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Psychologists define rumination as “the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.” Farmers define rumination (by their cows) as “to chew again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed.” Either way, it’s an unappetizing way to spend your evening.
It also doesn’t solve your problems. Louis L’Amour once said, “Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” We tend to spend a lot of time going over what went wrong: a botched presentation, a missed opportunity, a careless remark that hurt someone’s feelings. It’s not uncommon to lay awake at night going over what happened relentlessly, kicking yourself mentally for your incompetence. (Or so I’ve heard.)
Tasha Eurich has spent years studying insight – the ability to clearly see ourselves. She’s written a whole book on the subject called Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think . She writes that introspection (and rumination, introspection’s unproductive evil twin) almost never produce insight into how you can improve.
In fact, introspection can make things worse. Eurich writes, “A study of more than 14,000 university students showed that introspection was associated with poorer well-being. Still other research suggests that self-analyzers tend to have more anxiety, less positive social experiences, and more negative attitudes about themselves.”
Part of the problem with introspection, Eurich says, is that we’re often asking the wrong question. We focus on “why.” Why do I feel this way? Why did she say that to me? Why is this happening to me? Eurich cites Dr. Lara Fielding, a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist “The danger of too much introspection in therapy,” she says, “is that we spin a story that gets us stuck.” In other words, rather than getting wrapped up in how broken we are, we should be focusing on what we can learn and how to move forward.
The key to making progress is ditching “why” questions and embracing “what” questions. Understanding why something happened is not going to help you move forward. When you ask “what am I going to do about it,” you can start “changing the patterns of behavior that aren’t serving [you], and moving forward with understanding and purpose.”
Eurich writes, “The bottom line is that when we ask why, that is, examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are generally searching for the easiest and most plausible answer. Sadly, though, once we have found one, we generally stop looking—despite having no way of knowing whether our answer is right or wrong.”
One of the self-aware subjects Eurich interviewed at length for the book put it this way:
“If you ask why, you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality. People end up in therapy forever for that. When I feel anything other than peace, I say “What’s going on?” “What am I feeling?” “What is the dialogue inside my head?” “What’s another way to see this situation?” “What can I do to respond better?”
Here’s what Tasha Eurich says is the bottom line for useful introspection: “The bottom line? Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.”
Next time you’re up at 3:00 in the morning wondering why, try turning your mind to ask what and see if you begin to feel more hopeful