Yesterday it occurred to me that people are generally of two types—anticipators or ruminators. Sure most of the attention goes to whether or not people are positive or negative. But I’ve witnessed some people who claim to be optimists, and yet they overthink and obsess over their past, their worries, or their claims of injustice nearly every day. Perhaps it is SMART to consider other possible directions of our focus and explore ways to calibrate our attention in a more helpful way.
First, let me define the differences by way of an example. My husband Thom and I are fortunate to work with a married couple in their nineties. And when I say work, I do mean work. Larry first contracted with Thom over 25 years ago when Larry was just an alert youngster of 68. From the beginning, Thom admitted that Larry was exceptionally forward thinking. Later we met his wife Joanne and realized they both possess the ability to leave behind and let go of details from the past. At the same time, they almost immediately shift their attention to what is on the horizon.
During the last 25 years, with Thom’s help, Larry and Joanne have successfully bought, owned and sold dozens of commercial properties. Most of the time, they make money, but not always. It doesn’t seem to affect them much either way. If it works out well—they are glad for a minute. If it crumbles and falls—they are grumpy for a minute. Either way, their conversation quickly shifts to the next deal, the next event, the next happening. Sure, at their age they’ve had some health challenges, but you’ll never hear them complain or ramble about specifics. I consider them “poster children” for positive anticipation. It’s certainly no wonder that at 93 and 92 respectively, every conversation they have is a focus on all the positive things that are happening now and in the future.
At the same time, I know another couple named Bill and Carol. Both Bill and Carol are 30 years younger than Larry and Joanne. They work hard and have risen to some degree of success in their lives. But if you sit and talk with them for any length of time the conversation always drifts to things that happened that keep them from enjoying life today. Their focus seems to obsess over what has gone wrong, what should be different, and things that can never be figured out. And like the Bruce Springsteen song “Glory Days,” they regularly talk about the good old days when they were young, carefree, and their future looked bright. I consider them stuck in rumination.
Of course, if you study the psychological aspects of rumination you’ll find that it is much more involved than living in the past. In many cases, it is a sign of deep depression and constantly obsessing or overthinking about things that simply cannot be changed or understood. Women tend to ruminate more than men, perhaps because we make relationships a priority and those are often fraught with uncertainty. Unfortunately, rumination is usually a vicious cycle that gets worse if not kept in check.
The Negative Consequences of Rumination
According to researchers, the habitual cycle of rumination often leads to:
- Hinders thinking and problem-solving;
- Pushes away people who can provide social support and friendship;
- Promotes addictions and other unhealthy behaviors;
- Destroys confidence and keeps one from taking steps to alleviate the problem;
- Triggers depression (up to four times as often) and keeps a person depressed.
Is Rumination Just Another Name For Worry?
According to a study done by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky, the primary reason people worry or ruminate is to control or deal with uncertainty. However, those researchers believe that there is a significant difference between the two strategies. Here is clarification.
Worry is usually:
- Focused on anticipated threat
- Contains the conscious motive to anticipate and prepare for threat
- Contains the unconscious motivation is to avoid core negative outcomes and painful images.
On the other hand, rumination is usually:
- More past/present oriented
- Focused on issues of self-worth, meaning, themes of loss, making sense of what’s happened
- Contains the conscious motive is to understand the deeper meaning of events, gain insight and solve problems.
- Contains the unconscious motivation to avoid troubling situations, making changes, or responsibility for taking action.
The differences are further explained by Nolen-Hoeksema, et al., who said, “…when people are worrying, they are uncertain about their ability to control important outcomes, but they have some belief that they could control those outcomes if they just try (or worry) hard enough. In contrast, when people are ruminating, they are more certain that important outcomes are definitely uncontrollable.”
Of course, an individual who is worrying or ruminating can shift back and forth between the two states depending upon the circumstances. But usually, when a person sees the situation as hopelessness and beyond their ability to control, they are ruminating. And as stated above, the negative consequences of rumination can then grow until the ruminator feels completely devastated and can do nothing positive to get off of the hamster wheel they have built for themselves.
How To Let Go of Thoughts That Bind You
The good news is that unless a person’s rumination has escalated into severe depression, there are things they can do to make the situation better. One of the easiest ways to stop ruminating is to distract yourself when you find yourself obsessing or overthinking any problem, situation or relationship. In other words, let go of the idea that you can ever figure it out or get to the hidden meaning.
According to the study done by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and others, diverting our attention to something that is “absorbing, engaging and capable of providing positive reinforcement,” can lift our mood and relieve our depressive symptoms.” That distraction can be as simple as, “going for a run or a bike ride, seeing a movie with friends, or concentrating on a project at work.”
Of course, those who routinely ruminate often find it easier to use negative distractors (like imagining something disastrous for example) instead of looking for thoughts that are more positive. Like any habit, if the mind is conditioned to look for the negative, it is much harder to see anything BUT the negative. And because that negative bias exists within them, they more easily are lead to destructive behaviors ( like addictions) to reduce the pain.
It’s easy just to tell someone to “think positive thoughts.” But what this information about rumination tells me is that if you are a ruminator at heart, it’s a lot harder to distract yourself in a positive way. So, what’s a person to do? As the researchers quoted in the post say, we must find something that engages us personally.
Also beneficial is looking honestly at our high expectations for ourselves, others, and even the events we judge. Much of what causes an escalation of rumination is seeking unattainable goals, perfectionism, or tying up our self-esteem in one area of our life. Instead, learning to take small steps towards goals that give us a sense of having control (however small), can lead to improvement.
Positive self-reflection is also helpful. But again, if a person is prone to rumination they might just reflect repeatedly on beating themselves up and feeling hopeless. The key to making it positive is asking, “Do I call my self-reflection ‘brooding’ or do I call it ‘pondering’?” If we can make that distinction, we may discover the more helpful aspects of the experience.
It’s also important to note that a key to moving beyond rumination is learning to problem-solve and reflect in a positive way. Remember, rumination is often about avoiding actions we don’t want to take, and what that change might mean in our lives. That’s why another valuable strategy is to practice mindfulness or meditation. Again, this is not to let the mind spin out of control in negativity, but instead to learn to train the mind in a more beneficial direction. Or like Nolen-Hoeksema and others say, “the key to therapy is for people to stop automatically accepting the true value of their negative thoughts and to choose to substitute these thoughts with more rational or adaptive ones.” They also remind us that we always have the ability to change things—even if it is just changing our minds about what’s happening.
Naturally, this article cannot explore all of the subtleties of rumination but what it looks like and how it feels is something I think many of us can relate to even if only occasionally. Do we spend our time anticipating positive things for the future, or ruminate and brood over things we can’t change or even know for certain? As always the SMART approach is to do our best to stay as awake, aware and mindful in the moment as much as possible—and then decide. So, which are you?
For the full paper go to: Rumination
Susan Mary Malone says
For most of my life, I was a ruminator. It came from death and loss early in life, which pretty much continued for quite a long time. In adulthood, I’ve obsessed about, well, pretty much everything!
But then, funny enough, I had a long and big bout with death and loss later in life as well. And those bookends caused me to truly reconsider what life truly means.
And to look in the mirror and see how my over-thinking everything was holding me back . . .
It’s been a process, but oh, how my life has changed! And not that I never backslide. I do. Old tapes and all that. But now I catch myself. Remember where I am, and what’s important.
And as you say, look toward tomorrow.
Great post, Kathy!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Susan! Thank you so much for your honesty! I think if most of us are honest there have been times when we’ve all gone down that slippery slope. I wasn’t surprised to learn that women ruminate more than men because even as optimistic as I am, I too have caught myself on more than one occasion. It’s the over-thinking and obsessing about things we simply cannot change that really trips us up. I have a very, very close girl friend just stop seeing me after over 10 years of friendship. I never knew why we “broke up” and kept thinking I could figure it our or understand what happened. That kept me trapped for quite a while until I just had to let it go. While my example sounds minor compared to yours, I do think we all experience it–and if we can learn at some point that it really is a CHOICE and then move on, our lives will be happier for it. thanks again for sharing this thought. ~Kathy
Susan Mary Malone says
That just made me think of something I recently heard Abraham say! That when we’re following Source, and keeping our energy levels high, sometimes our paths diverge from others we’ve been close to. And we have a tendency to wonder and even obsess about it.
But in actuality, we’ve just followed different paths.
I think I needed to hear this for me right now. Lol.
I was just having a discussion with a friend about attitude. Her husband is terminal and it is heartbreaking for her. He is accepting and hopeful. He is not yet with his cancer at the point to give up treatments, and he is not in denial. She is amazed with his attitude. From your post his is certainly not a ruminator. That said his attitude is interesting, is he just a worrier?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Thank you for offering up a really good example of a “natural” anticipator. It isn’t denying what is happening, I’m guessing it is just the quality of knowing what we can’t change in the moment and instead choosing to see what’s coming next. I listen to a lot of Abraham-Hicks and they remind me constantly that what we mostly want in every situation is a feeling of wellbeing about ourselves and our future. If we can focus on that while peacefully anticipating the future, then everything will work out for us–regardless of how challenging our circumstances. Of course, as I say repeatedly, it sounds simple but isn’t always easy. Of course worry carries another set of issues but I’ll leave that for another post! ~Kathy
lisa thomson says
Excellent topic and tips, Kathy. I’d have to say I’m an Anticipator. I’ve learned to ruminate less. I’ve learned that if something in my life is so terrible that I ruminate on it all the time—it’s a sign that I need to change something, or myself. I do take action and that really helps. I’d say that a hobby is a great way to distract ruminating thoughts and channel that energy. Thanks for sharing this wonderful subject. Joanne and Larry sound incredibly inspiring!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lisa! Thank you for pointing out that many of us used to ruminate more but we’ve learned that it doesn’t serve us. And as you say, most of the time it is a sign that we need to change something or ourselves and that action is the beginning step. And yes! A hobby that we love can be one of those “engaging” actions that are recommended to stop that hamster wheel. Thanks for your thoughts! ~Kathy
very lovely and insightful examples.I ampersonally a forward looking person.That not means I didn’t have a past.Few years ago I lost my bank account and my house and I was in great distress.But things could not hold me long.I took the lesson from there and decided to go ahead and today I can smile at them while looking forward to my destiny.
Thanks for this helpful post.
With best regards
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Abir! Welcome to SMART Living and thank you for your example of how sometimes challenging things happen but we can always move past them. I tend to believe that we are all more capable and more resilient than we sometimes realize and your story is a good example. I’m glad you’ve been able to overcome your past and move on. Keep it up! ~Kathy
Corinne Rodrigues says
Lovely examples, Kathy. We make or mar our own happiness not so much by what happens to us as by how we process these experiences. I do believe in looking at the past for lessons, but brooding over it serves no purpose.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Corinne! Doesn’t the word “brooding” say so much? Even when it sounds reasonable to do so, I don’t think it helps at all and not only makes the person doing it feel worse, but also everyone around them. It does make me wonder if the person who is doing it even realizes how it sounds to others or if they are so deeply entrained to it that they don’t understand how it is both perceived by others AND what it is doing to the person who is brooding? Either way, I found it helpful to remember to stop the brooding if I ever catch myself caught in that loop! ~Kathy
I have never been one to ruminate. Onward and upward are my go-to’s. I have found through the years that spending time with ruminater’s, who I feel are ‘debby downers’ only bring you down with them. I have had friends with those tendencies and tried to change their ways, but you can’t. So I move on and leave them to their chosen negativity. Life is too short to not look for the silver lining in whatever you’re doing. It’s a choice.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Barbara! Good for you! I am so convinced that those of us who are able to put painful things behind us have an easier time of it. Obviously, that doesn’t mean stuff doesn’t happen that we wished didn’t, but the less we fight with it and/or fuss about it the better. Unfortunately, if a person is “like that” it is impossible for us to change them (but I always hold out hope that they can change themselves if they try!) Thanks for your comment! ~Kathy
Beth Havey says
I am always forward looking. Yet at the same time, I do things to create a base from which to work. The changes that have occurred in my life in the last five years have been major: losing my mother, helping my husband overcome a cancer that could have killed him, moving from the Midwest to California and thus downsiziing and leaving behind friends and a certain pattern of living. Challenges. But we are not ruminating, well at least that’s not occupying our time. John is doing volunteer work, I am writing my novel, we are exploring our “new world” and making our lives count. Bottom line is we are fortunate in our outlook. And outlook starts very early on in life. Negative thinking can control us. Your post points that out.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Thanks for jumping in here early with a great personal example of being an anticipator. Surely you’ve had some challenges and heartbreak, but you haven’t let that define or immobilize you. Instead, you’ve made efforts to keep growing, connecting and experiencing the best that life has to offer. I realize it isn’t always an easy thing to do but when I see others stuck in rumination, it seems tragic to me. Thank you again for such a good example and congratulations for your ongoing happiness! ~Kathy