A number of weeks ago someone asked me how to work with rumination. I told her how rumination is the mental component of an emotion and that in order or really work with rumination we need to access the physical part of that emotion, to find where in our body we feel the physical relative of the mental rumination. I’ve been experiencing some rumination myself lately, so I’ve had a chance to go a bit deeper into an exploration of rumination. This is what I’ve discovered, and how you might work with rumination.
Rumination is a form of resistance. Rumination is thoughts and words cycling around and around our mind as a way to try to rewrite the ending to a story that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, or as a way to try to orchestrate a future event in the way we want it to go. Rumination is our mind trying to control an event, to try to find some stability and some comfort in a sense of control when being out of control is wildly disorienting and threatening. Rumination is the mind’s way of avoiding feeling a threat or to avoid accepting that there is threat. It’s our mind trying to keep us safe, telling us that there is a way to control something if we just try hard enough, if we just work out the right formula, if was just find the secret sauce.
It’s no wonder our mind goes to rumination. Having events being out of our control is threatening, especially if we experienced a childhood that felt out of control, where we did not know where to find safety in a consistent, predictable way. If we were that child (and many of us were), we were probably constantly on the lookout for threats to our safety and possible ways to find comfort in something predictable. One way to predict something is to control it, so a child in a chaotic environment where their needs are not being met may well start to believe that if they just tried hard enough, they could control their environment and bring themselves a sense of safety. This way of thinking may well have kept a child psychologically safe: the illusion of control helps us to feel less like a victim with no sense of agency. The illusion of control can actually be empowering.
However, that illusion of control is also crazy-making and breeds hypervigilance. Hypervigilance can be very useful as a child: being constantly on the look out for threats or for ways to potentially control our environment probably helped us survive. But, as adults who no longer need to continually work out psychological ways to get the other adults around us to keep feeding us, hypervigilance becomes a burden and can transform into rumination. Once again, it’s that sense that if I just think about something enough I can control it or avoid accepting its truth; I can make it become something different so that I am protected.
So, what do we do about this as adults with the power to release our clever, adaptive but now redundant coping strategies? We move toward releasing the rumination. This is going to involve challenging the very premise underpinning rumination: that I can control things or change an outcome if I just try hard enough or fantasize creatively enough, and in doing so I can avoid suffering. Overcoming rumination is going to involve letting go of the illusion of control over here and turning toward our pain over there. This is where mindfulness and self-compassion come in really handy, as well as the support of a teacher or community who can hold us and our process.
Here are some ways we might release rumination:
- Go ahead and write that angry email or letter – to the object of your pain, to God, to whoever, but just don’t put the intended recipient’s email address in the “To” field. Let your mind believe that this email will be sent and allow it to unleash it’s full fury. Release the energy around this situation out into the body of your email. Be as erudite and as colorful in your language as you like. You’ve gotta get this stuff out.
- Email or talk with a teacher, good friend or supportive community about whatever it is that’s going around and around in your mind. Get the thoughts out. Talk about the emotions. Talk about the places you feel stuck. This is, again, releasing the energy around this situation.
- As you empty out, use your mindfulness practice to notice what’s going on in your mind and body. The subject of your rumination was probably quite familiar to you, a somewhat comfortable way of being. Notice what it feels like to start to let go of some of that. It might be quite challenging – better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, as they say. The devil you don’t know will probably be confronting – take your time, and remind yourself that you’re worth the trouble. You deserve to be free.
- Use your self-compassion practice to hold yourself in whatever you’re feeling. There is no right way and no wrong way to feel around this process. Allow your process to be beautifully, creatively, intuitively yours. Tell your support tribe about your process. Let them love you.
- As much as you can, be open to soft emotions like sadness, grief, longing, loss, loneliness and hurt. These are the emotions rumination is trying to protect you from. Understand that you need to hold yourself in the midst of these emotions to liberate yourself from the repetition of ruminative thoughts. Know that you care deeply about yourself, that you do feel that you are worthy of being free (you wouldn’t be reading this newsletter if you didn’t, my friend).
- Allow yourself to be forgiven by yourself. Your system is always doing the best it can – ALWAYS. Never doubt that or think that you should be a better person. Never allow yourself to beat yourself up for past actions. I know it might seem like it’s the only thing that makes sense, but you deserve better. You deserve to be allowed to be you, warts and all, just as we all are. You deserve to be allowed to blunder, to be confused. You deserve credit for doing the best you can in every situation.
- Soothe yourself. This process can be painful. Take a walk in nature, pat your beloved 4-legged friend, book a massage, eat chocolate frozen yoghurt in front of re-runs of “Project Runway.” Reward yourself for having done some really big work. Tend to that inner child. Love her/him up.
And email me as much as you like. Tell me how it is for you. Tell me about your process. Let me give you the permission to do what you can’t quite find the permission to do for yourself. I love being the permissionator. I’ll fling that shit all over the place.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let that ruminator know that you’ve got a date with me. If you’d like to keep exploring ways your practice can keep you on that path to liberation, maybe we can do some work together as part of the Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom mentoring program. You are not alone. And you deserve some company!