When we ruminate, we have negative thoughts about the past. Thoughts like: Why did it happen to me? Why didn’t I speak up? Why was he so unfair? Why was she so mean? When we ruminate for a long time, we often become sad, and we can experience a sense of meaninglessness. We become filled with guilt, shame, and remorse.
As mentioned we use the term “rumination” to describe the process of ruminating in our minds. It’s the same word used to describe cows chewing their cud. It’s a very fitting image, in my opinion. Chewing on something, it goes down into one stomach, comes back up and goes into the other stomach, and it continues like that. But to what avail? I often encounter people who believe that it’s important to process the past and that one does so by thinking deeply about it.
I’m not fond of the term “processing.” What does it really mean? In the Dictionary, it says that processing means “to think about and psychologically relate to a grief or (unpleasant) experience one has had.” I find the wording “relate to” rather vague. This seems very fluffy. What does it mean to relate to something? Is it to acknowledge its existence, to have an opinion about it, to be emotionally connected to it… Relating can be many things, and that’s why processing, in this understanding, becomes incredibly abstract, leaving people in an endless, undefined realm of thoughts.
This can result in overthinking – here we are back to the cow chewing its cud. So, what can we do then? First and foremost, I advocate for letting go of the concept of processing. I don’t think it helps us. In fact, I believe it does the opposite.
When the past weighs heavily, it is constructive to focus on the aspect of learning. And there is always learning. Sometimes it’s concrete, other times it’s existential. For example: “I have learned that I can overcome difficult periods in life.”
When we delve into research on resilience and post-traumatic growth, learning is a central aspect. Being able to extract learning from both positive and negative events and experiences is crucial for emerging stronger on the other side.
My suggestion is that we consider whether and how the concept of processing should be used, and whether we are actually inviting overthinking by telling ourselves and each other that we need to process things. Instead, let’s help ourselves and each other extract learning from what we experience – both the good experiences and those that hurt. Because that makes us much more resilient!