When people define psychology, they may emphasise that it involves analysing ourself and others. Exploring reasons and explanations behind thoughts, behaviours and emotions can be a big part of therapy. Some therapy types place such importance on the task that it is included in the name (e.g. psychoanalysis). Famous psychoanalysis founder Freud is rumoured to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” suggesting that even he may have believed that too much analysing can be inappropriate.
Considering a different viewpoint, some therapies view analysing as part of the problem. For example, Acceptance Commitment Therapy posits that our ability to put language to our experience can often lead us to mental pain (Luoma, Hayes & Walser, 2007). Cognitive Behaviour Therapy also highlights the role that our interpretations or analysis can have on our emotions and behaviour.
So, when is it useful to analyse yourself and others, and what is the alternative?
Is it the time to analyse?
Explanations for an event or emotion are rarely as simple as being ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Thus, the interpretation is only as reliable as the person making this assumption. When we are emotional our analysis of other people’s behaviour is likely to be riddled with errors in thinking. This is also true if we analyse ourself when we are struggling to cope.
When we are highly emotional, we go into fight, flight or freeze mode, where the survival part of our brain is activated. For us to explore and understand ourselves and others we need to be able to use our frontal lobes (which are involved in decision making and higher order thinking). Our ability to access this mode of thinking when we are in survival mode is impaired. Dr Dan Seigel, a clinical professor of psychiatry, gives us a useful model of the parts of the brain that may aid understanding of these concepts.
When we are emotional, we won’t be able to logically and calmly analyse. What we need to do in these times if first down regulate our physiological response. Controlled breathing is an especially useful way to do this.
Is analysing useful?
Recognising and understanding our emotions is part of good mental health. Likewise, being able to analyse social behaviour and situations is paramount for good interpersonal skills. For this reason, it is easy to think that introspection is a healthy and useful activity. Some level of inward thinking is adaptive, however over-analysis, or rumination, is associated with poor mental health.
So how do you know if you’re engaging in useful thinking, or if you’ve crossed the line into rumination? Some signs are listed below:
Watch how you are feeling
A healthy level of introspection should not lead to extreme emotions. Realising that you are feeling a particular emotion (e.g. anger, sadness, feeling overwhelmed) is not necessarily enjoyable, but it should come with some sense of insight or relief. Rumination, on the other hand, tends to fuel painful emotions and foster a link where overthinking increases distress which then prompts further thought.
For example, a healthy level of thinking and meaning-making is shown in the following example.
Kate notices that her muscles feel tighter than normal and that she is feeling on edge. She registers this, reflects on why this might be the case, and comes to the realisation that the work stress she’s been having is starting to get on top of her.
In this example Kate feels a sense of understanding about her emotions and has a useful piece of information about herself. Rumination may look more like the following example:
Kate notices that her muscles feel tighter than normal and that she is feeling on edge. She wonders why this is and thinks about all of her work stress. She then wonders why she can’t cope and what she will do if she loses her job. She starts to feel even more tense and her breathing quickens.
In this scenario Kate continues her analysis beyond the emotion she is feeling to questioning her own competence and then on to exploring hypothetical feared situations. Her over-analysis prompts her to feel worse, and also impairs healthy coping, which flows onto our next point.
Is analysing helping you cope?
In our first example Kate knows what the problem is and could start brainstorming about ways to reduce stress. This type of thinking (problem-solving) is highly useful, though it must be followed by a sense of action to be adaptive. Simply mulling over all possible solutions is likely to make Kate feel overwhelmed, and if this occurs, she could take a break and think about this at another time.
In our second example, Kate’s analysis has turned on herself, putting the blame on her competence levels. Explaining negative events in a way where the cause of the problem is enduring and insurmountable will make you feel worse, as will self-blame. People experiencing depression tend to have a bias to this explanatory style, which only leads to feelings of helplessness and low mood (Seligman, Abramson, Semmel & von Baeyer, 1979). Thus, if thinking about a topic is making you feel less capable, then that thought pattern is likely unhelpful.
If you notice you have a tendency to explain events in a pessimistic way then try discussing them out loud. Many people find voicing their thoughts helps to order them and view them in a more realistic way. Plus, others may be able to help correct errors in your thinking.
Is it necessary to analyse?
Wanting to know why you are feeling a particular emotion is normal. In a world where we focus on causes and want facts, it can be easy to hold this standard to emotions. However, most people can remember a time where they had difficulty understanding what they were feeling and why.
Emotions can feel uncontrollable at times, and wanting to know the why behind a feeling can be an attempt to gain power or feel safe. But what happens if we can’t understand what we’re feeling and the underlying reason? This can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress. We are also telling ourself that certain emotional experiences are not ok or are dangerous.
Not understanding every emotion you have is part of the human experience. You can attempt to understand emotions, but if you cannot, then it can be useful to accept that feeling and let it be. You don’t have to enjoy how you’re feeling, but reassuring yourself that all emotions are part of life can help. Relaxation activities (e.g. breathing, muscle relaxation), and actions (e.g. enjoyable activities, distraction) can help change an emotion even if you cannot find the ‘cause.’ Regular emotional expression (telling others how you’re feeling or writing or drawing these emotions) can help you understand your inner world. Recognising that long periods of stress can produce sudden or intense emotions can also be useful.
In summary, we have explored how analysing our thoughts, feelings and situations can have both benefits and downfalls. Analysing ourself or others is best done when we are feeling calm, and it is better to regulate our fight or flight response before we attempt to think deeply.
You can pinpoint whether your thinking is useful by looking at how it is making you feel and act. Thinking that leads to improvement in mood and productive action is preferable. Lastly, we explored that we don’t always need to think things through at length. Sometimes it is better to just accept an emotion or situation as it is, or to try to change things through alternative means like relaxation strategies or different behaviour.
If you would like to further develop your ability to analyse yourself and others in a healthy way, please speak with one of our team today.
Please call us on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with one of our clinicians. Alternatively, send us an Appointment Request via our website and we’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time for you.
Author: Erica South, Psychologist at Young Minds Network.
Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond. The Guilford Press, New York
Lumoa, J. B., Hayes, S. C. & Walser, R. D. (2007). Learning ACT: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists. New Harbinger.
Seligman, M. E., Abramson, L. Y., Semmel, A., & von Baeyer, C. (1979). Depressive attributional style. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88(3), 242–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.88.3.242