When we’re ruminating about something, we’re really obsessing about it. We overthink it. We blow it up in our minds. We review a situation over and over. And over.
Therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW, compared our ruminating minds to a broken record. Typically we ruminate about the past, including perceived mistakes and missed opportunities, she said.
Ruminating is “characterized by overwhelming self-criticism and negative self-talk about one’s failures and shortcomings.” We think that if we’d just done something better or had been better, the outcome would’ve been more positive, she said.
Ruminating also is characterized by black-and-white, all-or-nothing catastrophic thinking, she said. When we ruminate, we think things like “Why me?”; “Why does this always happen?”; or “Why did he or she say that?” she said.
We might ruminate about all kinds of “what-ifs.” As therapist Joyce Marter, LCPC, said, “What if I didn’t tell him how I felt? Would he not have broken up with me?”
What if I went to the party? What if I took that job? What if I hadn’t made that error in my term paper? What if I hadn’t yelled? What if we were able to make it work?
Not surprisingly, ruminating is damaging. It “”keeps people dwelling on and amplifying the upsetting aspects of a situation and their perceived character flaws. It’s like running into a dead-end again and again,” Wilding said. It stops us from problem-solving and learning important lessons in our lives. In short, it keeps us stuck and paralyzed.
It also “gets us out of alignment with our authentic selves,” said Marter, who pens the blog “The Psychology of Success.” For instance, when we obsessively worry about others’ opinions of our decisions — whether we take a certain job or buy a house — we stop being true to ourselves, she said.
Plus, ruminating is a complete waste of time, as it changes nothing, Marter said. “It is as it is.”
Even though ruminating only hurts us, there are many reasons why we do it. And we might not even realize it!
Below, Wilding and Marter shared these common reasons.
- It’s human nature to ruminate. Our brains, which evolved over millions of years to pay attention to danger, tend toward negative thinking for the sake of survival, Wilding said. “Back then, if we failed to detect threats, like a predator, a natural hazard, or some other kind of aggression, it could cost us our lives and the chance of passing on our genes.” As such, our brains — thoughts and beliefs — are wired to detect and attend to negative experiences instead of positive ones, she said. For instance, we remember negative events — such as going to the dentist for a painful procedure — over happier moments — such as the joy of playing with our child, she said. We downplay or altogether dismiss our accomplishments and instead magnify the mistakes we’ve made.
- Individuals might be consumed by what others think. “This is part of the human condition,” said Marter, founder and CEO of Urban Balance, a counseling private practice in the Chicago area. For instance, she said, we might think: “I was invited to their New Year’s Eve party the past few years, but didn’t get an invite this year … Do they not like me anymore?”
- Individuals might have low self-worth. For instance, instead of realizing that you and your ex had certain relational differences that led to your breakup (such as different values), you view this as proof of your inadequacy as a partner, said Wilding, who helps women overcome the emotional challenges of success. So you “ruminate and universalize the situation as a commentary on [yourself].” You might think statements such as “Why can’t anybody love me?” or “Why do I keep failing with men?” instead of searching for productive solutions to relationships issues, she said.
- Individuals might have depression or anxiety. “People who are depressed and anxious tend to show this pattern of thinking more often,” Wilding said. For instance, research has shown a connection between rumination and depression. “Rumination dampens problem-solving and keeps people trapped in a depressive state.” People who ruminate don’t have much confidence in their solutions, so they aren’t proactive about alleviating their pain, she said. Plus, rumination often pushes people away, further feeding the depression, she added.
Thankfully, there are many ways to reduce rumination. Wilding suggested setting aside “worry time.” Either in the morning or evening, journal about the issues that are preoccupying your mind, she said. Set a timer for 15 to 30 minutes to think through your problems. Once the timer dings, stop.
Also, consider the lesson. Wilding suggested asking yourself these questions: “What can I learn from this?”; “What is the lesson here?”; “What is this teaching me?”
She shared this example: Instead of ruminating about your boss yelling at you for a mistake on a report, you focus on figuring out the lesson or solution. You might decide to slow down as you proofread your work, eliminate distractions at your desk, or confront a problem at home so you can think clearly at work.
According to Marter, because ruminating occurs in a mind that’s ruled by the ego, it’s important to check in with your heart and gut through practices that promote greater consciousness. This can include meditation, prayer and yoga, she said.
“Detachment from ego and connection with essence — your authentic self, your soul, your spirit — will prove to be a far greater compass in achieving the life you desire.” Because ruminating paralyzes us and only leaves us spinning our wheels.