While working with a senior leader I was surprised to learn that what was stopping her from taking on a new sizeable challenge at work was her incessant rumination about a situation that happened long ago. She was overthinking it, and it was undermining her confidence.
Rumination is the habit of hanging on to the negative things that happened in the past and retelling the story to yourself again and again. According to Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith in How Women Rise, women often blame themselves for what they did (or didn’t do) in the past, while men tend to show anger and lay blame on others. Rumination can be tough to detect in both women and men who do it because it operates as an internal monologue that we can’t hear. Most corporate leadership development programs don’t address rumination, but its impact on leaders is nevertheless real.
Why Do We Ruminate?
There are many reasons why we repeat unpleasant stories to ourselves. In the moment, we may think we’re doing something purposeful by extracting the learning from a situation by going over it repeatedly. Yet after a while, the learning stops, and the self-criticism can exact a toll on our confidence. Or we continue to go over the negative story because we don’t feel we should let ourselves off the hook for something we regret. We may believe it’s right to feel bad about ourselves.
Still others may not be aware that they’re ruminating. It’s understood that girls start to ruminate in adolescence, so it can be the air that they breathe when they reach adulthood. That’s the impact of perseverating over something negative.
In their book, Helgesen and Goldsmith offer amusing and memorable commentary on the meaning of the word “rumination.” Ruminants are cows, goats, deer and other animals that eat only plants and work hard to extract the protein from them. They predigest their food, and then they chew it before it’s finally digested. That’s essentially what we do when we return again and again to “chew the cud” of our negative stories: We turn them over and over in our minds.
In the case of my client, she was ruminating about a situation that happened six years ago when she was criticized at the start of her new role. During our coaching sessions, I encouraged her to catch herself each time the situation came to mind, and she learned that she did it far more often than she’d estimated. When I first asked her whether she ruminated about the situation, she said no, but as her awareness grew, she recognized that she did and expressed an interest to work on it so rumination would no longer restrain her.
With time, she came to see that the story was acting as a cautionary tale that impaired her ability to view herself objectively when faced with the decision of whether to accept a new assignment. She feared that she would disappoint herself and others from the very start and that history would repeat itself with the same players. Does that sound familiar?
It’s easy to read about self-limiting behaviors and think that we can self-manage them by simply spotting the behaviors. But it takes resourcefulness and action to lead ourselves in a healthier direction. Men and women all ruminate to some degree, but there are strategies that can help stop the ruminating before it gets out of hand and hardens the way we think about ourselves and our capabilities.
There are many ingenious ways to stop the ruminating early to avoid getting stuck. Here are three:
1. Identify what’s at the root of the story.
We can blame ourselves even when it’s unjustified. Is the root of the story about being criticized or your quest for perfection? Figure out what’s really bothering you.
2. Consult others, especially those who were involved.
Others who are part of the story may be more objective about what happened than you are. There’s a time when I wish I had consulted others. Early in my consulting career, I conducted a workshop helping people identify the psychosocial barriers to medical rehabilitation. Some people pushed back loudly on the content. It wasn’t until years later that I was recognized by someone in that training session who told me how transformative the training had been. I was caught off guard by her praise. She picked up on my surprise and said that the resistance I received wasn’t noteworthy in their culture and that the resisters often challenged new information. I remember thinking about how much time I’d wasted because I’d been needlessly ruminating about the experience.
3. Talk it out to gain a new perspective.
Even though my client returned again and again to her story about being criticized and knew that she wasn’t to blame, it wasn’t until she talked it all out that she could view it from a new perspective and say that she was ready to let it go. And she did.
Rumination And Self-Reflection
Rumination and self-reflection can be confused with one another, but they’re different. Rumination is unproductive and occurs when you have involuntary thoughts that linger far longer than what’s needed to problem solve. As you ruminate, you’re likely adopting a fixed mindset about your potential where you come to believe that you’re either good at something or you aren’t and that there’s nothing you can do to develop yourself. The impact of ruminating often is taking fewer risks, so making safe decisions becomes the game.
Self-reflection is part of the thinking process where we adopt a growth mindset and appreciate that with more effort and practice, rather than withdrawal and feeling bad about ourselves, we can succeed. The impact of reflecting on our effectiveness is a healthy appetite for risk that’s often necessary for learning, creativity, general well-being and leadership.
This blog post is revised from the original, published by Forbes.com. Thank you to Matt Thornhill for the photo.