Please note that the below is an older article that requires significant revision in light of how my definition and conceptualization of compulsive rumination have evolved over the past few years. I do not think this article presents a complete, or completely accurate, description of compulsive rumination. Nonetheless, I have chosen to keep it posted because I don’t think it’s harmful, and I do think it may be helpful to some readers. An updated and expanded version can be found here.
If you’re a compulsive ruminator, you know that ruminating feels like frantically going in circles without getting anywhere. The goal of this article is to explain why that is.
Before reading this article, it’s important to have a solid grasp of how OCD works and what the ‘core fear’ is, so if you haven’t already read A Simple Explanation of OCD and The Core Fear, it would be a good idea to do so before you read this article.
With that taken care of, here’s why compulsive rumination is a continuous loop that never leads to a conclusion:
Compulsive rumination is a continuous loop of two opposite thought processes that cycle directly into each other. Both of these opposite thought processes are aimed at avoiding the same core fear, but in two different ways. This may sound complicated but it’s actually not.
Simply put, the person is afraid of making two different types of mistake: the mistake of ignoring a true threat, and the mistake of believing a false threat. This typically* manifests as follows:
- What if the threat is real and I ignore it
- What if the threat is not real and I believe it
Whether they realize it or not, the person is afraid that either of these mistakes could lead to the ‘core fear,’ whatever that is for them.
As a result, rumination proceeds as follows:
Fear: “What if it’s true and I ignore it”
Compulsion: Prove that it’s true: Magnify even the tiniest scrap of evidence, come up with the most far-fetched thought process to prove it’s true. At this point in the cycle, the goal is to prove that it’s true, not to figure out whether or not it’s true, because the person is afraid of what might happen if they don’t believe it.
But when they start to actually convince themselves it’s true, the other fear comes up:
Fear: “What if it’s not true and I believe it”
Compulsion: Prove that it’s not true: Minimize and explain away any evidence that it’s true; find the counterargument for any argument you used to prove that it was true. At this point in the cycle, the goal is to prove that it’s not true, because the person is afraid of what might happen if they believe it even though it’s not real.
But when they start to actually convince themselves that it’s not true, the other fear comes up.
And around and around we go. Essentially the person is switching off between being the prosecutor and defendant; and to overextend the metaphor, they are never the judge, patiently taking in all the information, and open to any new information that may emerge later.
Once the person is able to see that this is what’s going on when they’re ruminating, they will hopefully realize that this is not a good way to figure anything out, and that the loop will never end. Thus the ultimate goal of understanding the cycle of rumination is simply to help the person to make the decision to eliminate rumination altogether.
*Sometimes people experience a similar loop with regard to what course of action they should take, or what decision they should make. In these cases there is a similar fear that either course of action could be the wrong one and lead to the core fear.