Part Three of a Series
Calling all worriers. You know who you are.
There was a time, many years ago, when I believed worrying was one of the means to success in my growing business. I believed that my continual creation of what-ifs and contingency plans B, C, D, and on through the alphabet, were what kept me from disaster. Thankfully, I learned that this behavior was simply a mind trap of sorts, a condition of allowing my mind to summon imaginary impending doom, then conceive of a host of solutions until satisfaction (or mental exhaustion) was reached. If you read my last post you’ll know I have since learned to discern my thoughts, as they often are not the truth. These thoughts of business disaster were certainly not true; in fact, the way to prevent failure is to stay fully present and in action. Therein lies the mind trap. Trapped in our minds, we cannot embrace the moment at hand. If ever there was a valid concern or issue in my business (and yes there were and are plenty—anyone who leads a business knows this), the answer is not to ruminate, the thing I found myself doing. What’s needed instead is presence, attention to the matter at hand. Reflection perhaps, on what brought me here. Planning, if needed, to prevent future issues. Then, I can let it go and return to present moment action.
In his whitepaper, “Wake Up!” Nick Petrie makes a distinction between reflection and rumination.1 We all must engage in healthy reviews of past events to learn and adjust for the future, and to function well in the world, we have to engage in positive planning. Petrie says we know that this essential reflection has become rumination when repeated thoughts and feelings about the past contain regret, and when future “planning” becomes a loop of worry and anxiety.
Do you ever ruminate? If you answered no, I implore you to share your secret. Seriously. Rumination is something almost all of us do from time to time. The extent to which we do it has a tremendous impact on our peace of mind—and also our health and well-being. When we imagine the worst about some future event, our bodies react as if it is actually happening. Our miraculous physiology gears up for fight or flight: adrenaline is produced to increase blood supply and cortisol to increase energy. All of this is good if there is a true crisis at hand. But if we subject our bodies to this regularly while driving home from work each day or at 3 a.m. each sleepless night, this excess adrenaline and cortisol eventually can produce heart disease and lower immune function. Managing and reducing rumination is an act of self-compassion.
In my book, What Leaders Need Now, I describe three “thieves” of self-compassion, personas who can live inside of us, stealing our ability to treat ourselves with the care and respect we might give others. They are the critic, the perfectionist, and the ruminator. Individuals with the ruminator persona overidentify with (and ruminate over) negative thoughts and feelings, sometimes to the point of inaction or physical illness. While the ruminator can stand alone as a worrier type, it can understandably live in partnership with the critic and the perfectionist. If either of those voices speaks to you repeatedly, the critic scolding about some made-up shortcoming or the perfectionist warning of the consequences of future failure, the voice is rumination in action.
In my work as a coach, I meet many ruminators. They range from those who self-disclose having “bag lady syndrome” a condition in which successful people (women and men, by the way) believe they will end up homeless, carrying their belongings on the street, to people who simply believe their thoughts and as a result make up stories about what happened or will happen next—stories that usually are not true. I wrote about this process of examining one’s thoughts in part two of this series. Let me share an example as it relates to rumination.
I have a client, an accomplished, brilliant professional, who had been ruminating about a necessary courageous conversation with a colleague who admires and respects her. From my vantage point, I believed he would be happy to have this information, and would be able to support her even more, equipped with the information she had to share. When I asked her what she was afraid would happen, she said she thought it might end their working relationship. Dumbfounded, I gently asked, “Is that really true?” thinking that she would realize her flawed thinking the moment she considered her thought. Yet she persisted. “Well, maybe,” she said. “It could happen.”
While the antidote to rumination is presence, it can be tricky if we think our “mind” is who we really are. When talking with this client, I was reminded of Byron Katie’s brilliant “The Work.”2 In a short series of questions, she helps us examine our thoughts and move beyond the belief that our mind is in charge. After my client worked through these questions, she committed to having the conversation with her colleague. A few days later, as predicted, she excitedly reported that he was very receptive to her input and had ideas of his own that might move her vision forward even faster.
Here are the four questions that compose The Work.
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
Notice that the last question clearly separates “you” from your thoughts. Who are you without your thoughts?
You can find the next steps of this process and more, including detailed worksheets, on Bryon Katie’s website.
Sometimes rumination is a habit that can be interrupted with an activity that creates presence and mindfulness. If you are aware that you are ruminating, do something else instead. What you do depends on when you most frequently ruminate. If you do it when driving, listen to music you love or a podcast instead. A colleague recently recommended the “Headspace” app for those times when we wake up in the wee hours, recalling everything that did not go as planned over the past 20 years. Plan regular time for walks, exercise, meditation, prayer—whatever works for you to create mindful presence.
Consider working with the mind traps you create for yourself when you believe your thoughts. Journal, work with your coach, or look into more of Nick Petrie or Byron Katie’s work. Psychologist Dr. Derek Roger’s research estimates that we spend up to 70% of our waking time in rumination.3 That’s a heavy load to carry.
1. Petrie, Nick. “Wake Up! The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience.” The Center for Creative Leadership, August 2013.
2. Katie, Byron. The Work of Byron Katie. https://thework.com/instruction-the-work-byron-katie/.
3. Petrie, “Wake Up!”