Rumination vs. Reflection: How to Positively Think About the Past

Revisiting the past and analyzing situations and behaviors isn’t all bad; the secret is in how we do it.

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Let’s consider the concepts of rumination and reflection and explore how we can think positively about the past.

We often talk about mindfulness and being present in the moment.

But going back and revisiting things that have already happened isn’t only helpful, it’s necessary to our success. 

Unfortunately, this can lead to overthinking. 

Overthinking is exactly what it sounds like — thinking too much.

It’s going over the same thought, again and again, analyzing the simplest of situations or events until reason and logic are out the window. 

Overthinking is extremely common; especially in young adults. Over 70% of 25-35-year-olds are prone to it. 

We know that overthinking can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and low confidence. 

However, revisiting the past and analyzing situations and behaviors isn’t all bad; the secret is in how we do it. 

Ruminating or Reflecting? 

Let’s start with a type of thinking called rumination

What is rumination? Let’s consider these 4 statements:

  • I always seem to be rehashing recent things I’ve said or done in my mind.
  • My attention is often focused on aspects of myself I wish I’d stop thinking about.
  • I often reflect on episodes in my life that I should no longer concern myself with.
  • I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments.

These are taken from a questionnaire about overthinking. 

Rumination is rehashing events from the past over and over, from a negative, self-critical frame of mind.

It is not only unhelpful but unhealthy; leading to stress, anxiety, depression and other issues.

At this point, you might draw the conclusion that just thinking about the past or yourself is bad for you. It isn’t! The secret is in how you think.

Let’s consider the following statements:

  • I’m interested in exploring my inner self.
  • Oftentimes, I look at my life in philosophical ways.
  • I enjoy meditating on the nature and meaning of things.
  • I love analyzing why I do things.

These statements come from the very same questionnaire, and they also relate to thinking about the past and revisiting old scenarios. 

What’s the difference? 

These phrases are neutral, not negative.

Instead, there’s a sense of enjoyment of the nuances of human experience. 

These statements are infused with curiosity, inquisitiveness, interest, respect for the self and for life. 

This attitude is entirely different from rumination: social scientists call it reflection and point out that, crucially, it does not lead to negative emotions.

Now that you know the difference, you can flip the switch and think positively about the past.

The next time you catch yourself lost in thought about the past, ask yourself: is this rumination or reflection?

If it is rumination, try switching it up by adopting the characteristics of reflection. 

For example, if you are upset that you lost your temper with your partner, avoid guilt and instead become curious

What was it exactly that made you angry? Why do humans even get angry? How could I avoid this in the future?

By challenging ourselves to think differently, we unlock a way to positively think about the past.

This allows us to take a negative habit (rumination) and turn it into a beneficial skill (reflection). 

Curiosity is a powerful concept, capable of completely shifting our mindset. In this exercise, we’ll explore how curiosity can also help us overcome anxiety. 

This article was written in conjunction with our friend Alexandra Cingi.

View some of her exercises here on Insight Timer, or visit her website for more.

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