Self-awareness is our ability to identify our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s all about understanding who we are and how we fit in the world. As such, it’s one of the most important elements in living a happy, healthy, purposeful life. Yet, most of us lack self-awareness. That’s because our human biology makes it incredibly tricky to be self-aware.
Fortunately, we can develop our self-awareness with practice. When armed with the right tools - knowledge, questions, and (of course) our journals - we can build our insight and reclaim the life we want.
Today’s self-awareness lesson: Reflection Versus Rumination (And why understanding the difference is crucial for your journaling practice)
I love self-reflection of all kinds, whether through journaling, conversations, or self-discovery questions. Working toward greater self-awareness is one of my favorite activities. Heck, I even started a blog and wrote an entire book on it! While my recent publications may be pretty new, I’ve always valued self-reflection. Even as a kid, I would constantly reflect on my life and choices. I asked myself questions like, Why did I feel these emotions? Why did I take certain actions?
The thing was, these questions didn’t always yield me the results I wanted. More often than not, I felt more “stuck” rather than less.
I imagine many of you ask yourselves these same questions in your journal. We write about our feelings, desires, and actions. Often, our journal fills with reflections on the past. We attempt to use these past-oriented reflections to point us in the right direction for the future. After all, doesn’t thinking about ourselves help give us more self-insight?
It turns out, this isn’t always the case. In fact, thinking about ourselves can actually hurt our self-awareness if we do it incorrectly. Many of us mistake “rumination” for “reflection” - a crucial misunderstanding that leaves us worse off than we started.
When we fall into mental holes, journaling provides an excellent outlet to get “unstuck.” However, if you’re not careful, you might be digging deeper holes through your writing rather than climbing out. In these instances, you’re not reflecting - you’re ruminating.
What is rumination?
Rumination is when we think deeply about something. At face value, this thoughtfulness isn’t bad. However, it quickly becomes harmful when we begin to get stuck in ruminating loops. We begin to repeatedly think the same thoughts, and focus on the same thing, over and over again.
Most often, we ruminate on something negative. For example, we might ruminate on an incident that caused us shame or embarrassment. If you’ve ever replayed the same moment over and over in your mind, then you’ve experienced this type of rumination. This rumination might come through questions like, Why did I do that? Why did this happen?
Another common type of rumination is when we fixate on a future unknown or uncertain outcome. We try to play through every possible scenario, but often, we end up thinking about the same negative outcomes over and over again. What if? Questions haunt us and fill us with anxiety.
Both examples of rumination keep us stuck and unaware. And it’s trickier to fight against than we might realize.
Self-Awareness Crash Course: Rumination and Our Brain Biases
The evolution of the human species left some deeply ingrained survival instincts in our biological makeup. While these innate tendencies helped us survive, they don’t always serve us in the modern world. Biases control our brain and shift our thinking without our awareness.
One example is our brain’s negativity bias. We naturally fixate on negative events more than positive ones. In prehistoric times, this fixation on the negative kept our ancestors alive. They had to be on alert for potential threats and events that could kill them. Today, however, this bias makes us notice negative things and remember negative experiences more strongly.
For example, let’s say two notable events happened to you last week at work. One of them was positive; your boss complimented your work ethic. Another was negative; you made a mistake on a report and had to apologize publicly. Your brain will automatically spend much more time thinking about the mistake than it will the compliment.
This negativity bias makes us extremely susceptible to rumination. Without even choosing what to think about, our brains will default to focusing on the negative.
Another brain bias that leads to rumination is a scarcity bias. Our brains focus on what we lack more than what we have. Again, this emphasis stems from our prehistoric survival instincts; focusing on a lack of food or water was necessary to survive. This focus remains in the modern-day, but what we lack has changed. Our brains might fixate on a lack of money, friends, time, or social status.
Again, this bias encourages rumination without our intentional choice. Our brains begin to fixate on what’s missing from our life. As a result, we continually think the same negative thoughts over and over again.
How to Recognize When You’re Ruminating
If the first problem is that our biases cause us to ruminate, the second problem is we don’t realize it when they do. Instead, we think we’re helping our self-awareness under the guise of “reflection.”
Whether we’re writing in our journals or merely thinking, we trick ourselves into thinking that we’re helping our self-awareness. The repetitive questions feel like they’re moving us forward toward new insight.
The problem is that we’re not moving forward because we’re not asking good questions. Even though we’re thinking about ourselves, we’re not actually uncovering any new information. Our brains are stuck on a negative loop that keeps repeating itself.
Reflection versus rumination is like the difference between walking down the road versus walking in a circle around your driveway. Sure, your feet may be moving in both instances - but only one of them is moving you somewhere new.
Learning how to Identify the Difference between Reflection and Rumination
It’s challenging to recognize when you’re ruminating because it becomes the default for many of us. However, the sooner you can identify when you’re ruminating, the sooner you can shift to more productive thinking.
Whenever you’re journaling or thinking about your life, pause and consider the difference between reflection and rumination.
- An analysis of actual events and experiences that give us evidence to learn from
- An ability to compare and contrast different experiences and new events
- An ability to make connections, discover new answers, and grow
- A focus on “what” questions with tangible answers
Rumination, on the other hand, includes:
- A repetitive loop that fixates on one event or experience
- A primary focus on the negative, whether from a past event or future unknown
- A focus on “why” questions that are either out of our control or unanswerable
If you think you might have shifted from helpful reflection to negative rumination, ask yourself:
- Am I repeating the same question to myself (even if I may have switched up the wording?)
- Am I asking a question that doesn’t have an answer?
- Am I asking a question that has an answer out of my control?
- Am I fixating on a past event without thinking at all about the present or future?
- Am I only focusing on negative emotions and thoughts?
- Am I engaged in thinking that hasn’t taught me anything new about myself?
If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you may want to interrupt your thought patterns.
Tips to Promote Positive Reflection in Your Journaling Practice
You might be thinking, Yes, now I can recognize when I’m ruminating! But what do I do to stop? Great question. Identifying rumination is the first step, but you still need to put in the effort to make sure your reflection is beneficial.
Tip #1: Ask “what” questions instead of “why” questions
You probably noticed that a lot of my rumination examples had “why” questions. That’s because “why” questions usually prompt us to spiral or fixate on things out of our control. They also put us into a negative state of mind because we’re focusing on what we don’t control. When you’re journaling, make sure you’re focusing on “what” questions that give you actual life evidence to reflect on.
Tip #2: Have two-sided conversations
When we ruminate, we ask the same questions over and over again. To discourage this behavior, try to have two-sided conversations with the things that you’re thinking about. You can write in your journal from two perspectives or “talk” to something in your life and give it the space to answer. While it might sound silly, creating a conversational mindset will force you to move forward rather than stay stuck in a loop. (Read more about how you can have two-sided conversations on my blog.)
Tip #3: Incorporate a new perspective
Reflection is beneficial because it allows us to learn something new. However, to learn something new, we need to interrupt our default thinking cycles. To do this, we must incorporate a new perspective. That’s why talking to a trusted friend or confidant often gives us more clarity than we had before. However, you don’t need to rely on someone else to bring in a new perspective. You can reframe a situation, evaluate a situation from a different angle, or ask a different question. All of these strategies will open your mind to new insight.
Conclusion: Reflection versus Rumination
For all the “self-reflection” I’ve done over the years, I’m beginning to learn how often it didn’t benefit me. And when I genuinely reflect - and not ruminate - I can recognize the differences between when I stayed stuck versus gained self-awareness.
Our journals provide a fabulous opportunity to increase our self-awareness. Still, we have to go about it the right way. Make sure to identify when you’re ruminating so you can stop the negative loops.
It all starts with better questions.
Journal about it:
- How often do you get stuck in ruminating loops and negative spirals?
- What do you ruminate about most often?
- What triggers your rumination? How can you be more aware of these triggers?
- What are instances when reflection has helped you?
- What questions help put you into a reflective mindset?
- What goals do you have moving forward to emphasize reflection over rumination?
Kara McDuffee is the writer and founder of My Question Life, a community dedicated to helping you discover yourself and find the answers you’re searching for. She gives you the questions you need to become more self-aware and vulnerable in your everyday life. To read her posts or download her free eBook The Art of Being Self-Aware, check out her blog.