I had a friend who was in a bad romantic relationship. She lived near me, so we so saw each other all the time. For months it seems like every conversation would eventually circle back to her boyfriend. I listened day in and day out to her interpretations of whatever he last did or didn’t do. How should she respond? What did it mean? Was he thinking this, or was he thinking that? What would be her best move? Should she call back? Wait a day then text back? Which one was best? Did she need to end it? Or could she salvage his interest and the relationship?
I was trying hard to be a good friend but was overwhelmed by hearing so much of her internal chatter.
Everyone recognizes her experience. The relationship was all that was on her mind. Even when she tried her best to focus on something else, the same nagging thoughts and intrusive questions snuck in. It pervaded her every waking moment, and while it had lots of permutations, it was essentially just an interminable song on repeat.
More Common Than Your Think
I have clients that do this too.
Even Founder CEOs. One of them describes it as feeling possessed; like his entire brain has been hijacked by the repeating noise. It’s usually about either sales or raising new funding. He said he would get back to me today. Why haven’t they emailed? Does silence mean they’ve moved on? We should have better refined the deck. Are they going to invest? What if they low-ball us, or ask for too much? How will I counter? Is our valuation ok? Do we have too much churn? Too few customers?
You might think that all of that consideration would be helpful –and a bit of it is. But when it disintegrates into ruminating it is no longer useful. The brain has been hijacked.
The Technical Terms
In psychology they call these kinds of persistent and repetitive thought patterns perseveration. It’s a pretty perfect word, a variation of persistence. The thoughts persist beyond what we experience ordinarily.
Sometimes we are reliving past events in our minds –repeating whole conversations to ourselves, wishing things had gone differently, wondering what we could have said. That’s rumination. Think of a cow chewing cud –over and over and over.
For most people this may be an infrequent annoyance and distraction. But for other, it can be a harbinger of bigger issues.
Often, rumination involves self-blame. Perseveration and blaming ourselves over a long period of time can toxify our states of mind. It sends us down a blind tunnel. Those who do it frequently or for very long periods of time can be in danger of depression.
You might think that this endless self-recrimination happens only with traumatic or significant events in life. Not true. Any event may trigger rumination. It’s not the event that matters but how you relate to it—how you frame it later. Do we move past it, or do we let it fester, replaying it to ourselves in an endless loop?
It’s important to notice it and take steps to interrupt yourself if you find your internal chatter on repeat.
Perseverating about the future has a similar internal quality. We are worrying –but endlessly. Rethinking the same thoughts over and over. Trying to predict, orchestrate, ensure or anticipate the way something will go.
Get Out of My Head!
Whether about the future or past, both versions are stifling. They take us out of present and disrupt our ability to listen and fully engage. They also overshadow more important and thoughtful planning.
Of course, we need to think. And it pays to revisit our decision-making process or actions through a critical filter. Learning from them for the future. That kind of productive thinking is additive and dynamic. It is an important part of our creative engine –not a mental sinkhole.
The problem with repetitive rumination –apart from making us feel alienated, possessed and often, depressed, is that it makes no difference. It doesn’t accomplish anything, change anything, execute or create anything.
It makes no difference.
What to do? How can we exercise the demon possessing our thoughts?
An Off Switch?
There are several suggested remedies. These have worked for my clients –and use them myself when I find myself stuck on repeat!
Our experience is often a simple function or how we speak to ourselves. Language forms our perception. So, finding the language to alter your perspective is powerful. As Wittgenstein said, “The limits of language are the limits of my world.”
And the breadth of language, and tone of it can alter our world.
A few of these suggestions have been derived from experiments. Scientists have observed people’s brain activity depending on the way their ruminating diatribe is articulated.
Try any or all of these ideas. Learn what works best for you. What works today may not work tomorrow. Build a varied toolbox!
- Remind yourself that all the thinking in the world makes no difference. Only action makes a difference.
- If you have someone in your life who can “talk you down”, have a chat with them. They can lend an outside view that may help quiet the noise.
- Write it down. Take the time to do a complete brain dump. Sometimes when our minds can rest assured that we haven’t left out anything, and that it’s been stored, we can let go.
- Give yourself an appointment to ruminate. Say, from 3:00 to 3:15. Let it rip! For 15 minutes.
- Try speaking to yourself by name or nickname as you articulate it internally. This isn’t about speaking of yourself in the third person. Instead, you position yourself as someone else, talking to you. That also creates some distance from the worry. Distance can clear away the internal struggle.
“Amie, you don’t need to figure this out. What does it matter to you Devero? How about you move on to something that does make a difference, huh? You are totally better than this!” The rumination can be flipped into encouragement or even cheerleading: “Stop worrying Babe. You killed it!”
Watch how this young girl encourages herself to overcome fear. It’s just a few seconds from about 16:00. It works.