Watching from the Outside

I'm in the intersection, waiting to turn left.  The light goes from green to amber, and I start inching my way out to turn.  I see an old beat up red Nissan coming from a ways away, with plenty of time to stop.  But it doesn't stop, it just keeps coming, racing through a late red light.  I lay the horn on, nice and long to show my contempt, and display my frowny face as the culprit passes by and I complete my turn.

This is the scene I brood on as I continue on my drive, buy groceries, sit in a coffee shop.  Why am I thinking about this over and over again, on a day that should be dedicated to remembering important and meaningful events and people?  I should be remembering my grandfather's older brother, Fred Allen, who died a month after D-Day.  I should be remembering how he made the hard choice of participating in a war for belief and duty, and for the sake of his loved ones, his community, and by extension his country.  Instead I'm just sitting here thinking about a crummy red Nissan with a green N on the back.

My great uncle, Fred Allen

My great uncle, Fred Allen

So I decided to find out why it is that we replay stressful or painful experiences in our minds, over and over again, after the event has passed.  And even more importantly, how can we turn this response into something productive and useful.

"Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do, but never gets you anywhere."  -Erma Bombeck

Replaying stressful or painful experiences in our minds is called ruminating.  Not everyone has the same tendency for ruminating; some do it more, some do it less.  We ruminate because it can feel good.  It can help us to reflect on a problem that we've had, and figure out how it could have gone better.  However, ruminating is comprised of not just reflection, but brooding too.  Reflection can be positive, but brooding by definition is not.  Brooding focuses on the negative aspects of the experience, rather than how to make similar experiences better in the future.

We can use mindfulness techniques and meditation to reduce the amount of ruminating we do.   But what if you're naturally predisposed towards ruminating?  If reflection is good, but brooding is bad, how can we build upon the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of rumination?  There is a very simple, very straightforward trick for capitalizing on rumination.  When you ruminate, instead of thinking of the experience in the first person, imagine watching it unfold from a third-person perspective.

This simple trick works because it takes the self-focused aspect of brooding and removes it from the equation.  All that's left is an objective reflection of an event.

Think of how many times you've observed the same situation described at the start of this article in the third-person.  Did you honk in rage yourself at the red light runner, and shake your fist in angry support of the poor left turner?  No, you likely observed the situation in a calm and detached manner, ready to call 911 in the event of an accident.  And how much time did you spend after the fact ruminating on what had just happened?  You probably didn't give it a second thought, except to note that some people run red lights and to be careful when turning left through an intersection yourself.

Voila, reflection without brooding through observation as a third party!  This is a great trick to turn ruminating, which if overdone can lead to stress, anxiety, and/or depression, into helpful reflection.  We can use a simple change of perspective to turn a negative experience into a neutral one.

Let's spend less time ruminating on negative experiences, and more time remembering what's important.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

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