It is great that human beings can reflect and learn from experience, but that is not the same as destructively dwelling on things. Brooding will not only get you down, it’ll make the misery seem more real and present. Reflection is good, but brooding is not; it is simply reinforcing the bad stuff, in some cases preventing us from moving on in our lives.
We all have ups and downs, and we all find it difficult to get over some things. But to keep revisiting our perceived failures only leads to more of the same. Each time we re-live an experience it becomes more difficult to let it go.
The problem is that brooding, or ruminating, is pernicious; unless it is nipped in the bud it can become a sweetly seductive habit. It may feel as though thinking about something in this way will allow us to purge it and move on, but it doesn’t, the opposite happens. Going over an incident time and again actually reinforces it and embeds it into our thinking. The more we do it the less likely we are to be able to forget it. We are rehearsing the future.
It seems too that we have a natural inclination to re-hash the bad stuff in this way, never the good stuff. Left to its own devices the mind just seems to latch on to ‘what went wrong’, and never, ‘what went right’.
Of course, this is stronger in some people than others. It all has to do with what is known as our attributional style; the way we explain to ourselves why things happen to us. And how we explain things to ourselves is one of the underpinning causes of depression, so watch out! In my therapy practice, when I see people suffering from depression the most important thing as a first step, they often say, is to stop the intrusive and recurrent thoughts.
What to do?
If you want to change a brooding habit, you can. There are plenty of ways you can break the cycle of rumination.
Mindfulness and relaxation seem to be the quickest way for some people. We can only concentrate on one thing at a time and mindfulness requires just that. Practising simple mindfulness exercises each day will start to educate your patterns of thinking; doing something different requires a little discipline if it is to become a habit.
Or you can learn to stop a thought by immediately doing something else; distracting yourself, especially effective if it involves physical activity as well as a change of focus.
One very simple way is to start to re-educate your thinking style buy actively choosing to change perspective. For example, take a few minutes each day to list your successes.
The key thing here is that we can all learn to change habits we don’t like or want in ourselves, however strongly they are embedded. You can learn to stop brooding by yourself, or you can find a therapist. Contact me if you’d like to discuss it.