the scourge of rumination

I have always been prone to an unfortunate cycle: that of impulsive action, resulting in a negative response, followed by self-shaming and rumination.  In recent years, I’ve recognized this cycle, and begin the process of distancing impulsive and inappropriate behavior from my self-worth or my value as a person.  I Vaguebooked about one such incident and my mental process on Friday.

The problem is that I still have a lifelong habit of ruminating.  It’s a well-worn track in my brain, a habit that is hard to break.  It’s re-living and re-thinking through the Moment of Shame: the moment of realization I have where an external response causes me to re-contextualize my behavior as wrong and inappropriate.  I will then ruminate over the behavior and berate myself for it.  In my twenties, when these actions were bigger and clumsier, I could really self-shame myself. It’s why some of the emotion expressed on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend resonates so strongly with me:

Now, it’s both better and worse.  The problem is better because whatever I did, it’s usually a small faux-pas, as I’m obviously much older and wiser and have been working on my social skills for years.   However, the problem is worse because my rumination isn’t limited to my own brain.  It now spreads out and colors the lives of my husband and son, or my friends, or my family.  It’s hard to be an attentive and loving wife and mother when the inside of your brain is busy regurgitating shame and anxiety all over itself.

I’ve also realized lately that this kind of rumination triggers a second narrative, which is that of a greater sense of self-doubt and failure.  Once my mind starts telling itself this story, and my brain recognizes the emotions, it starts referencing other similar incidents to create an entire negative narrative.  Whatever the context of the original mistake, be it social or professional, family or friends, day job or volunteer work, my brain will use the latest incident as a trigger to reference past incidents.  These become citations and proof points that I will never function in society as a successful human because I am not trying hard enough to develop and display behavior that would garner mutual like and respect.

The whole process then expands from one small incident into an entire Flowchart of Negativity:

rumination spiral

I suspect that the original rumination process was a coping mechanism I developed in my late teens and early twenties, a way of trying to make myself better so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life in the kind of social isolation I experienced growing up.  Originally, this was a way of trying to understand external response to my actions and correct the behavior so people would like me.  Over two decades though, it’s now expanded, like some kind of self-destructing grow in water toy.  There’s two additional boxes now on the original rumination track plus an entire new macro level track of negative thought that opens up from these kind of incidents.  Its a disproportionate response that in turn, can open up a depressive episode.

Lately though, I’ve started to realize that my response is not too far outside the spectrum of normalcy, which means there’s plenty of research and material available on this particular mental process.  I’ve read that this is especially common because of the way humans are programmed to need their tribes.  Without the tribe, one is vulnerable, and therefore we are overly worried about behavior that could cause one to be cast out of a tribe.  It turns out that I’m not special, I’m just human.  

Furthermore, rumination is a well-known negative mental process.  It is not something I need to further berate myself for.  I have made it a default behavior, which has made it stronger and harder to break from though.  Just as how I’ve developed the muscles for riding a bike (and killing it in spin class), I’ve also developed the mental muscles around negative thought.  Just like my quads though, these have grown stronger, and more developed, with time.  So just like how I can return to spin class and make progress quickly, it’s also entirely too easy for me to re-build the strength of these old mental patterns.

The strength & training metaphor also makes me realize that I also have control over the situation.  I used to say I wasn’t a runner, that I had developed my muscles for cycling, not running, and that I couldn’t run.  Years later, I run perfectly well – slowly, of course, but I am capable of running and getting faster over time.  I also used to think that the rumination and shame process was hardwired into my brain and that it was a function of my depression and anxiety.  What if it is actually just something that I need to re-train on, just like how I re-trained my quads to run?  MIND.  BLOWN.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a connection between self-shaming and depression – but the depression can be a function of rumination rather than the other way around.  That makes it more controllable.  I’ve observed and documented above how my self-shaming not only leads to rumination, but now opens up an entire additional track of negative thought.  That’s been studied and there are real, scientific brain connections between rumination and depressive episodes.  It’s still a bad thing that I have built connections in my brain between meaningless incidents and a conviction of failure, but it isn’t unique or extreme.  It’s a known quantity, and it’s possible to fix it.

Finally, knowing that this is a mental process happening to other people makes dealing with me so much easier.  It’s easier for me to feel compassion for people other than for myself, and I do not believe that anyone deserves to go through this kind of self-berating shame cycle.  Therefore, if I don’t believe that other people should do this to themselves, I should extend the same sort of compassion to me.  I need to let go of the “tough love” narrative I’ve used to justify berating myself over the years, telling myself that ruminating and the resulting suffering was necessary to make me a better person, one less likely to engage in the poor behavior in the future.  That rationale was a terrible story to tell myself, and one I would never encourage in others because it’s a needless source of torment.  I should therefore show myself the same compassion I would show any other human.

To that end, I’m looking into self-compassion solutions.  If I can stop the process at the original root – the Moment of Shame – I can keep it from branching out into a whole thing.  It turns out there is literally an entire center for this, and they have courses and books and all kinds of things I can use to upskill my brain.  I am a great believer in books, knowledge and training.  It’s also something a therapist is very likely to understand and support me with.

Figuring all this out is hard.  Admitting to it is harder – there’s also an element of lack of self-control here, a further berating for not getting over this years ago.  However, like most things, it is easier once I take it apart, break it down, build a flowchart and attack the problem at the root cause.

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