"Shut up, she tells her monkey mind. Please shut up,
you picker of nits, presser of bruises, counter of losses,
fearer of failures, collector of grievances future and past". Leni Zumas, Red Clocks
What an expressive way to describe how our minds can create misery for us when we are ruminating or obsessing. Do you ever feel like your mind is just pressing on your bruises; making you relive something unpleasant or repeating hurtful messages? When I was a young child, I was very concerned with being misunderstood or criticized. When I said something, I would usually repeat what I had said in my mind. I think I was checking out how it sounded as if to reassure myself that it was okay. What I didn't know was that I was actually moving my lips when I did this. My brother would tease me by moving his lips and it took me a while to even understand what he was teasing me about. So I learned to repeat the words in my head with my lips still. Just like I learned to read without moving my lips. That cut down on the teasing but did nothing for the underlying problem.
I was talking with a client recently who was describing a situation at work in which someone had been rude to her. Even though she had many positive experiences from customers at work, this one really got stuck in her mind.
"Why," she asked, "can’t I just let it go and stop thinking about it?"
She kept replaying the situation in her mind feeling both misunderstood and angry. She incessantly replayed the interchange word for word as well as things that she wished she had said. It was as if by ruminating, she could somehow change what had happened.
Replaying something after it has occurred, is an activity of the brain that functions as part of the process of learning. Learning from our experiences gives us a sense of mastery over ourselves and our circumstances. Learning is a process that is for the benefit of the learner. Once learning has occurred, there is no need to continue reviewing the event.
However, when the focus of our attention is on something external such as someone or something that we can’t change, then there is nothing to learn and therefore there is no ending point for the replay. Nothing can be learned when the focus is external.
Examples of the types of thinking which may lead to ruminating or obsessing:
Wishing something had not occurred when it did
Wishing another person had behaved differently
Wishing another person thought differently
Wishing you had done something differently
Fearing that something bad will happen
Fearing that you will do something wrong or foolish
All these types of thoughts have a couple of things in common. Look to the last phrase of the quote above for a clue. First, none of them are focusing on the present. For you grammar nerds, notice that the verb tense of each statement is past or future. I've written a blog called "What Verb Tense are You Living in?" which explores this idea further. Secondly, the focus is not on learning.
It's okay to wish these things but when the wish begins to control your thoughts and interfere with mood, sleep, or other activities, it's time to shift the focus. Focusing instead on yourself in the present tense puts you back at the wheel. Similarly, obsessing is an activity of the brain which is fueled by the hope that if you think about it long enough, you’ll be able to control it. But when the focus of our attention is something that we cannot change, such as another person being rude, there is no conclusion for the obsessive thoughts. So they continue to repeat fruitlessly.
Now when I find myself replaying things I've said in my head, I redirect my thoughts as soon as I become aware. Notice, I didn't say that I never do it anymore, rather I'm much faster at stopping the replay.
Steps for Refocusing Your Mind:
Is there anything I can do about the situation?
Is there anything I can learn from this situation to prevent it from reoccurring?
Is there any truth I need to tell myself to comfort or reassure myself that it's okay?
As my client was telling me about the situation, we went through the above questions. She concluded that there was nothing she needed to do about the event. She also decided that there was nothing that she needed to learn to keep this type situation from occurring again.
Then, I asked her how old she felt when the person was being rude. She recognized that they had actually made her feel like a little kid. The person who was rude, brought up an old feeling for my client of being misunderstood and a desire to explain herself. She was replaying the event in her mind because she was chasing external validation. I asked what does someone need when they’re feeling this way? She said that she would need to be told that she doesn't have to make everything right, that she had not done anything bad and that she could go out and play (picturing herself at the age that she was feeling was an effective way to get in touch with her adult wisdom or wise mind). Instead of replaying the event in a fruitless attempt to get external validation, she found comfort by talking to herself compassionately and giving herself the reassurance that she had subconsciously wanted from the other person. The learning that she was missing by obsessing outwardly was that you can't please everyone, sometimes people are rude for their own reasons and it's okay to play (let go of worry) even when things aren't perfect.
Would you like to learn more about how to change the story that you've been believing about yourself and talk to yourself with wisdom? I have just completed a new workbook which can take you through a step by step process of increasing awareness of your old story, reevaluating the usefulness of it, and then rewriting the parts that need rewriting. I'm Not Good Enough: How the Stories You Tell Yourself are Ruining Your Life. There are over 30 handouts to take you through the whole process . To read more and order click here.
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