After you speak to someone, even if they’re not a stranger, do you find yourself replaying the conversation in your head afterwards? Do you pore over what you said, specifically, and maybe cringe here and there? Do you wish you said something different or worry that you came off as rude or otherwise unlikeable? Does the conversation continue to repeat in your head even long after you’re done being interested in it?

You’re not alone.

“Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991).”

Rumination is a way to over-plan and control anxiety. It means replaying life events in an attempt to make sure that next time we’re totally prepared and won’t feel anxious. Sadly, it’s futile. Rumination never stops worry; it rewards it. Worry is a habit that won’t be solved by time-consuming problem-solving.

My worst ruminating habit is replaying conversations. I can say just three words to someone and end up thinking about those three little words for the next hour after the conversation is through.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting my favorite comedian after a standup show. We follow each other on Twitter and when I met him after the show he shook my hand and said my name — He knew exactly who I was! I was thrilled!

We only spoke for a minute and yet I replayed the conversation in my head for the rest of the night, slept poorly, and then thought about each word into the next day.

At first I was aware that I was combing through my words to make sure I didn’t seem rude or pushy or dumb. “Did I make enough I contact? Did I make any eye contact at all?” Maybe I replayed the conversation in my mind to check and see if I said something appropriate or inappropriate. “And then what?” I asked myself. “What’s the point?”

As a fan of this comedian, it’s a unique position for me. I feel like I know him, but he can’t know much about me. And who wants to sound like a creepy, clingy, overreaching fan? I just wanted him to like me, generally.

Oddly, I know enough about this entertainer that I assured myself, “He’s not thinking about you, Sarah. He’s thinking about himself. He’s thinking about how he came off and how well a show he did for everyone. He’s anxious about himself.”

That quieted the conversation replay a little bit, but it still echoed on in my head long after I was done wanting to listen. I kept thinking, “Please just shut up! I don’t care!” My mind was in “anxiety autopilot.” For 24 hours after I met him bits of our conversation would pop into my head while I was doing other things (washing dishes, walking my dog, deleting emails, whatever).

I suppose I always thought that if my anticipatory anxiety was removed and I was able to approach the things I want to do without fear, that I wouldn’t have any anxiety afterwards. I was wrong. I may have a new way of dealing with anxiety on the front end of an event, but I guess I’m still using the same archaic method on the back end — looking for negative things to dwell on before filing the memory away into long term storage.

What’s the solution to this exhausting process? A more conscious effort on my part to avoid rumination by practicing optimism in other parts of my life. I need an “optimism autopilot.” I need a method of finding silver linings before putting memories into long term storage.

Nowadays, I’m doing a fairly good job of slapping rumination away in the moment and saying, “I don’t need you. You’re not useful to me.” I don’t participate in the rumination anymore. But a strong habit of looking for the positive in all situations is a safeguard. After all rumination is simply looking for negativity to dwell on.

Besides the ever-illusive optimism, there are certain facts I have to face. Instead of rumination it would take less time to just accept that:

  1. We can’t control how other people view us.
  2. People really are more concerned with themselves than the things other people say and do.
  3. Other people can and will judge us, and it ultimately doesn’t matter. You are not defined by the adoration of others. You are much more than that. “You are what you love, not what loves you.” (Charlie Kaufman)
  4. You never know what’s going to happen in the future, and you’ve been improvising just fine your whole life.

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