Self-Reflection: A simple question to help overcome a Ruminating Mind

Self-Reflection will improve your future. Rumination will keep you held in the past. What’s the key question you need to ask yourself to keep moving forward in a positive way? The ‘What’ Not ‘Why’ rule.

You cannot have a meaningful life without having self-reflection.” —Oprah Winfrey

Do you engage in some form of self-reflective practice?

Do you take the time to process events and information that impact your life so you can learn and move forward?

OR,  do you find yourself slipping into a process of ruminating- Constantly replaying again and again what happened and obsessing over why things went wrong?

Knowing the difference between self-reflection and rumination is the key to helping you grow and better manage your negative thoughts and feelings.

Self-reflecting will offer you feelings of hope and positivity, whereas ruminating will leave you stuck contemplating the past.

In those moments when reflection becomes rumination how can we become more consciously aware and change the narrative?


Understanding Self-Reflection

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret J. Wheatley

Self-reflection is the key to self-awareness and internal insight. There is no better way to know ourselves than by reflecting on why we are the way we are.

By looking inwards with a growth mindset we hope to increase our self-knowledge about ourselves. It allows us to objectively witness our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The goal is those moments is to gain insight, learning and self-improvement.

Self-reflection is a tool that helps us develop a greater sense of identity. Research published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass suggests self-reflecting has the potential to help regulate our emotions and increase well-being.

When we reflect, we:

  • Try to understand our feelings
  • Question our beliefs
  • Evaluate a path to a desired future
  • Try to gain clarify around negative outcomes

Understanding Rumination

The combination of rumination and negative mood is toxic. Research shows that people who ruminate while sad or distraught are likely to feel besieged, powerless, self-critical, pessimistic, and generally negatively biased.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky

Rumination is a form of obsessional negative thinking about an event or situation that can result in emotional distress in the form of depression, anxiety, or stress.

Rumination tends to exclusively focus on causes and consequences rather than solutions.

When we ruminate we:

• Passively dwell on difficulties which distress us

• Repeatedly think over and over again about events from our past

• Become so engrossed with an issue or problem we can’t get it out of our mind

How Self-reflection can be hijacked by Rumination 

Reflection is one of the most underused yet powerful tools for success.” – Richard Carlson

Reflection and rumination have some differences; however rumination has the potential to unconsciously masquerade as self-reflection.

Constantly reflecting on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean we understand them. Research has shown that we simply do not have the ability to gain insight into to many of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives.  Because so much is outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to create meaning that feels true.

When we are in a negative mood we may have a tendency to overthink situations. The internal narrative interprets life events in a negative way, which keeps us stuck and not making decision that can help us move forward. Confused we start to feel worse.

We focus on the abstract aspects of the problem, not the tangible steps toward a solution. This subtle switch from reflection to rumination is a trap that can lead to a sense of helplessness, disempowerment, and anger.

How the Reflection Trap works.

Too much thinking leads to paralysis by analysis.” – Robert Herjavec

1. Self-doubt takes over– Too much thinking invites self-doubt causing a decline in self-confidence. You become a victim of your inner-critic impacting your self-worth leading to ruminating.

2. Old memories are repeated again and again- Rumination is an ineffective coping strategy when we cannot accept reality. Spinning the same story will keep you stuck without providing any insightful solutions.

3. Obsession with finding the truth- There’s no such a thing as a perfect solution that addresses everyone’s questions.

The self-reflection process is not wrong, but the way most people do it is.

Most approach self-improvement with a rigid mindset expecting to find a perfect answer to the problem. However, the reality of the situation is that most people are asking the wrong question. 

The Mind runs on Questions.

The master key of knowledge is, indeed, a persistent and frequent questioning.” – Peter Abelard

Questions ignite the mind the same way spark plugs ignite your car. All journeys in life are stimulated by questions.

Most questioning is automatic and generated by our mind in a way that we hardly notice. Whether conscious or subconscious, your life is an endless 24/7 quest to gain answers to questions:

  • “Is it time to wake up?”
  • “What shall I wear today?”
  • “What shall I have for breakfast?”

By becoming mindful we become aware of the type of questions we are asking.

What are the dominant questions in your life?

Your dominant questions determine your direction. By changing the context of your questioning you gain an opportunity to reshape the future and the outcome.

Asking the question “WHY” is Part of the Problem

Do you repeatedly ask yourself:

  • “Why did this happen to me?”
  • “Why do those things always happen to me?”
  • “Why couldn’t I have handled things better?”
  • “Why do I always react this way?”

When thinking about a situation in an abstract way and asking a lot of “Why” questions your mind is not reflecting. It is 100% ruminating.

Questions, such as, “Why me?” become part of the problem. They cause us to get stuck and replay the situation over and over in our heads. Asking ‘WHY’ invites unproductive negative thinking patterns.

Research conducted by Tasha Eurich found “WHY” to be an unexpectedly ineffective reflective question that can impact people’s well-being in a negative way.

As an example she found people faced with poor performance reviews in the work place tend to react by becoming more depressed and anxious when they start questioning ‘WHY’. Rather than focus on a balance assessment of their strengths and weaknesses they tend to focus on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities to explain the situation.

So if asking ‘WHY’ isn’t helpful as a reflective question, is there a better choice?

Try replacing the “Why” with “What”

To increase useful reflection and decrease unproductive rumination, we should not ask “WHY”, but “WHAT”.

“WHAT” questions help us stay objective, and future focused.

For example, rather than questioning “Why do I feel so terrible?” it would be more beneficial to ask “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” This type of questioning allows us to explore for solutions and find meaningful insights around the problem.

Similarly, if you encounter a relationship conflict with a partner or friend, rather than reflecting and asking “Why did she/he say that about me?” you could explore, “What are the steps I need to take to avoid unnecessary confrontation in the future?”

This will help move to solutions rather than ruminating and focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.

The Impact of replacing ‘WHY’ with ‘WHAT’

It is great to be introspective, self-analysis can be useful, but only if it results in action.” —Joe Sacco

Other studies have also explored the mental health impact of reflecting using the ‘WHY’ and ‘WHAT’ questioning process.

Psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann conducted a study to access if self-reflection promote or undermine self-insight?

They gave a group of undergraduates’ negative feedback on a test of their “sociability, likability and interest­ingness.” Some were asked to think about ‘WHY’ they are the way they are. Alternatively, others in the group were asked to consider ‘WHAT’ type of person they were.

 “WHY” students spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to justify their shortcomings relevant to the perceived results about themselves.

The “WHAT” students were more open to processing this new information and gaining insight how they might use it.

Making the switch from ‘WHY’ to ‘WHAT’ Changes the mentality from Victim to Growth.

Tasha Eurich’s research illustrates how the change in questioning at an individual level of assessment can move someone from victim mindset to growth mindset:

  • ‘WHY ‘questions limit us.
  • ‘WHAT’ questions help us see our potential.
  • ‘WHY’ questions trigger negative emotions.
  • ‘WHAT’ questions keep us inquisitive.
  • ‘WHY’ questions hold us in our past.
  • ‘WHAT’ questions help us construct a better future.

The Exception to the ‘What’ Not ‘Why’ rule

It’s important to highlight the ‘WHAT’ question is best used when the reflection is solely focused on trying to understand ourselves at an individual level.

From a group or team perspective this may not be the best course of action. Typically when trying to understand and solve problems it would be more beneficial to question the ‘WHY’ something happened so the necessary adjustments needed could be implemented to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Do you engage in any form of self-reflection to better understand events in your life?

Do you focus on the concrete changeable aspects of the situation (WHAT) or on the abstract questions (WHY)?

Do you focus on the specific doable steps to remedy the problem (WHAT) or do you dwell on how bad thing are (WHY)?

Would be great to hear your thoughts below!

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