Ruminating: The Dark Side of Self-Reflection

Written by on September 24, 2017 in Emotional Mastery, Own It, Self-Awareness

Ruminating: The Dark Side of Self-Reflection

We’ve all been there. Your mind is endlessly ruminating over that careless mistake you made, how you could have (should have) better handled that awkward conversation with your friend, or beating yourself up for not being able to say “no” to unrealistic demands on your time.

You tell yourself you’re just trying to make sense of a frustrating or upsetting situation, but when the dialogue begins to sound like a broken record with no new insights to help you solve a problem or prevent a repeat, it’s not only an exhausting waste of energy it becomes a risk to your health and happiness.

The tricky thing about rumination is that it feels like it’s helpful, but there’s no action taken, and you don’t move forward to some sort of solution. ~Carla Grayson

Ruminating versus Self-Reflection

The words ruminating and reflecting are often used interchangeably but there are two critical differences between the behaviors that are worth exploring – namely, intention and action.

Reflecting on a hurtful, disappointing or unproductive event or conversation for the purpose of determining what you can do to improve the situation or make sure it doesn’t happen again is purposeful and relatively short-lived.

More importantly, you are able to choose when to move on and put the event behind you.

Ruminating, brooding, over thinking, rehashing, or my personal favorite, mental reruns, whatever label you choose to apply is a negative, destructive cycle whereby your mind is stuck on repeatedly replaying mistakes, hurts or slights (real or perceived), actions you did (or did not) take or unsatisfactory conversations.

This is the stuff that leaves you feeling drained and robs you of sleep along with any sense of inner peace … and it can go on for hours if not days.

But wait, there’s more!

It also adversely affects decision-making and problem-solving abilities, can damage relationships, and has been linked to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and harmful behaviors such as substance abuse and eating disorders.

How to Break the Cycle

Ruminating is considered a maladaptive habit (it fails to lead to a solution or improvement) and while it’s not really difficult to break, it does require patience and consistency.

Following are a few simple steps to help you overcome this issue.

Claim It

In order to change any behavior, we first have to acknowledge it and recognize our patterns. Try to identify specific situations (or people) that trigger a cycle of mental reruns and then look at each of these issues objectively and ask yourself if in the grand scheme of things they are really so important.

Create a Trigger

Once you admit you have an issue with rumination you’ll be able to begin working on changing your default strategy by interrupting the cycle. Many people use a simple one-word trigger – “Stop!” Another helpful strategy is to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you find yourself ruminating.

Keep in mind you are trying to develop a new way of thinking, so whatever you choose to do to interrupt the rerun, it is unlikely that once or twice will be enough!

Shift Your Attention

If you pay attention to your thoughts when you’re rerunning an old conversation, you’ll likely notice that your breathing is shallow and your muscles are tense. By refocusing your attention on how your body feels and taking a few deep breaths, you’ll be able to draw your attention away from the old story and back into the present.

I want to add a disclaimer to this particular strategy. As referenced above, one of the potential side effects of ruminating is the tendency to trigger substance abuse or eating disorders.

So just to clarify – meditation, mindfulness or other centering practices, observing your emotions, deep breathing exercises, or journaling are all positive ways to shift attention, whereas having a few drinks or eating a gallon of Rocky Road will only add to the problem.

Put Pen to Paper

For anyone who follows my writing, it’s no secret that I am something of an evangelist when it comes to journaling for personal growth and development.

I know many of our regular readers keep gratitude journals. It’s also a powerful tool for healing which is an area I plan to explore with you in the coming weeks.

For now, the next time you find yourself beginning a ruminating cycle try writing your thoughts down on paper without filtering them. This can release tension and help you to identify opportunities for growth or actions that you can take to resolve remaining issues.

If you’re constantly ruminating about what you just did – or what you should have done – or what you would have done if you only had the chance, you will end up missing all the best stuff your life. ~Sam Harris

Final Thoughts

Self-reflection is an invaluable process for increasing self-awareness, identifying and bringing clarity and focus to the events of your life and the consequences of the choices you are making and it is one of the most important things you can do for personal growth.

Rumination, on the other hand, is becoming trapped in a negative cycle, your mind is working over-time and not getting anywhere, other than feeling frustrated, exhausted and powerless.

It is only human nature that we should occasionally find ourselves stuck on events or circumstances that trigger an unpleasant or unwanted emotional reaction. The key is to understand the difference between a healthy, productive response and one that is negative and self-defeating.

Fortunately, with practice, you will find that the things that used to trigger a cycle will hold little or no meaning.

Life is simply too short to waste reliving yesterday. So determine to look for the lesson in each experience and then move on to something better and more life-affirming.

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.


Tags: , , ,

33 Reader Comments

Trackback URL Comments RSS Feed

  1. Joyce Hansen

    Ah, so that is what I have been doing! I truly forgot about the word rumination. Allowed myself to have a little time ruminating about rumination. The, I snapped the mental rubberband and moved on. Thanks for this insightful reminder of why we shouldn’t be wasting our time here.
    Joyce Hansen recently posted…3 Brain Principles for Increasing SalesMy Profile

  2. Suzie Cheel

    Marty putting pen to paper is what I find works best for me.
    As I read you post i thought back to the many times I ruminate, yesterday morning being one time- I talked it over with Des and he got how serious this was and how it blocked me and we sat down and worked on a solution that lightened me and has me becoming unblocked , thank you – great to have it reinforced. xxx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…DOES FEAR BLOCK YOUR SUCCESS?My Profile

  3. ikechi

    Hi Marquita

    Yes, Self-Reflection and Ruminating might look the same but as you brilliantly shared, they don’t produce the same results.

    I believe that a mistake made should be evaluated but trying to rewrite the past is quite frustrating so it is best to move forward.

    Thanks for sharing and as usual your posts are just awesome

  4. Interesting definition of rumination Sue. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and congratulations on finding yourself in such a good place these days! I love the “shimmy and shake” metaphor, very visual. 🙂

  5. Sue Kearney says:

    Hey Marquita,

    I am at a refreshingly lightened-up place about my thinking. To the point (thankfully) that I notice when I ruminate (which I’m defining as thinking about something that happened in the past or hasn’t happened yet) more often.

    And when I notice the rumination going on, and provided I’m not too attached to my thinking, I can do a little mental (sometimes physical!) shimmy and shake myself right back into this moment.

    I like it. Such an improved experience of life. Thanks for your wise words.
    Sue Kearney recently posted…Turn and return. The wheel is turning and you can too.My Profile

  6. You might be giving me a little more credit than is due, but I’ll take it if it means it wakes someone up to the self-destructive habit of rumination. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation, Vatsala, always appreciated. 🙂

  7. You are welcome Ruth but, as I’m sure you know, the real keys to breaking any habit are desire and commitment. The best tips in the world won’t help if someone is going through the motions because they think they should rather than because they really want to. Good luck, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! 🙂

  8. Vatsala Shukla

    I was listening to a talk by Jarrad Hewett earlier this week, Marquita, and he was talking about accepting the fact that we have created the situation and then move forward to find out solution. It was a metaphysical talk and I guess at a higher level, your post this week provides the practical solution to avoid maladaptive behavior. Thank you!
    Vatsala Shukla recently posted…5 confidence crystals you need to have for executive presenceMy Profile

  9. Ruth Bowers

    I’ve always had the tendency to ruminate on just about everything. Could I have done better, I must’ve looked like a fool, I should have said this or not said that. I’m so socially awkward that it’s a really bad habit to keep replaying everything over in my mind. Thanks for the suggestions on how to break the habit!
    Ruth Bowers recently posted…Confidence Quick Fix #4 – Create a “Cool, Confident Me” JournalMy Profile

  10. Well said Kathleen! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  11. Kathleen O'Keefe-Kanavos

    Oh, what a great article! Would’a, Could’a, and Should’a will undo ya’ every time. Thanks for reminding us to embrace the lesson and move on.

  12. Thanks Sonal, I’m happy that you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  13. I’m with you, Erika! I think it would be exhausting to regularly ruminate about every little thing. We all do it once in awhile, particularly when we’re facing a tough decision or big life change, but on a daily basis, it would just take all the fun out of life! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, always appreciated!

  14. Welcome Christina! I’m so pleased that you found value in my post, and thank you especially for sharing it, always appreciated.

  15. Well said Rachel, and it is true that the more consistently we practice a ritual the stronger we become. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  16. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us and especially for letting me know you found value in my article. Always appreciated! 🙂

  17. Sonal Talwar

    Hi Marquita
    Very well said – there is a difference between self reflection and ruminating. you have given us great tips! i really liked the idea of shifting our attention. and as you said, ofcourse we have one life and we should live it to the fullest!
    Sonal Talwar recently posted…Balance These 5 Hormones to Lose WeightMy Profile

  18. Hi Marquita,
    you did describe very well, what ruminating is, to me it is a new English word, but I know too good what it means living with somebody who often does this. I am really grateful not to be like this, I learned to be mindful. Also, it can make sick to be in such a negative thinking. Donnas comment reminded me. when she said it feels like, to have to help, that it is often used to get energy and attention from others. Good if we are aware of this destructive cycle and learn to change it. Thank you
    Erika Mohssen-Beyk recently posted…Who Needs To Be The Ruler Of Your Marvelous Mind?My Profile

  19. Love this, Marquita! I’m a mindfulness teacher myself, and you put some good language to a concept I always talk about regarding the busy mind: Rehearsing & Rehashing (rehearsing a conversation for the future, or rehashing the past). You are right: there is a huge difference between rumination and reflection. I’m going to share your article on the Aura meditation app!

  20. Rachel Lavern

    Hi Marquita,

    Nice tips. When I find myself mind ruminating on a topic, I usually use meditation or some deep breathing to distract myself so that I can actively choose something else to think about–shifting my attention as you stated. I learned this basic distraction process tool for self-regulation a few years go and noticed that, the more I used it, the stronger it gets and it has spill over effects–much like a ‘muscle’.

  21. This post really rang home, Marty. I live with the King of Ruminators! This is not at all part of my personality traits, so I find it very difficult to accept.

    As this quote says (and thanks for that!): “If you’re constantly ruminating about what you just did – or what you should have done – or what you would have done if you only had the chance, you will end up missing all the best stuff in your life.” Definitely, love that quote by Sam Harr. Thanks!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…Happy 110th Birthday to Purdys ChocolatierMy Profile

  22. Something we need to remind ourselves of every single day! Thanks for stopping by Chery, always wonderful to see you. 🙂

  23. Here’s the hard part about trying to help someone who isn’t making an effort to help themselves … accepting the fact that for them there is a payoff for their behavior. It sounds like in your relative’s case it may be the attention she gets, but whatever it is until she wants a better outcome for herself more than you want it for her, she won’t change. Good luck and thanks for contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  24. I’m glad you found value in the post Mark. 🙂

  25. Thanks for contributing to the conversation Elise.

  26. Thanks for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed the post RoseMary, always appreciated! 🙂

  27. I’m not at all surprised with your ritual Phoenicia because you are a fellow Introvert. It is our nature to think things through and accepting our own unique way of processing information is a critical step in accepting ourselves. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

  28. Chery Schmidt

    Hello Marty! Awesome post as usual my friend! This sentence said it all for me->>Life is simply too short to waste reliving yesterday.
    Oh So True! We only have one to live, so we had better be living it to the fullest Right?
    Thank you for sharing, Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Is Impatience A Killer To Success?My Profile

  29. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    Indeed there is a difference between self reflection and ruminating. I like the way you call it “mental reruns” lol. In this article you have described a close relative of mine. Although I love her, she ruminates constantly. She only makes herself miserable. And that energy can make others feel like they have to leap in and help her. But I don’t play that game.

    As I watch her ruminate, I think to myself what a waste of time. I did try to enlighten her, but I think the rubber band strategy will work a bit for her. She has acknowledged it, I purchased a pretty journal for her two years ago but it still has empty pages. Maybe these suggestions will work for her so I’ll give it a try.

    Donna Merrill recently posted…7 Secrets For Getting Traffic To Your BlogMy Profile

  30. Mark

    Well said per usual M!

    And I think I’ll definitely have to pass, when it comes to using
    a trigger, such as you suggested with the rubber band.

    Because I fear, I would have to use it
    far too much.

    And of course I thought my ruminating was extremely well
    calculated, self reflection. LOL!

    Thanks for pointing out the subtle differences! Great read as per usual M!
    Mark recently posted…How To Build A Sales Funnel You Can Totally Rely On!Part TwoMy Profile

  31. Elise Cohen Ho

    One certainly can get stuck in negative self-talk. Perhaps one has reacted in a way that brought a bad feeling, now regrets it and does not have a way to change it. That will keep playing over in the head until it can be released.

  32. I like your definitions, Marquita. I don’t like to brood about things–too wasteful a way to spend precious time. But I do like to think things through and see if I could have handled something better, or if there’s a lesson to be learned.
    Learn it and move forward!
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Montana’s East Rosebud is Worth the Dusty DriveMy Profile

  33. Phoenicia

    Marquita – this post was written for me! I particularly like your statement:
    “Ruminating is a destructive cycle where your mind is tuck on replaying mistakes”

    Even as a teen I had a tendency to over think about conversations I had had. I focussed on the actual conversation versus how I wanted it to go. Ruminating can cause a lot of stress to the body and a general feeling of “getting it wrong”. If done day after day, one can end up with anxiety and a poor self image.

    I reflect a lot and deliberately allow time in the day to do so. Late evening usually works best as I am a night owl. I like to gather my thoughts together and plan for the next day. I thoroughly enjoy the peace and quiet.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Tell self-doubt to leave!My Profile