Introspection Versus Rumination

Psychologists discuss the difference

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In a recent post, I ruminated about the difference between rumination and self-examination. Since we introverts tend to spend a lot of time in our own heads, we are at risk of digging ourselves into rumination holes. We need to know how to prevent healthy self-examination from degenerating into unproductive rumination.

I turned to some fellow PT bloggers with real expertise (I’m a writer, not a psychologist) to get their thoughts on the subject.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Your Wise Brain blog, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

For me the key distinction is whether the reflection process is productive. Introspection is productive, rumination is not: it's repetitive, negativistic, and often self-flagellating - and thus a major risk factor for anxiety and depression.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Compassion Matters blog and author, with Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, of The Self under Siege.

There is an important difference between introspection and rumination. Time spent alone in thought can be positive – a rich environment for personal growth and creativity, but it can also be dangerous when we are negatively turned against ourselves. Introspection can be a process of healthy self-reflection, examination, and exploration, which is good for your well-being and your brain.

Neuroscientist and mindfulness expert, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes time reflecting on yourself as “time in,” a period in which a person checks in with themselves to see where they’re at emotionally. Dr. Siegel recommends “time in” as one of seven suggested activities on his “Healthy Mind Platter.”

The problem is that your mind is not always a safe place. Every person is divided between a healthy attitude toward themselves that is goal-directed and life-affirming, and a destructive side of themselves that can be self-critical, self-denying, paranoid, and suspicious. This inner critic, referred to by my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, as the “anti-self" or the “critical inner voice”  can take over our thinking and lead to rumination. Rumination occurs when you become trapped in this negative cycle of circular thinking. This type of thinking has a strong link to depression and suicide.

When we are in the realistic point of view of our “real self,” we can have positive self-reflection. When we are in the point of view of our anti-self, experiencing thoughts that focus on ourselves as “bad,” we must avoid ruminating. There are seven other activities on the Healthy Mind Platter that are far more favorable when in this state, including play time, physical time, and connecting time.

When we do take time to be introspective, we must adopt an attitude Siegel describes as curious, open, accepting, and loving (COAL). We can then think about what we want to challenge in ourselves and how we want to differentiate from negative past influences. In this way, we give our lives meaning and direction without falling victim to our inner critic, which holds us back and keeps us from achieving our goals.

Alice Boyes, Ph.D., In Practice blog

I like Susan Nolen-Hoeksema's definition that rumination is repeatedly and passively thinking about the causes or consequences of problems without moving to active problem solving. For example, thinking about "Why can't I stop overeating?" rather than chopping up a salad to take to work for lunch tomorrow. Also, people often ruminate about comments other people have made.

Part of the trap of rumination is that sometimes thinking in-depth does lead to useful insights. When anything works intermittently (such as a child asking their parent for chocolate), those behaviors tend to very resistant to change. It's the intermittent reinforcement trap.

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., Worry Wise blog, author, Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want.

Introverts need quiet to think their thoughts, because they often are more sensitive to everything around them, they need that down time, without interruption and input from the outside world, to process the stuff of the day-- the interactions, their reactions to them, and simply to think their thoughts. Introspection is about growth, we look inward in order to learn.

Rumination is about getting stuck. The wheels are turning but you're not getting anywhere-- other than frustrated or depressed or angry. I don't think we'd worry about spending too much time being introspective, but when it comes to ruminating-- if someone showed us the exit-- we'd take it!

What can you do? Instead of rehearsing, regurgitating, replaying experiences, make a plan. Is there something that you'd like to do to take action about that situation you can't stop thinking about? Confronting the person who you had the conflict with? Calling the person back who asked you out on a date? Write out your action plan. Even if you're not ready to take it, seeing it in writing will be part of the "getting ready" process. Set a time limit on rethinking-- make five-minute appointments with yourself a couple of times during the day where you can ruminate if you like. Between appointments, refuse to take worry's call: you're too busy."

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., Making Change blog

I think the question of what differentiates rumination from introspection is a great one. And, it’s a question that, in some form, often comes up in therapy. It has been my experience that people often “just know” when they are rehashing old ground or “working the problem.” There is a different feeling that comes along with each one.

With introspection, there is a sense that you are exploring something, considering new perspectives, and are more aware of feelings. Rumination feels like not just going in circles, but also digging yourself further into your distressed feelings.

So, being aware of your experiences (thoughts, feelings, and reasons for your experiences) is essential for knowing the difference; and being compassionate to your own struggle is essential in working your way through it. For this reason and similar reasons with other emotions struggles, I strongly encourage people to develop compassionate self-awareness (a combination of self-compassion and self-awareness).

I have written about compassionate self-awareness, or elements of it, in many of my blogs -- and I truly believe that it provides a helpful perspective for many struggles.

(More by Dr. Becker-Phelps WebMD blog: The Art of Relationships; Relationships and Coping Community.)

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Me again. Lots of great books to check into here; I’m a fan of good self-help literature and I'm always looking for books that will help me live a more fulfilling life. Or at least not drive myself  crazy. Mindfulness comes up again and again and again in almost anything we hope to accomplish in our interior lives. (I've written about it myself, right here.) These days I'm reading what’s considered a seminal book on mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are,  as well as The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. And I’ve been using meditation apps on my iPhone and finding them quite helpful. I’m neither mindful nor self-compassionate yet, but I’m a work in progress.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I have a new book? Yes, I know. But now I'll mention it again. The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. Also, please come hang out with me and a bunch of other introverts on Facebook. See you there!

Photo by Okko Pyykko via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Top 25 List: February 2013