Why Am I Always Thinking About The Past?
People tend to be quite different in the things they think about. Some people are always thinking about the future, and the good and bad things that might happen to them. Other people have their mind mainly in the present without much thought for the past or future. Other people have an orientation more towards the past, but there are two quite different ways of thinking about the past. These two ways of thinking about the past are known as rumination and introspection.
Introspection – curiosity and self-exploration
Firstly, introspection means thinking about the things that happen to you with an attitude of curiosity and self-exploration. To display introspection means to be interested in your past and to try to draw some conclusions about yourself or other people. Or, to simply spend time thinking about the pleasurable things in your past. Introspection can add real colour and depth to your current experiences and also includes notions such as nostalgia and sentimentality. Introspection has a light and inquisitive tone to it. You can definitely get a lot from increasing the time that you spend in introspection.
Introspection can lead you to learning more about yourself. This gives you better information about how you’ve changed over time and why you do what you do. It can also be really valuable to increase your problem solving skills. Not only do you know more about yourself, but the calm reflection brought on by introspection helps you work through your problems.
A colleague, Marg Ryan, has written about introspection and grief.
Rumination – regret and ‘wheel spinning’
On the other hand, when we think about the past in terms of the regrets we have, we are ruminating. At those times, where we think about the past and we wonder what we might have done differently, or we wonder about the actions of others, we are essentially spinning our wheels. In doing this, we don’t draw anything from the past but continue to sink our present moment into our regrets.
There is little pleasure or insight to be gained from rumination; on the contrary, it’s more associated with anxiety and depression. Rumination has a heavy and automatic tone to it.
We can sometimes mistake rumination for problem-solving. Just because we’re thinking about the past and our actions, we can think that were actually sorting things out. The truth is, we’re just going round and round in a circle. In addition, there is often a heavy self-critical tone to rumination.
Rather than being a way out of problems, it’s often a way to replay our failures and torture ourselves. Little good comes from rumination.
Telling the difference between rumination and introspection
So how can you tell if you’re being introspective or ruminative? I think it comes down to what you are gaining from thinking about the past. If you feel that you are drawing lessons from the past, or enjoying the past then it’s more likely that you’re being introspective. On the other hand, if your thoughts about the past are full of regrets and bitterness, or your thoughts have a repetitive automatic quality, it’s likely that you are ruminating.
Another clue is if you keep coming back to the same thoughts or not. There’s something about introspection which is progressive. We do it and it takes us forward. Sometimes this involves problem-solving, or it might just be the replaying of happy memories.
In contrast, the repetitive nature of rumination doesn’t take us forward; instead it takes us into an unpleasant or even destructive cycle.
Rumination – wasted time
We are free to think anything we like, and many people find enjoyment from thinking about the things that happened in the past. However, at any given point there are lots of things that we can be thinking about. To spend our time in rumination takes us away from the other things that we could be thinking about such as the pleasant past, the present, or the future.
Rumination drags the past over our eyes and infects the present.
Transforming rumination into introspection
So how can you turn rumination into introspection?
- Notice yourself thinking about the past.
- Ask yourself what you are getting from these thoughts about the past. If you find that you aren’t drawing anything from the thoughts of the past that you might be able to use in your present or in your future, ask yourself questions like ‘what lessons can I draw from this experience?’ or ‘what action can I take now to prevent this from happening again?’
- Notice the situations that you ruminate over. Rather than just revisiting the past, is there some way that you can put the past to rest?
- Are there particular times when you’re drawn to rumination? Perhaps there are times when you really need to bring your attention back to the present.
Counselling can be very useful when we constantly ruminate about the past. It can give you a way to break out of the repetitive thinking about the past, to extend our thinking into the present moment, and into the future. We can start thinking it in terms of hope, optimism and positivity. Counselling strongly supports the growth and development of people and consequently has a strong emphasis on introspection over rumination. After all, rumination isn’t going to create any more pleasant memories for us to enjoy, and resolves nothing.
I offer counselling in the Melbourne suburb of Boronia, if you feel you are battling with rumination.
Source: Gabbard, G. O. Long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy – a basic text, 2nd edition, American Psychiatric Publishing Inc, New York