Psychologist Michael Greenberg lays out four different kinds of compulsive thinking traps we often get caught in.
I’ve done all of these at one time or another and am glad to have them laid out so I can catch them when they crop up.
Rumination is a common but very unhelpful habit that fuels unhappiness and stress. In each of these cases below, our rumination poses as problem-solving but it acts as emotional avoidance instead.
Ruminating when there’s no ideal choice. Stewing over options that we wish were better is not the same as purposefully thinking about a decision we need to make. In this trap, we’re unwilling to accept that there are limited options and we imagine if we keep turning them over and over that we’ll find an ideal solution hidden in there somewhere. This kind of thinking is fueled by perfectionism. When we’re in a perfectionist mind state, we also underestimate the cost of not making a choice. Instead, we need to accept that choices come with tradeoffs and that the real world is not ideal. Decisiveness is associated with good mental health and getting better at making choices without a lot of rumination will serve you well more generally.
Thinking your way out of a feeling. When you get mad or disappointed, do you do a ton of analytical thinking about “what happened” rather than acknowledge your feelings? Those of us who tend to minimize our feelings (“it wasn’t so bad”) or turn to self-criticism (“if only I hadn’t….”) in the face of a difficult feeling are trying to think our way out of them. What we need to do is name and validate the feeling we’re having rather than try to ruminate our way out of it, which doesn’t work and is exhausting. Rumination drags out and deepens painful feelings while accepting the feeling as a normal part of our experience without attaching a lot of analytical story-telling to it will allow it to roll through the nervous system surprisingly quickly. We feed and amplify feelings through our analytical story-telling which can turn them into more entrenched moods.
Thinking your way out of something that happened. This kind of rumination can be sparked after social or professional interactions that have a bit of ambiguity to them. In the face of that ambiguity, we get caught in revisiting, analyzing, interpreting, and doubting what something meant or what “in fact” happened. Was she being sarcastic when she said that? What did he mean by that word he used in the email? What was her intention behind asking that of me? When an event causes an uncomfortable feeling, we hope to arrive at some kind of certainty about “what really happened” by going over and over it. What we need in this situation is to tolerate the lack of perfect knowledge, to accept that there’s ambiguity in human interactions that cannot be perfectly clarified. We can act to try to get more clarity or we can decide to let it go because it’s not that important. Ruminating isn’t going to help with either of those actions (see item 1 above). If you’re asking “but was it this or was it that?” say back to yourself “who knows?” or “it could be either” and question the cruciality or feasibility of really knowing.
Ruminating on loss versus vulnerability to loss. An example of this is a person caught in a thinking loop about whether to end a relationship they feel uncertain about so they don’t have to live in fear of it ending later. People who have trouble tolerating feelings of vulnerability are going to be prone to this kind of ruminating. To love is to feel vulnerable and to want things for your life is to feel vulnerable because we may get disappointed. People who find it hard to tolerate feeling vulnerable are going to want to bring premature closure to unfolding situations so they don’t have to experience not knowing what might happen next. It’s a conflict between our desire for connection and our desire for certainty. We can do this about all kinds of situations, for instance by saying, “I’m not going to let myself have hope about X anymore” (where X is a normal thing humans have hope about). We imagine choosing the certainty of hopelessness will be better than coping with the uncertainty of having a variety of unpredictable feelings. Of course regardless of what we choose now, we’re still going to have a parade of unpredictable feelings later because that’s life. Learning how to tend to difficult feelings is the answer here rather than trying to choose in advance not to have them.
If you catch yourself in one of these thinking traps, name it: “I see I’m trying to think my way out of my feelings right now.” Stop feeding the story-telling and instead turn to the feeling and name that: “Oh, I’m really mad about this.” Read here about how to handle difficult feelings more skillfully.
We may be able to increase our information about situations, but there will always still be some uncertainty. Even if we manage to perform “perfectly” we still don’t control outcomes; they belong to the future. Practice accepting the truth of this.
As to the situation that led you into the thinking trap, intentionally choose to act on it or let it go. Either way — acting or letting it go — rumination is not the way forward. Read here for more on how to stop yourself from ruminating.