Last time we talked about treating ourselves as our own one-person company. Today we’re going to pull out the couch, put on our psychology hats, and talk about regret and ruminations.
Think back on your own life. What regrets have you carried for a long time? Did something happen that you’ve been holding onto for months, or years, or decades? ?When you lie down at night, what thoughts keep you awake? Have you ever found yourself replaying a moment again and again and again, wishing you had done it differently, but never feeling resolved about this situation? No one wants to think this way, yet we all do it. Around and around we go, like obsessive-compulsive hamsters wearing out our mental wheels.
My public speaking career began in my twenties. My very early twenties. For quite a few years, whenever I stood in front of an audience, I would be the youngest, least-experienced person in the room?usually by quite a wide margin. To counteract the crowd’s very accurate assessment of my youth, I wore a pair of glasses with non-prescription lenses. I grew facial hair. I spent as much time as possible with my relatives who had small children, which put a wonderful touch of gray in said facial hair (and, to my horror, elsewhere).
One might question the wisdom of my age-enhancement choices, but it seemed to work! I gave presentation after presentation, and when I collected the feedback forms at the end of the day, my age or perceptions of inexperience were never mentioned.
?One day I was teaching a small group of twenty people for one of my biggest clients. I felt good about how the workshop went. At the conclusion of the class I collected the feedback forms, on which participants had rated me on a five-point scale. As I flipped through the forms, I was pleased to see fives and fours in long succession. It was only near the bottom of the stack that I saw it: a three. In the notes below the rating, the person had written that I was too young to be teaching.
If I had a kind, well-functioning brain, I should have felt great about the overall results. Nineteen fours and fives, and one three? Fantastic! But my brain was most emphatically not kind. I obsessed over that three, giving not one thought to any of the other ratings. Had I said something stupid, something that allowed this person to see through my clever glasses-and-gray-hair disguise, exposing the youthful imposter beneath? Do others think the same and just don’t say it? IS MY CAREER RUINED?
For days the last thought I had before falling asleep was about that rating. My very first thought upon waking was about that rating. I regretted that three with a passion people usually reserve for regretting the choice to kill a neighbor or to get a tattoo of a dolphin on their face. The worst part was that I couldn’t do anything about my obsession?I could not magically alter my age or the feedback score I received?and I knew I couldn’t do anything about it, yet for more time than I am willing to admit I just could not let it go. (If only I’d had the power to peer into the future and see the me who would be utterly delighted for anyone to think I was too young to do my job.)
Psychologists call this obsessive thinking “rumination,” in honor of our mammalian cousins called ruminants?animals who regurgitate their food so they can chew it again?like cows and sheep. As humans we do the same with our thoughts, regurgitating already well-chewed events, and suffering from the emotional heartburn that consistently follows. In many ways we are all obsessive-compulsive heartburn hamsters.
Thankfully there are several things we can do to decrease both the duration and intensity of our ruminations:
- Don’t run!?Instead of running from our obsessive thoughts, embrace them. Trying to tell ourselves, “Don’t worry about it! Think about something else!” is about as effective at?banishing unwanted thoughts as telling a teenager not to do something is at preventing them from doing it. Instead, we can play the role of observer in our own brain. We can watch the thoughts in our mind from a more objective distance, as if the thoughts are actors on a stage. Simply sit with?the thoughts, without?judging or attempting to push them away. Once we have that bit of personal distance from our own ruminations, we can analyze them. Why are we obsessing over this particular thing? What precisely is it about the issue that worries us? What are we afraid of? Then we can dive deeper. What’s the worst thing that is likely to happen? Is that what is?most?likely to happen? What else could happen? If the absolute very worst thing?does?happen, will I eventually be okay? The answer to that last question is almost always yes (if it is not, obsessing about it might be the right thing to do!). Essentially what I am suggesting is a form of meditation,?sitting with and processing our thoughts without judging them as “good” or “bad.”?A question I like to as myself is, “In a year, will this thing still have a negative impact on me? Will I even remember it happened?” Most of the time, the answer is no.
- Do run!?Not from your thoughts, but physically.?Research has shown?that aerobic exercise?the kind that gets your heart pumping and makes you sweat, like running or playing basketball?helps the brain recover emotionally after experiencing a stressor, decreasing the likelihood of rumination. Obsessive thoughts are especially prevalent in those struggling with depression. Aerobic exercise combined with meditation?like what was described in #1 above–has been found?to significantly decrease?both depressive symptoms and ruminative thought. If you can do your physical activity outside, even better!?Researchers discovered?that spending time in nature decreased rumination and lowered activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that has been linked to mood disorders. (Interestingly enough, these positive effects only appeared if people spent time out in nature. Spending time outside in an urban environment led to no such effects.)
- Focus on what you can control.?In an?earlier post?we mentioned that brains love to feel in control. Even if the thing on which we ruminate is 95% out of our hands, if there is a small percentage we?do?have influence over, focusing on that can help break the rumination cycle. Another great way to focus on what we control is to ask ourselves, “What can I learn from this? How can I use what I have learned in the future?” Even if we truly have no control over what happened, chances are we learned something that can help us, which can further enhance the sense of control.
Ruminations and obsessive thoughts are not entirely bad. If they were, it is unlikely our brains would have evolved such a mechanism in the first place. Obsession can allow genius to thrive and talent to bloom; chances are the most productive periods of our lives were deeply obsessive. But if we find ourselves ruminating on things in a way that does not lead down a path of growth and productivity, we can process those thoughts more effectively using the strategies above. With time we can feel less like hamsters on a wheel and more like our true selves.
For Your Consideration
- What was your most recent ruminative thought? How did you manage it??The next time you find yourself spinning on the wheel of rumination, what will you do differently?
- What was your last?positive?obsession? What can you do to better focus your powers of obsession on healthy pursuits rather than risky ruminations?
- Do you find yourself ruminating differently at home versus at work? Do your ruminations tend to be location-specific, or focused primarily on specific people or events? If so, what might you do to stop those ruminative thoughts before they even begin?