Every minute, thousands of thought processes run through your conscious mind. These thought processes may range from imagination to metacognition (thinking about thinking) and evocation (past thinking).
There are two kinds of past thinking: introspection and rumination.
Introspection is an eagerness to learn from past events. It is genuine, inquisitive probing into our past feelings, thoughts, and motives. Oftentimes, it leads to self-discovery and the gleaning of valuable information about ourselves and others.
When we introspect, we indulge in pleasant memories and may have positive emotions and nostalgia. Even from unpleasant memories, introspection can allow us to gain insight and learn how best to use our abilities and conduct ourselves in the future. Introspection is constructive.
On the other hand, rumination is regretful thinking, devoid of end result, and meaning. It is mental self-torture. When we ruminate, we’re judgmental, and fault-finding with ourselves and others. The consistent theme is ‘what did I do wrong?’, ‘what could I have done wrong?’, ‘What did they do wrong’, et cetera.
But, finding out who was wronged, and who was in the wrong adds nothing of value to the present. No insight is drawn and no conclusion is obtained. It only stirs up regrets and other negative emotions. Rumination is destructive.
My experience with rumination
A couple of years ago, in accordance with the laws in my country, I was obliged to spend a year living and working in another state, much farther from my local state. It was a period of growth, sacrifice, learning. But, there were some regrets.
In hindsight, some aspects of my stay began to seem irrational and self-damaging. Friendships began to appear for what they truly were – parasitic and pointless. Patience which had once seemed a virtue appeared nothing more than unnecessary torture.
I began to relive my mistakes, under the false pretence of ‘preventing myself from making the same mistakes’. I spent a lot of time replaying conversations and events, looking out for what I could have done better. Shortly after, my emotions, productivity, and business became affected.
I knew I needed to stop.
So, I picked up a pen, and this time, I was determined to introspect and learn. Before long, I had written several ‘lessons’ I learned during the course of my stay. Afterward, I reached out to forgive. First, I forgave myself for all errors and missteps. Then, I forgave everyone else.
Rumination is not worth it
The past is behind, absent, and without life. Whatever scars are there in your past, you must seek to heal. You must let bygones be and focus on being the best you could possibly be.
There’s something for you to create. There are boundless potentials within you. There is a business idea, an innovative solution, a better approach to problem-solving that you carry. And guess what? The world is waiting for your answer. Rumination, however, zaps away mental energy and is hardly an emotion for creativity.
Five reasons why you must quit past thinking (rumination)
According to Leo Babauta, the founder of Zen Habits, ‘repeated thinking about past events and experiences is the main cause for almost all unhappiness, regret, anger, hate, bitterness, and resentment.’
In reality, our lives are shaped by our thoughts. And, if these thoughts are past-obsessed, we are storing up for the future what we may have despised in the past.
At this point, you may interject and say, ‘but if I don’t think about my mistakes, won’t I make the same mistakes?’
The objective is to learn and not to wallow in these thoughts and the ensuing emotions. Rumination will always leave you feeling sadder and bitter. And, sadness is not an ideal classroom from which to learn.
Time, I remark is the very unit of life. We all have 24 hours each day and whether or not we use it constructively or destructively will determine what we amount to. Ruminating about the bitter past is not a constructive way to use time, and impairs our focus and concentration – a necessity for success.
Besides, being in a cycle of sadness and bitterness strips away valuable time that may have been invested in more worthwhile affairs, say, your family and business.
Your mental energy
Everything around us was once a thought, a figment of someone else’s imagination. And, if they’d been busy thinking about negative events in their past, they may not have created the things we enjoy today.
Imagine if Steve Jobs had continued to ruminate about how his board of directors fired him from his own company. Chances are, he may never have started NeXT and Pixar. He may never have returned to Apple and the iPhones may never have been birthed.
I like Mark Cuban’s example. The billionaire investor was fired from a PC company for the innocuous reason of an undisclosed lunch with a potential client. Writing afterwards in Forbes, he remarked:
“[My former boss] had a huge flaw: He never did the work. He never demonstrated the initiative to go out to sell. I had realized by that time that ‘sales cure all.’ That’s a phrase I still use to this day. He was my mentor, but not in the way you’d expect. Even now I think back to things he did, and I do the opposite. And he made me superstitious about titles. I’m never listed as the CEO of my companies. There is no CEO. I am the president.”
He turned a difficult situation into an opportunity to introspect and learn. He didn’t ruminate or indulge in self-pity. He learnt and moved on. You should too.
By swimming in the streams of past regrets and bitterness, our present relationships may be affected. The likelihood is that we may begin to view these relationships from a lens of the past. This makes it easier to transfer the emotions of the past into the present, and continue the cycle of negativity.
Research has proven that by causing stress, negative thinking adversely affects our health. Sustained levels of increased stress can cause sleeping disorder, memory impairment, and weight gain. Moreover, it can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
The five-step guide to overcoming rumination
Good news! If you’ve read this far, you’re already halfway there. Why? Because ‘a problem well stated is a problem half solved.’
By now, you understand that rumination doesn’t make you wiser, smarter, or better. It does however, make you unhappy, strips away valuable time and mental energy, and affects your relationships and health. To solve the other half of the rumination problem; here’s my five-step guide:
Usually, past thinking is birthed from harbouring feelings of unforgiveness, towards ourselves and others. Be kind to yourself, because whatever happened in the past is not an indicator of your abilities and perception. You didn’t know better, otherwise, you would have acted better.
Unforgiveness is burdensome and unnecessary weight in the journey of life. Forgiving others is for your productivity, happiness, and peace. It’s the only power you have over persons who may have offended you. So, use it.
Thinking about the past is pointless if you’re not going to gain any valuable insight from it. Rather than continuing the cycle of rumination, you must introspect and learn. To help with this process, I recommend using a pen and paper to write down your inferred ‘errors’ and your resolutions for each error. Afterwards, transfer the resolutions to a separate note, study it, and move on.
Create new memories
The next step in this process is to create new (and better!) memories. In John Mason’s words, ‘the obstacles of life are intended to make us better, not bitter’. So, be better. Learn something new, invest in yourself, make new friends, and create new memories. They won’t all be perfect. But, having already been introspective, you’d be better equipped to deal with whatever happens in the future.
Increased awareness and being more aware of your own thought process will help you recognize and stop rumination in its tracks. This awareness will help you observe your thoughts without being absorbed by them. If your thoughts are steering towards negative past thinking, you can then consciously think of something positive, perhaps count, or listen to music.
Relaxation methods like meditation and yoga will help you improve mindfulness.
And, Seek help!
Sometimes the scars of the past are too deep even for introspection, forgiveness, and mindfulness to soothe. In this case, it’s necessary to seek counselling. The emphasis of counselling is ‘to promote introspection over rumination’. And, getting professional help, or perhaps even talking with close friends and family may be helpful to stop past thinking and become more forward-focused in pursuit of your goals.