Overthinking for Musicians

January 5, 2019

Over thinking for musicians: What to do, and what not to do.

Do you find that you simply can’t be satisfied with your performance, no matter how hard you work? Are you constantly obsessing over your deficiencies? Do you get overwhelmed easily while practicing? Is "overthinking" inhibiting your ability to be efficient and productive?

If so, you are probably wondering how to stop overthinking, once and for all.

In this article, I will give several tips for musicians on how to deal with overthinking.

Let me begin this by saying that many who know me would question my qualifications for writing an article on how to stop overthinking. After all, I am known as a prolific overthinker. However, I claim that this does qualify me to express an opinion on this topic. So, the very fact that this article managed to come into existence should be proof that I know something. And if I can do it, you can too.

Problems caused by overthinking

That said, you probably have a sense that overthinking is causing some problems for you. If you pay close attention to what is happening, you may notice the following dangers of overthinking:

  • It uses up your time. You only have 24 hours in each day. Do you want to spend that time doing what you want to do, or listening to your mind? Maybe some of both are useful, but it would be great to decide for yourself.
  • It distracts you from your goals and values. The mind lies to you. For example, you start an activity for one reason, and then suddenly you find yourself pursuing something else entirely.
  • It can throw you into loops. Often, the result of overthinking is that you might cause further problems for yourself. For example, if you are overly cautious, you might avoid getting something done, and thus fail at a task. Consequently, you might become even more cautious in the future, thereby leading to more failure.

And now, the tips:

1. Give self-compassion a try

Many people will tell you it is bad to be an overthinker. Indeed, you may have been harshly criticized for it in the past. However, I invite you to consider the idea that perhaps your overthinking is simply inevitable. We all think too much.

Remember that it was learned for a reason. Your mind thinks that it is useful for you (and perhaps it is). Instead of blaming yourself for doing something bad, consider that overthinking is an attempt at doing something good.

What is overthinking, anyway? It is important to remember that rather than being simply a “mental barrier”, thinking is a behavior that is meant to serve you. For example, you may have learned it to:

  • Protect yourself from danger.
  • Ensure that you consider every possibility in a situation.
  • Remind yourself not to make a mistake you made last time.
  • Prevent yourself from getting too far into a situation without adequate preparation.

People who identify as overthinkers have something in common: they are suffering. Try to see this. When you suspect the mind is hiding your suffering from you, try to actively look for it. When you find it, rather than stuffing it back down, try to hold it with self-compassion. This is nothing more than the wish for the suffering to go away. You don’t have to do anything about it. This will give you a more balanced perspective on why you do what you do.

Tips for self-compassion:

If you can, notice how the thinking is your mind’s attempt at distracting you from the suffering, or promising that the suffering will disappear if you only do that one thing it’s telling you to do.

For example:

  • If you are thinking so much that it is preventing you from sight-reading music fluently: notice how you might be feeling a sense of urgency to play the music correctly RIGHT NOW. What does this urgency feel like? It’s probably not very pleasant. However, instead of letting you feel this urgency, the mind is distracting you with “Sight-reading is too difficult”.
  • If you are obsessing over a mistake you just made, and are worried that it is about to lead to a memory slip: notice how you might be feeling a sense of embarrassment or shame over having made the mistake. Again, instead of letting you feel these difficult emotions, the mind is trying to distract you with “Don’t mess up again!”

2. Notice when you are thinking

Your thoughts are passing in and out of your head like clouds in the sky. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself. For example, perhaps you are thinking "I think too much." To you, this isn’t a “thought”, it’s reality.

However, it’s not reality. It’s a thought. You can see this. Notice how you have the thought. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s false. But, it’s still a thought. And, you are observing that thought. So, the thought isn’t “you”.

The act of thinking itself can be noticed. You can notice what it feels like to think (overthink?), independently of the content of your thoughts. Perhaps you feel it somewhere in your body, or somewhere in space. When you practice noticing thinking, you will become more aware of your thoughts, and your responses to them.

Tips for noticing when you are thinking:

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), seeing thoughts as thoughts is known as defusion. There are a variety of defusion techniques, and it is worthwhile to play around with a bunch to see what works for you. For example, you might try:

  • Writing down your thoughts.
  • Speaking them out loud.
  • Imagine them as a television or radio playing in the background.

3. Allow your thoughts to exist

Your thinking is a result of your past. That is, you think the way you do because of what happened to you. In other words, your prior experiences have shaped who you are. Despite your best efforts, there’s not much you can do about it at this point. Your thoughts are the result of conditioning. They are not merely something that you choose.

Remember that your thoughts are there to serve you. In general, this is what the mind does. Its goal is to protect you by formulating and solving problems, in response to suffering.

Our culture will teach you that you should actively try to change your thinking. However, attempting to block out negative thoughts is probably futile. Surprisingly, ironic process theory states that actively trying to suppress a thought will make it stronger.

That said, it is worth practicing looking at situations from multiple perspectives. Just be aware that you cannot simply “choose” which perspective you will see a problem from, especially when it is an emotionally-charged situation.

Tips for allowing your thoughts to exist:

Give yourself permission to think. Schedule it on your calendar, if you need to. 

Also, permit yourself to be frustrated with your thinking.

4. Observe physical sensations

Thinking is just one part of your experience. Remember that you still have a body in physical space. So, try paying attention to what your body is feeling. Thinking has a weird way of pulling us out of the present moment and into an imaginary reality inside your head. Observing physical sensations can help to put your thoughts into context.

Tips for observing physical sensations:

Remind yourself that you have a physical body. Go for a walk, do yoga, or simply focus on the sensations of your breathing. Don't try to make the thinking stop, but instead try to pull some of your physical experience into the mix.

5. Get to know your thoughts

Your thoughts are not as original as you think they are. You have likely thought them many times before (that is why you learned to think the way you do…it worked at some point in the past).

Since these thoughts are playing on repeat, it might be worthwhile to get to know them. 

Tips for getting to know your thoughts:

Try writing down some of your thoughts. Give them names and personalities. For example:

  • Fred is the guy who keeps saying “don’t screw up!”.
  • Bob is the guy who keeps saying “keep practicing, you’re almost good enough!”

Notice how each personality has an agenda:

  • Fred’s agenda is to help prevent me from screwing up.
  • Bob’s agenda is to encourage me.

How old are these thoughts?

6. Notice your behavior

Observe how you move away from things you don’t like. Notice how you move toward things you do like.

You learned to think as you do to help you do this. Paying attention to your physical behavior will shed light on your thinking, and it will help you to understand to what extent it is aiding you or hindering you.

Tips for noticing your behavior:

When you find yourself overthinking, pay attention to what you do next. Perhaps you try to reassure yourself. Or, maybe you try to push the thoughts out of your mind by distracting yourself with food, for example.

Do those behaviors help you, or hurt you? Are they successful in accomplishing what they are trying to accomplish?

Take a look at your own experience and see what it tells you.

7. Choose your values

In ACTvalues are fuel for motivation. They are ways of labeling what is really important to you.

We are often motivated by things that, upon further inspection, aren’t super-important to us. For example, you may find that your desire to do well in a recital is more a result of your fear of displeasing your teacher than it is due to an intrinsic desire to perform.

There is no judgment from me either way. Your desires are based on your unique history and make-up. What is important is that you choose the values that are important to you.

Tips for choosing values:

If you notice that you are overthinking, ask yourself “what is important to me right now?” Alternatively, you might ask “what would the person I want to be act in this situation?” This may clarify some of your options in the situation, and give your mind a chance to quiet down a bit.

Do you have to stop overthinking?

We are also taught to believe that if we have a negative thought process, we must change it,, to lead happier lives. This just isn’t true.

You can watch your thoughts without buying into them (defusion). It’s about what you do, not what you think.

Don’t believe everything you think.

Your turn

Have you found any other strategies to be helpful when dealing with overthinking? If so, I'd like to hear about them. Leave a comment below and let me know.

About the author

Michael Korman has played the piano in opera productions and recitals, as well as directing music at a church and coaching classical singers. He draws upon his experiences with meditation and mindfulness to inform his views on music. In addition to music, Michael also holds degrees in computer science. When he's not playing the piano or meditating, he might be practicing drawing or calligraphy.

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