Is Negativity Wearing You Down?
Breaking out of rumination: An interview with psychologist Ethan Kross.
Posted Oct 17, 2019
Have you ever found yourself stuck in a negativity vortex? Something challenging happens at work, or you make a mistake, and before you know it, you’ve lost hours—and sometimes days—worrying about the potential fallout as you recycle your negative thoughts over and over again, only to later discover that almost none of those fears came to pass.
Don’t worry; you’re in good company.
“When negative things happen, we reflect on them to try and make sense of the experience,” explained Professor Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan when I interviewed him recently. “However, instead of learning from our experiences, and then moving on with our lives, we can get stuck in rumination and worry. And this cyclical negative thinking can be really toxic for our health, our relationships, our performance at work, and our well-being.”
Fortunately, Ethan and his team are finding several easy-to-implement psychological techniques that can help you learn and grow from your experiences without getting drawn into the negative vortex.
For example, self-distancing is the ability to take a step back and reflect on your experiences from a more detached perspective, similar to thinking about a negative experience that's happening to someone else you know and love. In an interview with The New York Times, Jennifer Lawrence said she had drawn on this approach during a stressful period from her past. She recalls telling herself at that moment, “Jennifer, get your act together.” And when basketball player Le Bron James announced his decision to leave his team, he reflected, “I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was gonna do to make him happy.”
“Referring to yourself by your own name, or in second, or third-person pronouns ("you," "he," or "she"), is a useful linguistic hack used to gain control when you find yourself consumed with emotions,” explained Ethan. “This can give you the psychological distance to think more objectively about yourself, in ways that can enhance your performance in stressful situations, and lead to you feeling better when you’re anxious about the future or ruminating about something in the past.”
You can also help your colleagues, friends, or family gain a little perspective if you see them struggling to escape the grips of rumination.
“There’s an art to providing good support to others, and it’s not as simple as just nodding your head and validating their experience, which can lead to co-rumination or venting sessions that fuel more anger, sadness, or anxiety,” explained Ethan. “Instead, by all means, show that you care, and learn about what they went through. But the moment you have enough context to understand the challenge, try to help them gain some distance and broaden their perspective.”
You can help give people the distance they might be craving by reminding them of difficult challenges they have faced in the past and how they’ve overcome them, of the temporary nature of their current challenge, and its limited impact. These kinds of perspective-broadening cues help us take a step back from the negativity vortex.
“It’s important to remember what happens in your mind is neither inherently good nor bad,” explained Ethan. “It depends entirely on the context in which you're engaged.”
What can you do to give yourself or others a little distance and perspective from the challenges that have been wearing you down?