We’ve all been there. It’s that moment when something challenging, frustrating, painful, or just plain confusing happens, and you suddenly realize you’ve been sitting there analyzing and dwelling on it for a half hour. Your mind’s Inner Antagonist has sucked you down the rumination rabbit hole.
Rumination is a repetitive thought pattern focused on negative feelings and experiences, as well as their causes and consequences. Ruminating increases pessimism, fuels self-criticism, drains us of the energy and motivation to take positive action, and hinders our ability to problem solve. Rumination pulls us away cognitively from tasks we were working on, disengages us from those we are with, and makes us too mentally distanced to enjoy any pleasurable activities we had been engaging in.
As a life and career coach, speaker, and author, I find that my clients and readers are all too familiar with rumination. Many feel plagued by it, aware of its negative impact in their lives, but somehow disempowered to stop it. Through my work, I’ve discovered some strategies that help us climb out of the dark rumination rabbit hole, and through regular practice, remain above ground in the sunshine.
- Simply Say Stop: No matter what negative narrating our Inner Antagonist is trying to script, we can stop it in its tracks. If you catch yourself, ruminating, simply and kindly say to yourself, “Stop Your Name! We aren’t doing that. We have better things to do. Stop.” When we say stop, it disrupts the flow of the negative thought process.
- Alter Analysis into Action: Over-analysis keeps us stuck. Taking action on something we are ruminating about teaches us that although we may feel difficult emotions, we can still move forward. It’s not the difficult emotions that are bad, they are part of life. It’s when we over-analyze and allow them to debilitate us that they become problematic. The next time you find yourself ruminating, ask yourself: What do I control in this situation? What action within my control will I take now to address it? Then, take action as quickly as possible and pledge to let your mind be free of the parts you do not control.
- Remove Your Rumination Routines: Becoming more aware of the context surrounding our periods of rumination can help us to remove rumination routines we may have. For example, if you ruminate in bed at night as you are trying to sleep, begin a new routine of recounting the people and experiences you are grateful for that day. If you ruminate while driving, try listening to an inspirational audiobook. Change up the routines that may facilitate rumination.
- Shorten Your Stress Time: When you start to notice distracting negative ruminations, say to yourself, “I’ve got other more important things I need to do right now, so I’m gonna make this quick.” Then, take a look at your watch and give yourself 10 to 20 minutes of stress time. Once your time is up, tell yourself, “Okay, I’ve done my stressing, now back to what I was doing before!” Then, resume other more pleasurable or important activities. You control your mind and your time!
- Turn Off the Telepathy Switch: When we are feeling insecure in an ambiguous situation, it’s amazing how we suddenly have a magical ability to turn on our invisible telepathy switch and read other people’s minds—uncovering all their awful thoughts about us. But, you see, we are not telepaths and we don’t get to know what other people are thinking about us. More importantly, we don’t need to know what anyone else is thinking about us in order to feel calm and secure. We must generate our calm and secure feelings from within. The next time you find yourself ruminating about what someone else must be thinking about you, picture that nonsensical telepathy switch in your mind and imagine yourself turning it off!
- Take Off the Control Cape: How many times have you ruminated about someone else’s behavior (not responding quickly to a text message, a cranky-looking facial expression, etc.), determining that it was somehow because of something you said or did? And, how often did you ultimately learn the person’s actions had absolutely nothing to do with you? Sometimes we dislike ambiguity so much that we mentally conjure controls that we don’t actually have—like a superhero with a control cape! The next time you find yourself doing this type of ruminating, imagine yourself wearing that comic book inspired control cape. Recite to yourself, “I am not the all-powerful being in control of this person’s actions. They have lots of other things happening in their lives that could be impacting their behaviors. I cannot make anyone else do anything. Analyzing this is a waste of my time.” Finally, picture yourself taking off the control cape!
- Write a Let It Go Letter: When our shoulders are heavy with the weight of life’s disappointments and challenges, we can double a ten-pound weight to twenty simply by keeping our thoughts ruminating on our troubles. One strategy to lift the weight is to get the painful feelings out of us. Get out a piece of paper and contemplate the focus of your anger, sadness, or frustration. Is it a particular individual or just life overall? Address your letter accordingly. Write about how the person or life has treated you unfairly and how this has made you feel. Then, commit to letting go of harmful thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that have resulted. Write down what beneficial thoughts, emotions, and behaviors you commit to experiencing instead. This letter isn’t for sharing, it’s just for you. It’s an act of self-compassion to allow you to release ruminations of toxic experiences and feelings that are harming you.
We cannot stop life’s challenges from occurring and we are most certainly allowed to feel negative emotions. However, we can teach ourselves to reclaim our minds from our Inner Antagonist when we feel the pull to go down that rumination rabbit hole. It’s dark down there and you deserve to live in the light.