Angry someone cut you off in traffic? Envious that somebody didn’t invite you to their dinner party? Feeling low because someone refused your help? When you sink deeply into your negative experience, do you find yourself knowing nothing but your response in that moment — as if the rest of your identity has just disappeared?
As Sophie Henshaw, DPsych, writes, “This is truly the definition of suffering: overidentification with experience.”
As an anxious person, there are times I catch myself sitting and worrying. Nothing else really exists, just this hump I have to get over. I become my worry.
If I stop what I am doing for a moment (i.e. put down the book or turn off the TV) I’ll focus and asked myself, “What was that thing I’m so worried about?” I take note of everything that’s going on and what current responsibilities I have and usually discover I was worried about nothing. Everything is fine. I was just sitting and worrying because it’s habitual. That’s what I do, and I feel stuck responding in a way that I don’t even want to.
“This kind of emotional experience has a distinct timeless quality to it: it feels like I always have felt this way, I always will feel this way and people will always behave in ways to make me feel this way,” Henshaw wrote in a Psych Central post. “In that moment I have lost myself and who I truly am. I no longer have access to any other part of me that might offer me different response possibilities in that moment.”
An anxious person will recognize this as rumination. We repeatedly replay bad events and negative emotions in a constant loop. This could be something as simple as saying the wrong thing when you first meet someone. Perhaps we think if we could compartmentalize the experience properly we could safeguard ourselves from ever making the same mistake again. It never actually works because we don’t know what the future holds.
Many areas of life emphasize experience. Facebook and Twitter are all about our opinions and experience. We live-tweet events instead of just observing them. We post photos of our vacation online as soon as we get home or even sooner, as if those pictures were for other people more than they were for us. But we are much more dynamic than our experiences and much of ourselves is lost in translation on social media.
While we’re wrapped up in our experiences, Henshaw explains, we’re missing out on simply observing life. We miss the things happening in the present moment because we’re worried about the future. When life becomes a series of one worry after the other, are we really living any longer?
What if instead of ruminating we could put our energy into problem-solving the actual problem? What if instead of letting negative experiences repeatedly replay in our head, we stopped before we started? Instead of admonishing yourself for ruminating, acknowledge your problem-solving prowess and use it to reorient your mind. Remember things that make you happy. Think of something you are thankful for or something about yourself you are proud of. Swaddle yourself in gratitude. If you want to have fun and laugh, give yourself the space to do that. With practice we can problem-solve negative emotions.
Life is risk. There’s plenty to worry about, but is that what we want to spend our time doing? If we ruminate all our lives, what will we look back and see — life lived or a life worried?