When Bad Things Happen, Part 2

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I wrote in a previous post that what happens to you in life is less important than the story you tell yourself about it before or afterward. Every day, whether it’s the best or worst of your life, is made up of the same 24 hours.  This, too, will pass, if you let it.

But many of us have trouble letting go, especially of unpleasant events. Rumination is the act of replaying, over and over, an incident that we can no longer change. An argument with a family member, a mistake at work, discipline from your manager – even a chance remark from a stranger on the street. If you lay awake at night agonizing over the mistakes you’ve made or the injustices you’ve endured, you’re keeping them alive just as if you were still in the moment.

Rumination is unhealthy and debilitating, writes Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., an associate editor for the online blog World of Psychology.  “Rumination also becomes the fast track to feeling helpless. Specifically, it paralyzes your problem-solving skills. You become so preoccupied with the problem that you’re unable to push past the cycle of negative thoughts.”

Being disciplined or laid off is painful; the embarrassment, rejection, sadness, even anger you may be feeling are very real. And after the moment passes, it’s natural to take some time for introspection, time to review what happened and process how you feel about it. The more traumatic the incident, the longer you may need to reflect, process, and grieve.

But after a certain point, the story you tell yourself about the incident (how unfair it was, how sudden it was, how cruelly you were treated) will determine how you feel and how long you feel it. That puts you in charge of how long and how much you suffer.

If rumination is part of your pattern, letting go will improve your ability to succeed, your well-being, even your health. If you’re ready to disrupt your rumination habit, here are some tips.

  • Take your negative thoughts to the most extreme outcome. What’s the very worst that can happen? “My boss will demote me; I’ll end up serving food in the company cafeteria until they finally fire me. I’ll become homeless and wind up living in a box on the corner of Third and Main Streets.” By the time you get this far into your disaster scenario, your brain will start to protest and provide all the reasons it won’t happen – or what you can do to cope if it does.
  • Separate the incident you’re ruminating about into “things you can do something about” and “things you can’t.” Make a list of actions you can take to make things better. For example: Thing I can’t change: my boss is a micromanager who worries too much. Thing I can change: I lost my cool and spoke in anger. (“I’ll apologize tomorrow for speaking disrespectfully, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”)
  • Give yourself a rumination break. Set a time limit (say 15 minutes a day) where you’re allowed to fret, ruminate and fulminate as freely as you like. Add a punching bag session – do what it takes. Then put a lid on it for the rest of your day or night.

Rumination, like its counterpart worry, is helpful in small doses. But learning to let them go is life changing.

“Never regret anything from your past because one day, you’ll look back and thank it for hurting you so much that you decided to become a stronger human being.” Faith Starr

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