We’ve all been there, right? We can’t stop thinking about them. Listen to just about any love song and you’ll hear it again and again, a theme that repeats itself over and over on the radio. It might be someone we’re casually dating. It might be an ex. It might be a person we only had one date with.
Whatever the scenario, we just can’t stop thinking about them. In fact, we might even feel a little bit obsessed; it might start to affect how we sleep, eat, interact with others, and live our lives. And I don’t know about you, but for me, that is not a healthy way to be, feel, or act. So, what’s actually happening in our brains when we feel this way about someone? And how can we stop an unhealthy thought process so that we can move on with our lives and focus on ourselves instead?
Let’s set the scene. You meet someone on a dating app. You exchange some messages on the app, then phone numbers and texts, and then you start chatting on the phone. You finally meet up for drinks, and it’s an amazing date. You share a little kiss at the end, talk about what you might do next time. But then, a few days later, the text messages become rather flaky. While you started off the connection by texting constantly every day and talking on the phone a few times a week, now you’re lucky if they text you once a day. You can’t stop thinking about them, even though you know you barely know this person.
Let’s set another scene. Your partner broke up with you three months ago. You weren’t expecting it, but you’re trying to move on. Claiming they still want to be friends, your ex texts you occasionally and likes random Instagram stories of yours from time to time. Once, a few weeks ago, they came over to your house and you hooked up. You have no idea if they want to get back together with you; they tell you they don’t, but their actions seem to mean they do. You can’t stop thinking about them, even though you know exes are exes for a reason.
One more scene? OK! You’ve been in a “situationship” with someone for a few months now, meaning there are no clear boundaries, definitions, or commitments to one another. You see each other once a week or so, but you can sometimes go days without any contact, and they don’t want to introduce you to their friends or show any signs of PDA when you’re out. You’d like to take things to the next level – as in, be in an actual committed relationship with this person – but you feel nervous and scared to bring that up with them. You can’t stop thinking about them, even though you know that if they wanted more, they probably wouldn’t be so hot and cold.
What do all of these situations have in common?
When it comes to dating and romantic relationships, uncertainty is the kiss of death. Uncertainty – whether it’s that we’re uncertain how someone feels about us, uncertain whether we’ll see them again, or uncertain where the relationship is going or what the outcome may be – leads to anxiety, stress, and an unhealthy amount of overthinking.
Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve been there an embarrassing amount of times, in fact, and each of these scenarios is based on situations I’ve been in over the years (some more than once).
But before we go further, I want to clarify three things.
Firstly, this article is not discussing that “oh, we just started dating and everything is so amazing and I have butterflies every time I think of him and so does he and we’re so in love!” obsession, nor is it discussing having a crush on someone and thinking about them a lot because you’re excited. If you want to spend your days staring off into space while you sigh happily in the throes of true romance with a permanent smile on your face… great! That is a super fun and exciting place to be. This article does not discuss reciprocal and consistent love. This article talks about the opposite: unreciprocated feelings and/or inconsistencies in a relationship. They are two very different types of overthinking.
(Although if this is a very new relationship, just make sure there isn’t love bombing involved. I wrote an article called What is Love Bombing? Warning Signs and How to Avoid It if that helps.)
Secondly, you’re probably wondering about my credentials and why I’m qualified to write about dating and relationships. Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m nearly 40, single, am not a therapist, have never studied psychology other than one class during my undergrad degree, and my last relationship ended when my then-partner dumped me while I was pregnant with his child. Yep. I’m just a woman who has dated a lot, learned a lot, and done a shit-ton of therapy and a shit-ton of work on myself to understand why I have the tendency to get obsessive about relationships.
And that’s the thing. ANYONE can feel obsessive about a relationship, even those of us who have done the work and read the books and paid for the therapy. And if you take one thing away from this article, I want you to know that you are not alone and that you’re not “crazy” for feeling this way. It’s human nature to feel this way when we’re faced with uncertainties.
Third, if you do feel as though your overthinking is actually becoming obsessive and is truly hindering your quality of life, I urge you to seek out a therapist, counsellor, or someone trustworthy to talk to. There is no shame in therapy and no shame in asking for help. I wish that therapy could be affordable and accessible for all, because it’s so important for our mental wellbeing.
OK. So let’s go back to that feeling of uncertainty.
In scenario number one – new person – you’re left feeling confused and upset. You had weeks of messages and phone calls and a great date. What happened? Are they going to text me again?
In scenario number two – your ex – you’re also left feeling confused and upset. What’s going on? Does my ex want to get back together or not? Why are they so hot and cold with me?
In scenario number three – your situationship – you’re again left feeling confused and upset. Do they like me? Am I wasting my time? Sure, we hook up regularly, but do they just want to keep things casual, or do they actually want to date me?
In each of these scenarios, you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know what the other person is feeling or thinking. You don’t know how the situation will end. Uncertainty upon uncertainty upon uncertainty.
So what do you do? You create your own stories to fill in the gaps. You obsess over the little things, like someone watching an Instagram story or sending you a certain emoji. You fixate on what you can do, what you can say, how you can act, or what you can change so that this person will text you, call you, and want to be with you. And that’s when the overthinking starts to feel incredibly unhealthy, when it starts to feel all-consuming.
That’s when you start talking about them to your friends all the time (“Did I tell you about the time that they said…? Oh, I did? OK, well, let’s just analyze it one more time”), that’s when you start to feel like you can’t sleep because you’re thinking about them so much, that’s when you find yourself not focusing as well on work, school, hobbies, your social life, and more.
Maybe you find yourself checking your phone incessantly, waiting for them to text. Maybe you don’t feel like eating, even though you haven’t eaten all day. Maybe all of this even manifests physically so that you have a constant stomachache or you don’t want to get up off of the couch.
Part of overthinking is also a way we try to soothe our anxiety; if we play out every scenario in our brains, reality won’t seem as much of a shock when it happens. Because, deep down, we know that the way they’re treating us isn’t a good thing. That’s why when these kinds of unhealthy relationships inevitably come to an end, we always say things like, “I knew this was going to happen.”
Now here’s where I’m going to ask you a question that, for me, was a lightbulb moment.
Do you think about your best friend like this? What about a beloved family member or your favourite coworker or another constant person in your life? Do they make you feel this anxious, upset, and confused?
The answer is no. You most likely do not reserve this much mental time and energy for your friends, your mom, or your closest colleague. Why is that?
It’s because you know how that person feels about you. That relationship feels safe, secure, reciprocal, and consistent. You don’t have to worry that this person won’t text you or want to see you. When you love someone and you know they love you back, you don’t overthink a five-word text asking them how their day is going.
Again, it’s a matter of certain versus uncertain. We don’t endlessly wonder about the “certain” people in our lives. We only overthink the uncertain ones.
In fact, there have been many studies done on animals and humans alike as to why we feel this way. I wrote about this extensively in my article Hot and Cold: What is Intermittent Reinforcement in Relationships? Intermittent reinforcement was widely established in behavioural psychology when psychologists C.B. Ferster and B.F. Skinner published their book, Schedules of Reinforcement, in 1957. In the article I wrote about intermittent reinforcement, I explained:
“We all know how reinforcement works. When we’re trying to train our dog, for example, we use positive reinforcement. You say sit, the dog sits, and the dog gets a treat. The dog soon learns that if she sits, she’ll get a treat. Ergo, she sits when you ask her to sit.
But here’s where it gets interesting: continuous positive reinforcement often leads its subjects to grow bored. B.F. Skinner discovered that rats pressed a lever for treats more consistently when the rat didn’t know whether or not a pellet would be produced. Isn’t that wild? The rat became more obsessed with pressing the lever when it didn’t know the outcome, even more so than when it always knew it would get a treat.“
So there you go. If we think of ourselves as rats – let’s just roll with it, OK? – we don’t obsess over the “certain” people in our lives. We don’t wait in crazed anticipation for the next treat from these people. But the uncertain ones in our lives? We’re dying for the treats, anxiously awaiting them. We have no idea when they’ll happen or what we’ve done to deserve them, but we become addicted to thinking about them, waiting for them. All we can think about are those goddamn pellets, and we won’t feel happy or calm until we get them.
And when we do get the pellet? When that person does text us back, or like our Instagram reel, or ask us to hang out, when the uncertain person suddenly feels certain about us for one brief moment… oh my god. The dopamine spike. Our brains light up with fireworks, just like the brains of those poor little rats when they finally get a treat.
With one little text, we suddenly forget all of the anxiety and the overthinking because all is right with the world again. What were we even worried about? Of course they were going to text! They were just busy for the last four days! Until, inevitably, the next time that you feel confused, or they don’t get in touch, or they ignore your phone call… and so the cycle continues.
And another part of all of this overthinking is that, usually, we do not feel confident enough to just ask them how they feel about us because we’re so worried that we’ll scare them away forever. This also proves that they are an uncertain person in our lives; we don’t worry that talking about our emotions will permanently scare away a “certain” person such as a best friend or a trusted family member. In a secure and healthy relationship, we can talk about our feelings.
Sadly, for some of us, we’re so used to that kind of romantic relationship – the rollercoaster, the intermittent spikes of dopamine followed by the low lows of “do they even like me?” – that a “certain” relationship can feel almost too easy, can feel almost boring. That’s all connected to attachment theory, but I’ll save that article for another day; I have A LOT to say about attachment theory, because I used to be a walking billboard for anxious attachment and have spent the last two years healing that part of me.
What I will say is that if you are dating someone who DOES seem certain about you (texts and calls consistently, makes plans to see you often, tells you and shows you that they like you and want to be with you) and yet you still feel a lot of anxiety and negatively overthink your relationship with them, you may be suffering from anxious or avoidant attachment. I recommend reading Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, which is perhaps my favourite book about dating and relationships of all time.
OK. Now we know why we negatively obsess over people: it’s because they’re the uncertain ones in our lives. Those relationships do not make us feel safe, and let’s face it, most of the time, they don’t make us feel very happy, either. Those relationships are not consistent, nor are they reciprocal. There is actual science explaining why our brains are addicted to those kinds of relationships, even if we know they’re unhealthy for us. We’re addicted to the little dopamine spikes they intermittently give us, and those tiny breadcrumbs leave us confused and anxious.
So now what? Now that we’ve identified why we obsess and why we can’t stop thinking about someone, what do we do?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news and/or bury the lede but: if you can’t stop thinking about a person, and that overthinking makes you feel bad… the writing is already on the wall. You shouldn’t feel this way about someone who is a healthy, good person for you.
I’ve linked to this article – Fuck Yes or No – so many times on this blog, but for good reason; it’s the best article I’ve ever read about relationships. As Mark Manson writes, “If you’re in the grey area to begin with, you’ve already lost.” If you’re receiving those mixed messages, and you’re uncertain about the way someone feels about you, it’s only going to lead to anguish, anxiety, and overthinking. As a common piece of dating advice goes, if they like you, you’ll know.
Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. We can’t just say to ourselves, “I’ll stop thinking about them!” and poof! We never think of them again and are able to immediately move on. But there are a few steps we can take to ease the pain and to help get us back to focusing on ourselves.
First, we need to identify the problem. Hopefully, this article has helped a little bit with that. If you can’t stop thinking about someone and that overthinking is actively making you feel bad, coupled with the fact that you’re too nervous to bring up how you actually feel to them, I can guarantee that person is not somebody who is a safe and consistent person in your life. This is a hard pill to swallow, because even a person we’ve been involved with for years can have this effect on us. It’s important to recognize that we’re overthinking and that it’s unhealthy, especially if it is starting to affect our work, our other relationships, our physical health, and so on.
Second, we need to focus on what kind of person we do want. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we want and deserve someone who aligns with our energy. We want and deserve someone who wants to be with us and who tells us that with their words and shows us that with their actions. We want and deserve someone who texts us consistently and makes plans with us consistently, someone who doesn’t leave us constantly confused or anxious. We want and deserve someone who doesn’t make us feel bad the majority of the time!
Bottom line: we need to stop chasing people who are actively running away from us or who give us tiny breadcrumbs to keep us interested. Fuck the breadcrumbs. We want and deserve the whole feast.
Third, we need to consider what we’re actually thinking about when we start our train of obsession about a person. Overthinking the overthinking? Let’s do it! Most likely, we’re overthinking the idealization of a person, not the actual person themselves. And with all due respect to them, are they really worth all of this obsession?! Most likely, we’ve now put this person on a pedestal; we probably spend a lot of time imagining situations with them that haven’t even happened, such as future dates or what the relationship might be like if you stay together. We may even start imagining, “I’ll never meet another person like them again!” or “I’ll never feel this way about a person ever again!”
And no, you won’t meet someone like them again. No, you might never feel that way about a person again. And isn’t that a good thing?? I hope I don’t meet another person who leaves me feeling so uncertain and anxious. I hope I never feel so upset and confused about another person.
In other words, take them off the pedestal. They’re just a person. Sure, they have good and even great qualities. But they also have a terrible quality: they’re not making you feel safe, secure, or happy most of the time. True, you may have brief moments of happiness with them, but it’s not consistent, and you feel like shit when you overthink the situation. The person I’m meant to be with will make me feel safe, secure, and happy the majority of the time, whether I’m with them or thinking about them. The person I’m meant to be with will be so pumped to hang out with me and text me and call me; I won’t have to work so hard to know I’m loved and wanted.
It can be so difficult to do when you’re caught up in thinking about an individual – especially if they’ve been in your life for a long time – but try to imagine that there is someone out there who is so much better for you. If you feel this strongly about someone who isn’t giving you what you want and deserve? Imagine how amazing it will be when you meet someone who does! I’m really excited to meet that person and really excited for that kind of relationship.
Fourth, and this is the hardest step: you need to clarify the situation. You need to abolish the uncertainty. If you’re not able to get clarity on your own, then you need to ask for some tough love from the people in your life: friends, family, or a therapist. Trust me… they probably already have some strong opinions on how this person is treating you and can probably provide some clarity.
And then, if you’re ready, you need to talk to the person you’re feeling this way about. Yes, I know. It sucks. But if you want to stop overthinking about someone, it’s almost always necessary.
In the first scenario (lots of texting at first, great date, and then wishy-washy behaviour), it’s time to give yourself some tough love. You have only known this person for a very short period of time. Yes, I know how awful online dating is and I’m sure you’re very excited about this person. But if they are treating you like this now… how the hell are they going to treat you six months from now?
I suggest sending a text. I would write, “Hey, I’m confused about your intentions and about your feelings toward me. I’m looking for honesty and communication when dating and so I’ll put that into action: I’d like to see you again. I’d really appreciate some clarity so that we can either hang out again or I can move on.”
Yes, that is a very scary text to send. But here’s the thing: the right person for you won’t be scared away. And no matter what, you’re going to have an answer (remember: no answer is an answer… the most popular article on this blog is actually On Ghosting (and What to Do if it Happens to You)). And while I’m rooting for you to find love, my gut would tell me that someone who is this flaky in the beginning is not your soulmate. But again, you’ll now be at least one step closer to clarity. (Also: I’m writing an article about why you need to take things slow in the beginning of a relationship. I’ll link to that here soon.)
Don’t want to send a text? In this situation, your other option is just to do nothing; if you’re able to do that, and know that you can find closure and clarity on your own, that’s amazing. You may never hear from them again, but that’s fine… they were just holding up the line anyway.
In the second scenario (still chatting with your ex but very confused about their intentions), again, it’s time for tough love. I personally advocate going no-contact with exes because let’s face it: it is impossible to properly heal from the relationship if you are still actively talking to them, seeing them, and/or hooking up with them. Even seeing their posts on social media can be difficult (you don’t have to block or delete them, but you can certainly mute them). Sure, maybe you can be friends one day, but for now, that person is stopping your healing process and may be preventing you from meeting someone new, someone who won’t be so hot and cold.
When you’re overthinking about an ex, you often reminisce about the good times or the aspects of the relationship that you liked; the cream rises to the top, as they say, while all of the negative aspects of the relationship conveniently get pushed to the bottom. Take time to grieve the loss of who you thought they were as well as the loss of that particular companionship, and know that you can now begin to move on to greener pastures. I mean… the love of your life isn’t someone who’s going to string you along and leave you constantly confused and anxious. I wrote an article called On Being Dumped, or, Why I’m Glad That Guy Dumped Me that might help.
And if you have indeed gone no-contact but still think about your ex all the time? Know that time will help you heal, and one day you’ll be able to think about those good moments without feeling sad. I’ll be posting an article soon about how to get over a tough breakup – the scenario I’m describing here happened while I was living in London, and was one of my toughest – and will link to that here when it’s online.
In the third scenario (a situationship but you want more), again… tough love! If this is truly someone you want a relationship with, you need to speak up. The worst that can happen is that they say no. In that case, you have to weigh the options: continue casually seeing someone who doesn’t want to commit and know that you will keep obsessing, or end things and open yourself up to finding someone who has the same dating intentions as you.
Again, you have to talk to them. I know, I know, the dreaded “what are we” speech. But expressing what you feel to the right person won’t be a bad thing. If you can’t have a simple conversation about what you want out of life, this is not a safe and secure person for you. Hopefully, they’ll feel the same way, but you won’t know until you ask. And yes, I’m also writing an article about situationships and why I’ll never have one again… I’ll link to it here when it’s finished!
So if what all of these scenarios (and dozens or even hundreds of other scenarios) have in common is uncertainty, the other thing they all have in common is clarity. And that’s the answer to help you stop overthinking about this person:
In order to stop thinking about someone so much, you have to have clarity. And if you can’t find that clarity on your own, with friends, or with therapy, you have to ask them about their intentions with you. You have to be honest, to them and to yourself, about what you truly want from them.
And just because the scenarios I described are very specific, it doesn’t mean this simple advice can’t apply to just about every situation where you’re negatively overthinking a person, even if you’ve been with them for years. Unhealthy, all-consuming, and negative overthinking about someone almost always means there is uncertainty involved. And the only way through that uncertainty is clarity.
Again… that is a terrifying thought, I know. But as someone who has experienced each of these scenarios, I can tell you that after you get your answer – for better or for worse – so much of the anxiety will dissipate. Having that clarity will bring immense relief, trust me.
Because even if the answer is a bad one, i.e. they don’t want to be with you (or they can’t give you 100%, which is the same thing), you are then able to take what you know FOR SURE and deal with it. Even if you’re faced with heartbreak, you can now focus on healing your heart without all of the mind games from someone who leaves you feeling so uncertain about where you stand with them.
Some other tips for helping with overthinking? Get out there and do something. Anything. Take the dog for a walk. Garden. Go to a movie. Remember what you love doing and do it, whether that’s yoga or cooking or hiking or embroidery. I’m not saying to distract yourself fully – it’s important to also feel your emotions and work through them – but try to give your brain a little break from all of that thinking.
“Wow, Brenna,” you might be thinking. “You seem to have this in the bag! I wish I was as confident as you. You must never overthink or obsess about anyone anymore.”
Yeah… no. Because that first scenario? The texting, great date, then slow fade…? That just happened to me. In fact, it inspired this article. And it messed me up, even though I have done so much work on myself, because – surprise! – I’m a human being. Even if we have all of this information at our fingertips, even if we’ve done the healing and the work, and even if we “know better,” it can still happen from time to time, and that’s OK. We have to give ourselves grace to go through the wide range of emotions that can come with putting ourselves out there and trying to date, and sometimes that includes anxiety and overthinking.
What I do feel proud of in this scenario is that I didn’t let the overthinking last too long. I quickly started telling myself that I was putting him on a pedestal without really knowing him, that I deserved better than this, and that I needed clarity. I sent him a text (in fact, the exact text I used as an example above) and he wrote back almost immediately. He apologized and let me know he wasn’t ready for a relationship. And sure, it probably just meant that he wasn’t ready for a relationship with me, but you know what? I felt INSTANT relief. I felt like I could then move forward and move on, free from the anxiety that had been taking up the energy I could have been putting toward my work, my family, or my friends.
If you’re upset that you’re thinking about somebody so much, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I know how all-consuming it can be, but you won’t always feel this way, I promise. You will feel better one day, and you can start your own path to healing by trying to find clarity; the right person will welcome and encourage clarity, honesty, and vulnerability. Talking to friends, family, and a therapist can also provide a lot of clarity, because those people don’t want to see you hurt or anxious, either. They often see the truth a long time before we can.
Remember: the “certain” people in your life won’t make you feel confused and worried all the time. You deserve someone who makes you feel safe, secure, and happy. You deserve clarity in your romantic relationships, and you deserve consistency in the way they communicate and interact with you. You’ve got this.
Have you ever felt this way, where you can’t stop thinking about them? What did you do to move on?