Are You Reflecting or Ruminating?

These three questions can help you learn from your past.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

What better time to reflect on the past than on the final day of the year?

Before ringing in the New Year and looking at what lies ahead, many people feel it’s a perfect time to look back at the past.  

We can’t agree more and have made it a habit to reflect on the prior year before we anticipate the future. The problem is, if you’re like us, you often end up ruminating rather than reflecting, dwelling on what went wrong and all of your mistakes. 

This unhealthy habit naturally evokes unpleasant feelings. And the more we do it, the worse we feel. It’s like we are playing a type of mental dominoes where each disappointment or failure conjures up another, continually knocking us down. Before you know it, you are on automatic pilot, out of control, and experiencing a downward spiral of negative emotions.  

Source: Pexels

Once you’re at this point (and believe us, we’ve been there!), it’s hard to get out of it, and you tend to sink deeper. You may feel stuck in emotional quicksand, feeling miserable, regretting the past and all the mistakes you’ve made. And you may even begin to feel hopeless. If at any point you do feel utterly hopeless, it’s important to seek professional help from a therapist immediately. 

However, if what you’re experiencing is a fleeting, run-of-the-mill case of the blues or a specific, situational down in the dumps, we suggest pausing and taking a few deep breaths to clear your mind and regroup. Notice where your attention is, and try to bring it back to your breath. Once you realize you’ve been ruminating, tell yourself you’re now going to reflect. 

Next, look back at the past year and ask yourself the following three questions: 

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What did I learn from my experiences?

What went well?

By beginning with asking ourselves what went well, we can prime our brains to focus on the positive and elevate our mood. Focusing on some of our key triumphs and savoring the joyful moments can help us relive them, making us instantly feel better. It’s like compound interest! We can ask ourselves what it was that we did to help us make these things happen. It will give us a sense of agency and help us with the next question. 

What didn’t go so well?

Buoyed by the positive emotions we are likely feeling from the first question, we are now better able to ask ourselves what didn’t go so well the past year and address our disappointments and failures.

By no means do we want to ignore our problems and any negative emotions we may be feeling. All emotions are important, of course. It’s just that we don’t want to attach to any of these negative feelings or conjure up any additional negative emotions. It’s the positive emotion we want to build. When we are in a positive state of mind, we are more creative, better able to see the big picture, and are more likely to come up with solutions to our problems. 

What did I learn from my experiences? 

This final question is crucial. Many people stop at the second question of what went wrong. It’s vital that we ask ourselves what we learned from our experiences. The good ones, as well as the bad ones. 

What specific strengths did I use to make the good things happen in my life? And how can I use more of them? For the situations that didn’t go well, perhaps ask yourself: What can I do differently next time? What strengths of mine can I call up to handle this situation next time? 

Even though you may not be able to prevent a future problem, the way you choose to respond to it can make all the difference in the quality of your life. 

Source: Pexels

Remember to reflect 

In sum, we feel there is no better time to look back at some great triumphs in our lives and savor them while at the same time identifying some of the bigger disappointments, seeing what we can learn from them, and thinking about what we can do differently the next time we encounter similar adversity.  

Remember to reflect, not ruminate. Only then can you take what you learned into the future. 

The year 2020 is all about seeing clearly, noticing the possibilities that lie in front of us. How do we want to change our future rather than being victims of our past? In our next post, we will discuss how we can take this concept into the future, so we can practice being the person we want to become. 


Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.