How Are You Justifying Rumination?

This article is for you if you already know that rumination is a compulsion, understand that ‘thought suppression’ is irrelevant, and are trying to stop ruminating, but feel like you can’t.

Whenever you find it difficult to stop ruminating, the first question to ask yourself is always, “How am I justifying the fact that I’m ruminating right now?” Since rumination is always analytical thinking and analytical thinking always requires effort, you can’t ruminate unless there’s a part of you that is doing it on purpose (though there is obviously also a part of you that is desperately trying to stop).  In order to stop, you need to take a look at the reason that part of you is making the choice to ruminate.

Here are some typical examples of such justifications:

  • “I need to figure this out before I do something that causes irreversible damage.”
  • “If I let myself think these thoughts without fighting back, that will cause irreversible damage.”
  • “I need to keep an eye on this to make sure I catch the problem early or prevent it from getting worse.”
  • “Figuring this out is the only way I’ll ever feel normal again.”
  • “I’m on the verge of figuring this out/accepting the truth.”
  • “I’m really stressed right now, so just this once.”
  • And the favorite: “This isn’t really OCD; I’m just in denial/unwilling to accept the truth.”

These justifications basically boil down to these three beliefs:

  1. Ruminating will prevent something bad from happening
  2. Ruminating will help me figure something out
  3. Ruminating will make me feel better

Let’s take these one at a time:

  1. Ruminating will prevent something bad from happening.

As discussed in Your Core Fear and the Fear of Making a Mistake You Can’t Take Back, all compulsion are aimed at preventing an irreversible catastrophe.  But as discussed in The Simplest Explanation of How OCD and Anxiety Work, the problem is that doing the compulsions prevents you from having the opportunity to learn that they are unnecessary.  Without refraining from rumination, you will never have the opportunity to learn that rumination isn’t necessary to prevent your core fear from coming true.

In addition, rumination is distressing and exhausting.  It’s hurting you so much that you’re reading this article.  You’re so afraid of the possibility of something bad happening in the future that you’re making yourself miserable right now.

If you’re not sold on the idea of not ruminating, why not firmly commit to not ruminating for a specific period of time?  This will give you the opportunity to see how much better your life is without this awful compulsive habit, and to see that nothing terrible happens when you stop.

2) Ruminating will help me figure something out

You’ve been ruminating for a long time, and it hasn’t gotten you anywhere.  (In fact, I’d bet it’s made you much more confused.) That’s because rumination isn’t actually a good way to figure things out: it keeps you hyperfocused on the details and prevents you from patiently taking in the bigger picture as it unfolds.  Why would you keep using a strategy that hasn’t worked? Why not try out a different one: not ruminating.

If there really is something that you want to dedicate time to figuring out, find a non-compulsive way to address it.  For example, if you’re ruminating about how to solve a specific problem, it might make sense to schedule a specific time to think about it, and to commit to not analyzing the problem at other times.

3) Ruminating will make me feel better

Like any other compulsion, rumination will sometimes make you feel better for a brief moment, but overall it will keep you anxious and exhausted, and will continue the cycle of fear, avoidance, and no opportunity for new learning.  If you’re in a stressful period, that is the last time you should let yourself do compulsions; in the moment, it might seem easier to give in, but it will make things much more stressful overall.

Whenever you have trouble making the clear decision to stop ruminating, ask yourself, “How am I justifying the rumination?” and address the justification.