life. Transform jealousy to celebration. Rejoice in the success of other and their success becomes your own.
In the beginning, I may have envied Brittany for her confidence and popularity. But after a year or so, I ended up writing her a 5-page letter to thank her for all she’d done for me, and I listed all the wonderful qualities I admired about her and explained that she was my role model. I still didn’t know what to say to her in person, but once she knew how I felt about her she made a point to greet me with a hug whenever I arrived for church activities. Those hugs gave me more joyful feelings. Eventually, joyful feelings created joyful words. And then when people would ask me to play the piano, I would laugh and say, “Well, I can give it my best shot!”